When Bob Bennett returned to Montana in 1969 after a year-and-a-half of service in Vietnam, he swore he’d “never put on another uniform.”
But just two short years later, the sound of a Huey helicopter brought him out of a funk. He joined the Montana Army National Guard, and found a renewed purpose in life.
Through hard work and dedication, Bennett’s climb up the military ladder resulted in a highly decorated career spanning five decades, and culminating as one of the Guard’s top-ranked enlisted men in the state.
From a Beaver to a Honker
Bennett grew up in Dillon, and transferred to Medicine Lake after his freshman year, where he competed in football and track.
“Instead of being a Beaver, I became a Honker,” Bennett said with a laugh.
After graduating high school in 1967, he returned to Dillon and worked construction with two childhood buddies, Matt Berta and Ray Blize.
“We heard that if you enlisted in the service you had a better chance of not being a grunt in Vietnam, so the three of us joined the Army in the fall of ’67,” he related.
Bennett went through boot camp at Fort Lewis, Washington, before attending Aircraft Maintenance School and UH1 Repairer Course at Fort Rucker, Alabama.
Pvt. Bennett arrived in Vietnam in December 1967. He was assigned to the First Aviation Brigade, 64th Group, 13th Battalion.
2,200 hours in 17 months
Stationed at Can Tho, near the Mekong river, and serving as an aircraft mechanic, one of Bennett's first details was loading sandbags. After several hours on the job, Bennett’s exemplary work ethic stood out and he was immediately promoted to flying in the Hueys with the group commander.
“Normally you had to pay your dues working in maintenance before being offered that assignment,” Bennett related, “so I jumped on it, and went for two weeks of the ‘right-seat-ride’ before taking over.”
Bennett got along great with his first group commander, but not with his replacement, and was then transferred to Soc Trang, with 336th Assault Helicopter Company. He spent the next 15 months as a crew chief/door gunner on the Thunderbirds UH1-C Huey Cobra gunships. Their missions included escorting the “slicks,” the troop transport helicopters, along with the support of ground troops.
In July 1968, he attained the rank of SP/5. Bennett amassed 2,200 hours of flying time in the Huey during his tour, which is considered an extremely high number for that brief period of time.
“I just loved it, I did it every chance I got,” he said. “There was a guy from Patterson, New Jersey, in our outfit that didn’t like flying, but was a great cook. So I traded him, flying for cooking, and it worked out good for both of us.”
Bennett’s gunships were shot down four times, but the crews were lifted back to base on the same day all but one of those episodes. The one other time they spent the night on Three Sisters Mountain, before being picked up the next day.
'No dad, Australia'
After 11 months, Bennett took R&R in Sidney, Australia, and made one of his three overseas phone calls back home to Medicine Lake.
When he told his dad he was phoning from Sidney, his father asked, “Why didn’t you tell us you were back in Montana? We could’ve picked you up.”
“Uh, no dad; I’m in Sidney, Australia,” he said.
And even though three calls in 19 months is not much contact at 19 and 20 years of age, the daily letters he received from his mother helped get him through.
Bennett applied for an extension of duty, which also qualified him for an early out, and he was discharged from the Army in April 1969.
He then returned to Dillon, and after getting rid of all his Army gear, he enrolled at Western Montana College, utilizing the GI Bill. He spent his days working at a gas station and his nights doing some partying.
Montana Army National Guard
In 1971, Bennett was chatting with a buddy in Dillon when he heard a familiar sound — the chopping of helicopter blades. The National Guard was flying Gov. Forrest Anderson to the football field at the college, and something about the sound of that copter motivated Bennett to rejoin the military.
“I was kind of lost and didn’t have any real direction, and getting back in the service really gave me a shot in the arm," he related.
Bennett met his wife, Micki Stewart, around the same time, while he was in the hospital. She later sent him a “get well” card, which eventually led to 46-plus years of marriage and counting. The Bennetts have three children, daughters Shannon LaFontaine and Laura Nelson and son Curtis, as well as six grandchildren.
Bennett’s assignments with the guard started out as Troop N Aero Weapons Crew Chief, Aero Weapon Platoon Sergeant; and Air Troop 163rd ACR, First Sergeant. Attaining the rank of sergeant major in 1988, he served as 189th Attack Helicopter Battalion, Command Sergeant Major until 1995; and from 1995-99 he was the Brigade CSM of the 95th Troop Command.
Bennett closed out his career as the Montana NG Command Sergeant Major (JFHQ Senior Enlisted Leader) from 2000-09.
“I loved what I did in the military, I never had a bad day at work,” said Bennett, who amassed 39 years in the service. “But when I retired, I closed the book on my career and didn’t look back. Although I must admit I do miss the people I worked with.”
Bennett, now 69, has maintained an active lifestyle, consisting mainly of a year-round bicycling regimen.
“I put about 3,600 miles a year on the bike, mostly with John Walsh, Scott Smith and Troy Frost,” he recounted. “We did Mount Helena in the summer, and Scratch Gravel in the winter; every day, until it gets below 15 degrees.”
Legion of Merit, Keeper of the Colors
Bennett’s military decorations are far too lengthy to list here, but a few of his major awards include the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal with three oak clusters, Air Medal with the numeral 34, Army Commendation Medal with two oak leaf clusters, National Defense Service Medal with three bronze stars, Vietnam Service Medal, Montana Army National Guard Distinguished Service Medal, Montana Army National Guard Service Ribbon with six oak clusters, and the Montana Army National Guard Campaign Ribbon with four oak leaf clusters.
When Bennett, who will be the keynote speaker at the “Welcome Home Vietnam Veteran’s Day” ceremony at the state Capitol on Friday, retired in 2009, he was awarded the icing on the cake: a rare Legion of Merit Award.
He also received the “Keeper of the Colors” statue from the ARNG CSM Advisory Council.
Not bad for a guy who once swore he’d never wear a uniform again.
Curt Synness, a Navy vet, can be contacted at 594-2878, or email email@example.com. He's also on Twitter @curtsynness_IR