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Health and Fitness

An Invisible Injury

2013 Warrior Games: Rickey Bennett

Navy Feature Photo

Navy Feature Photo

Retired Navy Chaplain Lt. Rickey Bennett will compete for Team Navy during the 2013 Warrior Games at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., May 11-17.

Throughout the seven-day event, wounded, ill and injured servicemembers and veterans from the Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard will compete for the gold in track and field, shooting, swimming, cycling, archery, wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball.

Bennett always knew he wanted to serve his country in the military. He first joined the Air Force as an enlisted aircraft weapons specialist after the Gulf War kicked off. After 10 years, he earned his master's degree in divinity and was commissioned in the Navy.

Assigned with the Marines 7th Battalion at Twentynine Palms in Calif., Bennett deployed to Al-Qa'im and Husbayah, Iraq, near the Syrian border, where he oversaw the morale of 3,000 Marines serving in Iraq and worked 20-hour shifts in the stress trauma platoon tent, where the injured, dying and deceased Marines were brought in. He said he would offer words of comfort and administer last rites.

"I was constantly dealing with death, holding their hands until they took their last breath," Bennett said. "It was an honor to be with the Marines as they gave their ultimate sacrifice. I came across so many of them who didn't care about their lives nearly as much as they cared about their team and where their team was. It was an incredible honor, but extremely challenging to see such brave young men slip away."

To this day, Bennett stays in touch with the families of the fallen Marines he helped. He said that as he comforted the dying, when everything started to get to him, he would remind himself that he was not there for himself, but for them.

Over the years, as a chaplain, Bennett met with Marines dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He said he kept pushing down his own memories of caring for the dying Marines so he could help others with PTSD.

"I just shoved everything down and never dealt with it. I just buried everything and focused on everybody else's needs. I shoved down the fact that not only did I repeatedly deal with the helplessness of comforting the dying, but I also dealt with being targeted by insurgents. There were many times I could hear and feel the bullets going past me; see improvised explosive devices going off around me," said Bennett
One day, as he was helping others deal with PTSD, his own symptoms increased, and he could not sleep. He would have nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks. He would become easily angered and irritable. He said the support he received from his family and friends helped him to see he had a problem and needed to get help.

His 16-year-old daughter, Bonnie, noticed the difference in him when he returned from his deployments.

"Kids take their parents for granted," she said. "I was angry at how different he was when he came back, but I wouldn't change him. My dad sacrificed months in the desert, away from us, putting his life on the line to sit with people who were dying and injured."

Bonnie has trained to become a caregiver and travels with her father to Warrior Games training camps and the annual competition. She sacrifices her time with friends and extracurricular activities because of her love for her father.

"It's the least I can do," she said. "I can't imagine not doing anything I could for him. I can't not be here for him. This has brought our family together."

With the help of his family, Bennett started seeking therapy and support groups. He said the biggest turnaround for him was when he learned about Team Navy from Wounded Warrior - Safe Harbor. He said he almost turned down going to the training camps.

The humble chaplain said the hardest part for him in trying out was that he did not have an amputation or paralysis.

"Mine is an invisible injury," said Bennett. "When I saw them, it triggered what I saw in Iraq, and it was very difficult for me to be around them, but as I went to additional camps, their sense of joy, sense of humor, sense of loving life was just so contagious. They have made all the difference in my life."

He said his teammates help him feel normal.

"I feel loved and accepted. I wish we could have camps all the time. When I'm with them, I get better and stronger and take another step at living life again, and loving and laughing. I owe my life to my teammates," said Bennett.

Even though Bennett continues to battle his PTSD, he said he was glad to have served his country.

"I'm glad I got to stand beside some of the greatest people on this earth," said Bennett, who still does not think of himself as a hero even though his daughter does.

"He's my hero; he's my Superman," said Bonnie Bennett. "I'm proud of him for what he has done for his country and for giving his life to the military and what God called him to do. He's my dad, and I love him."

Editor's Note: Check and All Hands Magazine for continuing coverage of the 2013 Warrior Games May 11-17.