Friday, August 22, 2008

Part 4 of 5: A roadside bomb explodes in Iraq; a cat with his human on a dark night in Chugiak, Alaska

On the night that she learned about the bomb that struck her son in Iraq, Diane is comforted by Romeo.

I stepped into my house and punched the button to my voicemail machine. I had one message. “It’s Diane…” Her voice was weak and trembling. I waited for her to say more, but only a long pause followed and then a muffled sob. I could tell that Diane Benson, one of the most articulate people that I know, had fought to find her next word. She did not find it and so hung up, her message unspoken.

“Something bad must have happened to Romeo,” I thought. Perhaps his miracle had expired and he had passed on. I picked up the phone to return her call, but before I could even punch the first number, I suddenly realized that this call call was not about a cat. It was about a soldier.

Over the next two hours, I repeatedly tried to call Diane back, but I connected only to busy signals. Finally, I did connect. "My beautiful son..." she said, then trailed off, to more sobs.

A roadside bomb, an “Improvised Explosive Devise,” had exploded somewhere in Iraq and had taken the legs of Spc. Latseen Benson, of the 101st Airborne. His left was amputated just below the knee, the right, well above.

At 10:00 PM, I knocked upon Diane’s door. She opened it with her phone to her ear and continued the conversation she was already into, her voice weak with tears. It hurt to see a friend who I knew to be so strong suffer such deep pain. It also hurts to show that pain, but I think we, the multitudes of Americans who are sheltered from the realities of this war fought in our name need to understand the suffering of the few who have been asked to carry the burden for us. 

Romeo stood a short distance behind her and to her side. Some might argue that a cat cannot be concerned nor looked concerned, but this is not true.

Romeo looked mighty concerned to me. Still talking on the phone, Diane took a seat on a black, reclining chair. Immediately, Romeo lept softly onto her lap and then, ever so gingerly, reached out with one paw and placed it gently upon her shoulder.

“Well, at least this is good news,” Diane told the person she was talking to - the young woman from Texas that Diane had known as Jessica Peña. The good news? Her name was now Jessica Benson. Latseen and Jessica had quietly married in September, just before Latseen had been re-deployed.

Soon, Diane put the phone down.

She then showed me a large pile of recent photographs, taken in Cancun, Mexico, just before Hurricane Wilma struck. In the photos, Latseen, Jessica, Diane and Latseen’s stepfather Tony Vita (who was elsewhere in the house, placing calls around the world to gather information on Latseen) smile, laugh, and as they dine, shop, dance and swim, snorkel and skim across and through the transparent, turquoise waters of Cancun.

They ride in tiny, two-person tourist boats. Latseen looks happy and relaxed in a way that he had not when he came home from his first Iraq deployment. It had been a vacation with all the stops pulled out and they did it for one reason – Latseen was about to go back to Iraq and he needed a good, fun, blowout first.

“He had a feeling of foreboding,” Diane told me. “A feeling that something bad was going to happen to him on his second combat tour. He just had to have some fun, first.”

A small, red, paperback book of Diane's own poetry, lay alongside the pictures. Both to comfort herself and to be a good host even on this grim night, Diane picked it up and read some verses to me, some written long ago, which also seemed to have a sense of foreboding, including these two excerpts from her poem,
A Letter to My Country:

Dear America,

I mean no disrespect, but you know how I am, how
I believe so strongly in your First Amendment and
Your Constitution. You know this, so please bear with me


You haven’t always been kind to me. I still carry scars of my
Own people who graced your landscape, and faded into the soil
Even with the losses, the times of pain, I believe, I believe in us. When
I speak, it is out of my love for you and my love for a people who first
Fished your waters, hunted on your plains, and thrived in your mountains.

I speak to love of humanity,

It hurts me now, more than I can bear, to watch you send our loved ones

Once again, to war, when we never got to talk about that very well

Diane Benson is known across Alaska for many things: her powerful and insightful poetry, her skill as a playwright and director. As an actress onstage, she can on cue shed a heart-wrenching tear, scream with rage, laugh with glee, project stony indifference, convey courage, conceit, grief or any emotion that a human feels, and do it all very convincingly. But on this night the tears that she shed and the horrific pain and emotion that came out of her was not the work and passion of an actress, but the real-life love and grief of a mother.

The emotion and grief and sorrow and rage and puzzlement bore deep and the pain was searing and she could find no glory in what had befallen her son. President Bush was going to visit Fort Richardson, just ten miles down the road toward Anchorage, the very next day. Diane expressed her desire for him to come visit her. “I want him to explain to me why my one and only son - my only child must go through this,” she said.

During my visit, we spoke of many things and, in a vain attempt to describe the feeling and mood of that night, I had originally written a much longer story than this, but I will now let most of those words go. It is enough to know that Diane Benson, poet, actress, playwright, director and truck is a mother, and on this night, she felt what a mother would feel – something that only a mother, put in her very spot, can fully understand.

After that, Diane left almost immediately to stand vigil at her son’s bedside. Latseen was transported from Iraq to Germany and then to the US Army’s Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC. Latseen would spend months there and so would his mother.

As for Romeo’s activities during this time, I am embarrassed to admit that I do not know. I could try to call Diane and ask her, or I could send her an email, but the primary election is just four days away and she is so busy campaigning that I know I would not reach her.

Busy campaigning? Yes, Diane Benson is running for Congress, hoping to defeat her opponent in the primary and then to take away the seat in the US House that Alaska’s lone Congressman, Don Young, has held since dinosaurs walked the earth. She first took Young on two years ago, with a poorly funded campaign and a lack of media attention.

She astonished Alaska’s political establishment by taking 40 percent of the vote. This year, due to a criminal ethics investigation being carried out by the FBI, Don Young is a weakened position.

And why did she choose to run against him in the first place?

Five-and-a-half months after her son’s injury, Diane had become a regular at Walter Reed and there she had met many people, not only other parents and relatives of wounded soldiers, but high-ranking military and government officials, as well as politicians. Yet, she had never seen her future opponent, a strong proponent of the war, at Walter Reed, because he had not gone there, even though his office was just down the road.

Diane just felt that if a Congressman could cast a vote to send her son to war, then that Congressman ought to make the short drive from his office to Walter Reed to visit and honor that son, once he had made such a sacrifice on the Congressman's behalf.

Of course, while soldiers, veterans and the care of both are central to Diane's campaign, it is about much more than that. This blog, however, is about cats and their relationship to the humans in their lives and not about politics, so I will not try to explain or analyze. Anyone who is interested on learning about Diane Benson's platform can begin by following this link to her campaign website:

Okay. This is a photo that does not work tiny like this. Please click on it, and blow it up to a larger size. Then you will see how concerned Romeo was for his human and how, even in this dark time of such pain and grief, Romeo, the Miracle Cat, truly was a comfort to her. This is the last photo that I took that night - November 13, 2005. I then gave Diane a hug and Romeo a pat goodbye, and drove home.

Eight months later - the second return of the Strong Man:

Now, it is July, 2006 and Latseen is on an airplane that is preparing to land at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska. It will be his first time home since he last left for Iraq, still standing on his own two legs. His progress has been phenomenal. In the spring, he skied in Colorado and now he is returning to participate in the 2006 National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

His progress notwithstanding, and all the time that she spent with him at Walter Reed and the joy she feels at knowing that she will soon see him in his Alaska home, it is also a hard moment for Diane. Her son will roll, not walk, to meet the crowd.

Many well-wishers, including the Tlingit and Haida Dancers of Anchorage and the Naa Luudisk Gwai Yatxi Dancers, have come to welcome Strong Man home. As she anxiously awaits the first glimpse of her son, they gather around Diane and give their strength to her.

A welcome home ceremony is held, just outside the doors to the terminal. It is led by Willard Jackson, also Tlingit, from Ketchikan. The young woman standing behind him is Jessica, the wife Latseen secretly married just before he was deployed to Iraq for the second time.

Again, this picture does not really work small. Please click on it to enlarge it.

This is another one to click on. It is the Fourth of July Parade as it passes through downtown Anchorage. Latseen, his wife, and mother led the parade. Afterwards, the games began.

As Latseen hand pedals towards first place gold in a hand-bike competition, his mother, wife, step-father (far left, with boy on shoulders) and other family members cheer him on.

Latseen pushes his way to another gold medal, this time in the 400 meter wheel-chair race.

As a fellow competitor goes down, Latseen takes a shot during the championship basketball game for his division. They took the Gold. Latseen also won Gold in the archery competition.

A second Returning Warrior Welcome Ceremony was held for Latseen at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, where a group of veterans presented him with the Pendleton blanket draped over his shoulder.

In a Tlingit gesture of peace, Latseen was showered with goose down.
Latseen Benson - the Strong Man.

Latseen's stay at home was very short. After he left to go back to Walter Reed and then to Texas, I found Romeo watching out for Diane as she worked on some of her campaign materials. During a campaign debate three days ago, Diane mentioned that Latseen has taken up scuba diving.

One thing that I feel badly about is the fact that I failed to get a photo of Romeo with Latseen during his second return. It was an extremely busy time for me. Deadlines loomed. It was all I could do to get to Latseen's different events, snap a few photos, and then rush back to my computer.

I figured that the next time Latseen visited home, I would photograph the two of them together. But it was not to be.

Up next, in Part 5: His job complete, Romeo takes his leave.


heidi said...

Mr. Kracker, this is very sad. I admire Diane's strength but this is too much for an ordinary person like me. On top of that, you end with Romeo taking his leave. That's too much for one person. I feel very very sad now.

Standtall said...

Life can be unfair. I am not happy with the turns of event in this story........ I wait to read the final part. Did she win the election. Can the son's legs be fixed using aritifical ones?

What happened to Romeo?