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Learning from history

Nathan Rodriguez
Dominique Taylor
ALL |

Last month, Colorado Springs police charged Robert Hull Marko with sexual assault and first-degree murder in the death of a woman with learning disabilities whom he’d met through MySpace. While in custody, on his 21st birthday, Marko instructed police to search a wooded area in the foothills west of Colorado Springs; it was there they found the body of 19-year-old Judilianna Lawrence.

She’d been violently raped, had her throat slit, and was left to die.

A spokeswoman for the sheriff’s department confirmed Lawrence’s death “was not quick, unfortunately.”

And with that, Robert Hull Marko became the seventh soldier from the 4th Brigade at Fort Carson to be charged with first-degree murder.

The brutal irrationality of the murder is symptomatic of an urgent problem in the armed forces ” post-traumatic stress disorder. A study from the RAND Corporation in April estimated one in five soldiers suffer from some form of PTSD. Those afflicted often grapple with drug and alcohol addiction, and may become depressed, aggressive, emotionally distant ” or all of the above.

On his MySpace page, Marko wrote, “I’m becoming a cold-hearted killer and can kill without mercy or reason.”

A mortarman specialist in the army, Marko shares more than a common rank with Eagle County resident Charles Benway, who was a heavy weapons specialist in the Army during the Vietnam war. Benway suffers from PTSD, and said it took years to realize he had problems, decades more to mentally depart the battlefield.

Sitting down with Benway for a few hours goes a long way to understanding some of today’s headlines, and supplying a face and story to sobering statistics.

Under a broad-brimmed hat fit for a river guide, Benway is easy-going, a social chameleon who would seem equally at home in a Harley caravan or hippie commune. He’s warm, well-read and thoughtful, and his clear blue eyes fix on nearby walls while recalling details from his past, frequent laughs escaping him in bursts like steam from a pressure cooker.

He referenced a Wall Street Journal report that found 121 veterans of the Iraq war have been charged with murder in the United States.

“That doesn’t talk about attempted murders. That doesn’t talk about the ones plea-bargained down to manslaughter or attempted manslaughter, simple assault or felonious assault. That doesn’t talk about domestic violence, or the ones the military decided to prosecute on their own,” he said, not flinching at the figures.

“The billions of dollars spent on making our army effective killers is just astounding. What they haven’t done on the backside of that coin is spend the money to rehabilitate people and help them re-enter society. So these are the consequences.”

Charles and his brother moved to Vail in 1968. The town had shut down for the off-season, and a “welcome wagon” declared them the 51st and 52nd year-round residents.

Benway hit the slopes, skiing daily and working almost as often in the industry until he was drafted in August 1969. His life was never the same.

A far cry from the mountains of the Vail Valley, Benway found himself in “the bush” of Vietnam, slashing through dense jungles amid sounds of insects, screeching birds and the unending threat of ambush.

To blend in, he stopped eating government-issued food, instead purchasing fresh produce, fish and chicken from the local markets, so when he’d sweat, he’d smell like a local ” potentially a life-saving move.

“Most of their attacks were in broad daylight, and the jungle was about as impenetrable as that wall over there,” Benway said, pointing at a line of beige brick.

“They could be four feet away, and you could smell them but not see them. … Maybe all you saw were muzzle flashes or smoke from where the machine guns were firing.”

These conditions required a hair-trigger response, as most casualties in guerrilla-style ambushes occurred in the first 30 seconds.

By packing dehydrated local cuisine instead of heavier military meals, Benway could carry up to 1,500 bullets, which proved useful in a number of skirmishes, including an intense firefight on Layer Cake Hill, named for its ascending ridgelines.

“They tried to catch us before we were set, and there were about 100 of us. We had a couple of sweeps out. … Our sweeps happened to see them, and said, “They’re massive, and they’re getting ready to pour over that hill and come at us.”

Benway’s company stacked themselves in three different firing positions along the hillside and waited.

“There were about 200 of them, and this is wide open. You could see them. And they’re about 150 yards away, and they’re comin’ ” running at us. We waited until they were about 55 yards out, then we opened up … The firing lasted seven or 10 minutes max. When the smoke cleared we had a few minor wounds: shrapnel from their RPG’s, dirt and rocks flown into skin, M16’s blown up next to their face because they overheated ” that’ll blow gunpowder and brass right into your exposed skin.”

Harrowing experiences like this caused Benway to “quit the army for a while.”

To do that, he took a colonel hostage at a command post.

“To get his attention, I pulled the pin out of a hand grenade, put it behind the collar of his starched shirt, and said, ‘Colonel, by the time the sweat running off me reaches your shirt collar, I hope we’ve reached a decision.'”

After trying to kill Benway twice during the standoff, the military granted him 57 days of leave, where he hit the beach.

“I’d done so much more time in the bush than anyone else, I filed a claim to get time off,” he said. “I was losing my edge and I knew it, and that was my agreement going in ” that I’d stay out on a voluntary basis until I lost my edge.”

Back from break, Benway emerged as a peacemaker when his company was surrounded, outnumbered, and near mutiny. Each time someone patrolled the perimeter, they’d get killed. If someone raced to retrieve his buddy from the brush, they’d get killed.

Benway said the commanding officers needed a mission to “save face,” while the soldiers didn’t feel that was a sound reason to give their lives.

“The officers were calling them chickensh**s, telling them they’re going to jail, that they’re going to arrest them. … Well you know, when you’re surrounded and you can’t get choppers in to take anyone away, what good does it do to arrest someone? It just means they can’t shoot for you.”

Three times that week soldiers were killed on patrol, and tensions ran high.

“They set up snipers inside our own perimeter, and there were about six guys ready to take out the battalion commander,” he said, adding near-insurrections happened more than once. He finally stepped forward to advise the officers of what was at stake:

“If you think you’ve got authority here, just take a step back. … Look around in the shadows, and you’ll see about 15 or 20 rifles pointed at you,” he said. “And you think you’re going to walk away from here? You’re all dead men. I came here to try and save your lives and their lives, because this is stupid. We’re surrounded and we’re outnumbered, and we’ve got Americans ready to kill Americans here.”

Eventually spotters climbed trees to direct machine gunners, who pushed the North back and provided cover for a point team to move in with heavy weapons. Air power finally provided additional cover, and they managed to escape.

“It was a really bad stretch,” Benway said. “We took about 90 percent casualties, and this was a brigade, so out of 1,500 of us there were only about 100 or so walking. Most of us were wounded lightly, so there were only 10 or 15 without an injury.”

He had mostly superficial wounds, and in that battle, was struck in the thumb by artillery so hard it jerked his shoulder out of line. He decided not to turn that in for a Purple Heart, nor did he file a report when he was deaf and bleeding from his ears for six weeks.

“Every time something like that happened to me, somebody else around me died,” he explained. “All their parents were going to get was a folded flag and a Purple Heart. And I felt like taking my Purple Heart would have diminished what their sons did.”

In the 363 days and 23 hours that Benway was in Vietnam, he was “wounded six times and died once.”

The time he died, he was face down in a rice paddy, a 150-pound pack on his back, when he was blown straight down into the thick mud.

“My arms were pinned at my sides. Can’t move. Can’t dig my way out. I think there was a firefight going on above me, and I’m running out of breath and my buddies hadn’t come to dig me out,” he recalled. “I’m seeing bright lights from losing oxygen, and I thought, what if my buddies had to run and the North Vietnamese dig me out, because there had been a bunch of reprisal torturing going on, and I don’t want to be their fun for the next four or five days.”

With gusto, he sucked in mud to his lungs, throat and nose, and nearly checked out.

“I felt like I was ascending toward a white light, and there was a beautiful corral of voices singing psalms and just a gorgeous scent almost like honeysuckle,” he said. “Out of these sounds and feeling of ascension I started recognizing voices. There was this great old aunt I really liked when I was 4 or 5 years old, and she’s talking to me like, ‘Oh, there you are!'”

He said he was overcome by feelings of warmth and harmony when the voices of two of his buddies who’d died in Vietnam interrupted. They told him, “It’s not right; it’s not your time.”

And with that, he rocketed back to the rice paddy.

“I had this feeling like falling down an elevator shaft, and the light closes, the smells go away. … I can’t breathe, and it feels like there’s 95 pounds on my chest, they clear off my eyes and my eyes pop open. I can see the eyes of the medic doing a Roger Rabbit thing; he’s working on me, pulling the mud out of my throat. I can hear it being sucked out, then I puke, cough, and start breathing. That was a bad five minutes!” he said, with a laugh.

In August 1970, Benway landed in the States and kissed the ground at the Tacoma Airport in Washington.

Before he made it home, he had his first panic attack. He needed to get off the street, so he broke into a closed shop and hid. He later checked into a hotel, ordered room service, a bottle of Canadian Mist, 7-Up and some ice, turned on the television and couldn’t watch anything.

“I just drank myself under. I couldn’t go to sleep at all. I got up, hit my head, and felt trapped,” he said, realizing then that he’d built a bunker in his room using the dresser, bed, couch, sheets and cushions.

“I had everything positioned so I could pop my head up and look out the window. That freaked me out.”

He didn’t make the welcome home party his parents had set up, and arrived a month later, finding his friends back in school and his neighborhood empty.

Benway said he extended his combat tour by getting into bar fights in Vail and Leadville, and he knew something wasn’t right because he was either “stone cold or real hot, there was no in-between,” he said, adding he’d be “brimming over with tears while I was pounding the s**t out of somebody.”

With no rest for the weary, Benway wasn’t even safe in his sleep. He had terrifying nightmares, fighting with what he thought were his sheets. But his bruised knuckles and pulled muscles told another story ” he’d brutalized other people.

One of Benway’s friends told him everyone thought he was a “wild man,” and, because he’d hurt so many people around him, they’d break his legs during his next outburst. They slept in large steel bunk beds that normally require four men to lift; Benway could barely budge one himself.

“My buddy said I picked one of those things up and was swinging it around like a baseball bat over my head, knocking guys against the wall with it.”

The same surge of adrenaline needed to survive in the battlefield followed him to his sleep, and his mind could no longer distinguish dreams from reality.

His dedication to abusing drugs and alcohol would have made Hunter S. Thompson blush. As a foreman in the Vail Valley, it was normal to go on binges where he’d take 20 or 25 hits of LSD each day for more than two weeks at a time. And as for drinking, he said, “If I hadn’t made friends with Jose Cuervo, I’d have several houses today.”

Benway moved to Minneapolis, or, as he put it, “Mini No Place, center of the great flyover.”

He became spontaneously violent, with no memory of his actions. Eventually a convenience store clerk pulled out a photo album with clippings of random violence in the southern part of the Twin Cities, and said Benway fit the description of the attacker.

“And it was then I realized I could go to jail for the rest of my life for something I don’t even remember, not to mention the people I hurt. Some of the people I’d laid out were women.”

He had his first flashback at a VA hospital when a doctor told him he didn’t suffer from PTSD. It sounded like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.

“Right then I saw his face explode. His eye went into his skull, the flesh peeled off, ripped out his eyebrows down to the bone. His left eye socket was crushed, his nose exploded, and then I saw his jaw break,” he said. “And that was my first flashback.

That was what I did to someone who spit on me when I came home. I saw it played out on his face because he’d tapped into that rage. And I didn’t know what was going on.”

Not finding the help he needed, Benway returned to the mountains.

For seven years, he lived under plastic for seven months at a time. He felt claustrophobic inside and more comfortable outdoors, only realizing later that he was replicating his tour in the bush some 22 years earlier. Under a 30- by 18-foot tarp, he built a sleeping deck and cooked outdoors along Sheephorn Creek for two years, while occupying the parking lot of State Bridge for another two years.

And it was there he picked up one of his most important therapeutic tools: a 12-foot raft. For the price of a 12-pack of beer “and a dollar to make it legal,” he received a new lease on life. He was in charge of the raft, had to anticipate problems downstream, and was responsible for his own survival.

By reconnecting with nature, Benway said the “arrogance of the warrior evaporated,” which mirrored what other cultures had done throughout history.

“After battle, Sioux warriors had to petition to get back into the tribe, while others chose to remain separate,” he said. “In European history, they had to sign a contract that in order to lead men into battle, they’d enter a monastery when they came back and wouldn’t be released until the elders in the monastery said they were cleansed.”

Culling arguments from the Epic of Gilgamesh, Carl Jung, Napoleon, Mark Twain, Plato and Machiavelli, Benway said it was clear our society approached war differently than almost any other.

“The fact that it’s been there for millennia in different cultures, times and places, it kind of makes you go, ‘Duh!’ he said. “What is it about us that’s so special that we think we have it all figured out? We think we’re so cool ” we’ve got the big brains!”

Ideally, he’d like to create a venue for wilderness therapy for veterans and have it serve as a national model. And there he could serve as a guide ” literally and metaphorically ” for others overcome by the horror of war.

Back at Fort Carson, the chief of staff, Col. B. Shannon Davis, assembled a task force to investigate the seven homicides and any connections between the cases. He stopped short of attributing each to PTSD.

“To tell you the truth, some of the soldiers (charged) may exhibit symptoms of PTSD, and some of them don’t, so we can’t make the blanket statement that all of these are directly related to PTSD or not.”

The important thing, Davis said, was to take the findings of the task force and respond accordingly to prevent other violent crimes from occurring.

“We’re all about high standards and doing the right thing in the military,” he said, “So we’re just trying to get our arms around anything that might be attributable to what our soldiers have done for our country, and the effects of that on them personally.”

Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, medical director of the strategic communication directorate of the army medical department, said their best estimates show 15 to 20 percent of all soldiers in combat exhibit symptoms related to PTSD.

“There’s absolutely more that could be improved. I won’t say I’m satisfied; I will say that we’re trying very hard,” she said, citing demand for more care providers and improved access for people in remote locations. “We’re taking anti-stigma measures now and need to improve upon that training … We need to change the culture. We know that takes time, but we’re vigorously trying to do that on all kinds of levels.”

To determine if this was more than a talking point, we contacted a captain who requested anonymity in exchange for candor.

“One of the sea changes in military culture, and that change is real, is the notion that mental health is just something you can get over ” ‘Suck it up,’ ‘Quit being a baby,’ ” that sort of thing. Now that’s not the case at all,” he said. “People realize it’s something that must be addressed and can’t be swept under the rug or it’ll come back to get you. If you talk to almost any Iraq vet, they’ll either have had PTSD issues or know of someone who did.”

He said pre-deployment screening for PTSD was “cursory because the Army is hurting bad enough that you don’t want to disqualify people for anything, let alone something that may not be that apparent.” He quickly added, “But on the way back, it’s pretty thorough,” with every veteran required to visit a mental health professional within 90 days of returning to the States.

His concern was over soldiers diagnosed with PTSD while actively deployed. From his experience, good portions of those soldiers returned to battle. He said commanders usually try to put the affected soldier in a “less exposed” position, “because you don’t want a soldier who may go nuts on a mission” ” but even with a reduced role, many soldiers weren’t comfortable serving alongside others with mental health issues.

As much as we may long for the easy, heroic, sanitized version of war that enters our kitchens and living rooms over the dinner hour, life in the armed forces isn’t easily packaged.

In World War I, soldiers were “shell-shocked.” In World War II, it was “battle fatigue.” Now they are said to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Whatever it’s called, emotional scars have been around as long as war itself and our military may have finally accepted that reality. Hopefully with veterans like Benway stepping forward, the taboo surrounding mental health in the military will continue to erode.

Others may require a different path, but Charles Benway’s recovery and rebirth happened sometime during those seven years where just a tarp separated him from the elements at State Bridge.

“There was a certain time each year when the moon hit a certain part of the sky above the mountains. … I saw the earth like a woman’s legs up about to give birth. And I feel like the earth is trying to give me birth, trying to give me new life,” he said. “And I’m sitting there, trying to absorb the energy of that new life, and recognize how blessed I am that the earth is offering this to me. I’ve just got to figure out the meaning of it. Right now though, I feel really lucky and I feel really fortunate.”

Nathan Rodriguez may be reached at nrodriguez@vailtrail.com

Charles Benway may be reached at OldVetcmb@aol.com or 970.653.0231


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