Army Sgt. Wayne E. Benge’s life was brief, but his spirit, courage and will to live life to its fullest continues to inspire his siblings 38 years after he died of injuries suffered in a jungle in Vietnam.
Benge dropped out of Brookside High School in his hometown of Sheffield Lake to join the Army at age 17.
“He wanted to go to Vietnam; he wanted to make a difference,” says his sister, Patricia Benge Balas of Vermilion.
Benge was sent to Germany. The Army told him he had to be 18 before he could go to Vietnam.
On May 15, 1966, Benge began his tour of duty in Vietnam. Seven months later, volunteers were sought to be forward observers — to go out ahead of a unit and scout for the enemy. Benge and two others stepped forward.
It was nighttime and the jungle was dense, says Balas. Just as Benge and his fellow soldiers were about to take a break, they were taken down by a spray of gunfire, later determined to be friendly fire.
Christopher Benge of Lorain said his memories of his brother are dim.
“I was only in first grade when Wayne went into the Army,” he said. “If I remember anything, it’s a night when my mother woke me up, asking if I’d called her. I hadn’t called her, but she’d heard one of her kids call out that night. A couple of days later, they notified her Wayne had been shot.”
According to Balas, her severely wounded brother lay in the jungle for two weeks before he was found.
“He was hit so many times, the doctors couldn’t even tell where he was hit; he was hit everywhere but his head, mainly in the abdomen,” Balas says.
Bullets had ripped vital organs, both arms and legs, and shattered Benge’s pelvis.
In order to transport Benge, medics had to put him in a full body cast.
“There was nothing holding him together,” Balas said.
Balas, now 55, was only 15 when she accompanied her mother to see Benge in an Army hospital in Fort Knox, Ky., where he’d spend a year before being transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington for another eight months of agonizing surgeries and treatments.
“They wanted to take his right arm off, but he said no,” Balas said. “He never could use that arm, but he learned to write with his left hand. Through all of it, he was lucid and kept saying, ‘Don’t feel sorry for me.’
“The doctors just kept saying, ‘We don’t know how he survives. It’s a miracle.’ ”
When Benge announced he wanted to go home, doctors arranged for him to be an outpatient at the Veterans Hospital in Cleveland.
“He weighed less than a hundred pounds. They said he’d never walk again, but he got a cane and he walked,” Balas said.
Every day was met with constant pain, but Benge never complained.
“He had no self pity; he wouldn’t stand for self pity,” Balas said.
Instead, the stoic 18-year-old Benge focused his mind on writing poetry that, his sister says, has inspired her over the decades.
One day, Benge told his sister he had decided that someday he wanted to be a drill sergeant and asked her to take him to Fort Knox for a visit. She knew the trip would be difficult for him and his wish would never be fulfilled. But, she drove her beloved brother to Kentucky.
“That trip really took a toll on him,” Balas said.
Benge’s badly damaged kidneys began to fail, and he fell into a coma.
“I was by his bed when he opened his eyes — he had the most beautiful blue eyes — and he said, ‘I’m dying. I want to be buried by water and trees. I love you guys,’” Balas said her brother told her and his mother.
Benge closed his eyes, slipping back into the coma.
“The next day, I was holding his hand when he took his last breath,” Balas said.
Benge was 20 years old when he died on March 16, 1969. His name is engraved on line seven, east panel No. 11, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
“Now, I look at Iraq and all I can think is, here we go again,’’ Balas said. “I watch these families and I don’t want them to feel their loved ones are lost in vain. They’re serving their country, and that has to be in the forefront of everything. If we let our anger take over, we could feel like they died in vain. I don’t want Wayne’s death to be in vain because he believed in what he was doing.’’
Christopher Benge says he’s glad his 10-year-old son is too young to go to war.
“Now, my kids are growing up with Iraq. It’s like a replay.”
Contact Bette Pearce at 329-7148 or firstname.lastname@example.org.