Don Benton: A life lived well.
Bullets whistling past his ears, he zigzagged through the battlefield, responding to cries for a “Medic!”
Don “Doc” Benton risked his life in battle after battle to serve his injured comrades as a combat medic in the Vietnam War. His experiences there, both the trauma and the acts of extreme courage, were part of what made him into the man we have been privileged to know.
Donald Lee “Don” Benton was a New Year’s Eve baby, born in St. Louis, Missouri, on Dec. 31, 1948. His parents, Thelma (nee Loesch) Benton and Melvin Clarence Benton, welcomed him as their first child. His small-town childhood was idyllic in some ways, but filled with much hard work. Don admired the people in his town who made things happen: the business owners, the Rotary Club members, the doctors, and the teachers. His dad even got the local police to let him ride along with them.
On May 2, 1966, at the age of 17, Don enlisted with his parents’ permission. Don was already hard-wired to help others and he felt a duty to serve. When it came to serving his country, Don threw his whole heart, soul, and self into doing the best he could. He went through Boot Camp at Great Lakes, Ill. Then he trained to become a hospital corpsman and served as a combat medic for the Marine Corps.
Combat medics have some of the most traumatic experiences in war, and Don had more than his share. He was first wounded in the line of duty in May 1968, and awarded the Purple Heart. He would be wounded five more times, and once almost died from his wounds. Some combat medics come home from war and spend the rest of their lives avoiding dealing with the trauma. Others, like Don, figure out how to integrate these experiences into their lives in a way that makes them better people.
After Vietnam, Don was assigned to be the only medical staff on a very small Navy base, Kamiseya, Japan. He knew everyone on the base and by all accounts, he took very good care of them. He mentored many younger sailors, who looked up to him as a wonderful role model. He also made them laugh in unusual ways. He frequently did a comedy skit involving using a table cloth to blow his nose, and once showed up to a Halloween party as “the common cold.” He served in Kamiseya until 1985, and served in other stations in Japan until April 1989.
His last station was the First Battalion, 26th Marine Delta Company. Don was forced to retire from the Navy in June 1991 due to poor health. He would have preferred to remain in the service for the rest of his life.
A friend had told him it was really pretty in Hood River, so he came to see for himself. Don fell in love with the Gorge, and found work as a cab driver. But during this unhappy time of transition, Don was very isolated and lonely and he was drinking hard. He described himself as “a miserable person.” In a stroke of good fortune, he met Bonnie. They were married in 1996.
The turning point came when he quit drinking. With his mind clear, he found his purpose and started building meaning in his life. Don decided he wanted to be a force for good in his community. And then he did it. His first step was joining the Lions Club. He started buying tickets to the Lions Follies and donating them to Big Brothers Big Sisters, a tradition he continued for the rest of his life.
Don was generous with his time, becoming deeply involved in volunteer leadership in the nonprofit community. He started serving on his first nonprofit board in 2001. He served on the boards of many nonprofits including Helping Hands Against Violence, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Opportunity Connections, The Next Door, Hood River Adopt-A-Dog, Hood River-Tsuruta Sister Cities, Columbia Gorge Peace Village, and Hood River Rotary. He also served on the Mount Hood Town Hall Advisory Council, the Hood River Council of United Way of the Columbia Gorge, Soul Café Advisory Board, and the Hood River Police Department Police and Community Relations Team.
Don volunteered as a SMART reader at Westside Elementary and May Street Elementary, and as an ASPIRE mentor at Hood River Valley High School. He became an amazing Big Brother to Little Brother Jake, and a faithful Hood River Chamber of Commerce Ambassador. Don was an active and involved member of the Lions Club, Chamber of Commerce, Patriot Guard Riders, Rotary Club, and no fewer than four armed services organizations including the Military Order of the Purple Heart. He became a Christian as a young child and was a member of the Hood River Alliance Church.
In 2011, Don was honored with the Dana Lance Volunteer of the Year Award. He was the Grand Marshall of the Hood River Independence Day Parade in 2013. That year, he and Bonnie were honored with The Next Door’s first Philanthropy Award, which is now named after them. Don was awarded the Charly Weder Lions Club award in 2012, Providence’s Heart of Gold Award in 2014, and Lion of the Year for 2015.
Don was generous with his treasure as well. By living simply, Don and Bonnie were able to help their community. They established a Donor Advised Fund with the Gorge Community Foundation, and in addition to that fund, they awarded six scholarships each year.
For the last three years of his life, Don dealt with two kinds of cancer and a myriad of accompanying ills. But he rarely complained. When he was struggling with his health, he focused on giving to others. He made a point of getting out into the community, listening to people, and when asked, giving great advice.
If you were lucky enough to know that he held court at Dog River Coffee most mornings, you could show up for an interesting chat with him. Don often gave the baristas extra money to pay for the people behind him in line. He loved watching people’s faces when they realized that an anonymous do-gooder had bought their coffee for them. Don enjoyed all kinds of music, especially rock and roll and was known in his service days for “turning people on” to ACDC, the Association, Motley Crew and Alice Cooper.
Don was generous, sincere, bighearted, powerful, and humble. He was an inspiration to us all and he left the world a better place.
Don died on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. He is survived by his wife, Bonnie Benton, daughter Lea Ann (and Eddie) Pounders, granddaughter Lily Pounders of Vancouver, sister Wanda (and Brook) Peterson of Orlando, Fla., niece Sandy Trail, nephew Mike Keegan, and great niece Katie Trail. He is also survived by his best friend, brother in arms, and best man, Phil Thaler.
Don was preceded in death by his beloved schnauzer, Dieter, and his parents.
A memorial will take place on Sunday, Sept. 10 at 6:30 p.m. at Anderson’s Tribute Center (Funerals • Receptions • Cremations), 1401 Belmont Ave., as Don requested. All are welcome to attend and celebrate Don’s life. In lieu of flowers, Don’s wish would be that donations be made to a favorite charity in his name, The Don Benton Memorial Cancer Fund, FISH Food Bank, The Next Door or Helping Hands Against Violence. Donations can be sent in care of Anderson's Tribute Center.
Don’s best friend, Phil Thaler, shared this:
It was an honor and a privilege to know you, Don.
Fair Winds and Following Seas.
Shipmate ... the watch stands relieved.
Relieved by those you have trained, guided, and lead.
Shipmate you stand relieved.
We have the watch.
We have the watch.
Visit www. AndersonsTributeCenter.com to leave a note of condolence for the family.
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