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A Peaceful Patriot

medal of honor

Written by Diana Mazzella
Images Provided by West Virginia and Regional History Center/WVU Libraries

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On Jan. 24., 1969, Tom Bennett took out his tape recorder and dictated a letter home to his family in Morgantown, W.Va. He mentioned his location: “Somewhere in the great, noble land of South Vietnam – at least I hope it’s South. I’m pretty sure it is.”

Private First Class Thomas William Bennett was a medic, and in this letter, he explains the mother-henning that goes into the job. The troops would leave their boots on for days, leading to feet problems. And they wouldn’t button their shirts and roll down their sleeves, leaving themselves open to insect-borne diseases. They called him Doc, even though he fainted when he got blood taken and forced himself to swallow back vomit while watching a film about wartime medicine during his advanced training.


“Hopefully tonight we’ll be able to straighten that out just a little bit, have some cooperation to get the sleeves down, cause I’d like to not lose too many guys to malaria,” he said.


Three days later, he wrote a letter to his parents about his battle for a better latrine with burn barrels and wooden seats.


‘“Sorry,’ they said. ‘We don’t have any.’


‘Sorry,’ said I. ‘Get some.’


“The poor captain had to get on the radio and order them on our re-supply. I told him it was just as important as food, or shells for his darn cannons. We now have a latrine.”


Thomas Bennet Family Photograph
 Photo of Tom Bennett from his childhood to adulthood in Morgantown.

 

Bennett had used this same determination on campus at West Virginia University, where he studied from 1966- 67, in wrangling the student code of conduct, forming an ecumenical council and working on the 1968 Festival of Ideas committee.


In that first tape, he said, “Despite all these things, I can say in all honesty that I’ve never been more confident, more ure of myself and more at ease with myself. That, I like. And if this has to be, and I have to be here, I’m glad I’m a medic.”


Weeks later on Feb. 11, near Pleiku, Vietnam, he would die from a gunshot wound while rushing to treat one of his men. He died without ever carrying a gun in training or combat.


Bennett is one of three conscientious objectors who received the Medal of Honor after death in combat, according to the Selective Service. Private First Class Desmond T. Doss served in World War II, and Bennett – who was promoted to corporal after his death – and Specialist Four Joseph G. LaPointe Jr. served in Vietnam.


Reading Bennett’s papers in the WVU Libraries’ West Virginia and Regional History Center as well as a book his classmate Bonni McKeown, BSJ ’71, wrote about him called “Peaceful Patriot,” you get the sense of an eternal optimist always trying to learn more and be more while sometimes being discouraged, worried or afraid.


Bennett wrote to his family often of his desire for peace and his hatred of war. In one letter early in his training, he watched 200 men with bayonets screaming “Kill!” as they changed positions.


“God help a world where ordinary young men must become trained killers,” he wrote.


Photo of Thomas Bennett
 Photo of Tom Bennett nearing adulthood in Morgantown.

 

Bennett told family and friends that he didn’t want medals or photos of himself in uniform, according to “Peaceful Patriot.” He didn’t want to glorify the war. He wrote to President Richard M. Nixon before he shipped out to make sure he knew his opposition to the war. His mother wrote twice after Bennett died to Nixon to make sure he understood her son’s belief in nonviolence.


For a time, the campus ecumenical center at 293 Willey St., was named for him, as is Bennett Tower and the Bennett Health Clinic at Fort Hood, Texas.


Bennett was so involved in talking and listening to everyone he came across and leading on campus that his grades dropped and though he could have appealed, he left school, as recounted in “Peaceful Patriot.” He enlisted with the status of conscientious objector willing to serve.


On March 19, 1970, the Dominion-News published two of Tom’s prayers. The second one read: “Oh God, shake me from my apathy, from my wanderings of mind. Create in me discipline, concern and love. Help me live – really live in spirit and in truth. Amen.”


In the last tape he dictated home from deployment in a conflict zone, he urged his mother not to worry. And, as he often did, he looked on the bright side.


“And I want you to understand also that for some reason, right now, I feel – how do I explain it? Let’s see. I feel that they can’t hurt me in any way. I have had and am having such a rich, full, good, exciting life that, well, nobody can take that away from me.


“I can’t be erased or diminished in any way.”