The Vietnam War presented many young men with a moral dilemma as they became subject to the draft in the late 1960s. These were men whose deep-seated religious convictions held that killing was wrong, even in war. At the same time, a number of them also possessed a strong sense of patriotism and felt that service to one’s country was a vital duty. One youngster torn by those conflicting values was Thomas W. Bennett of Morgantown, West Virginia.
By Christmas 1967, Bennett was on academic probation at West Virginia University because of poor grades. He didn’t lack the mental acumen to do college-level work. Bennett earned high grades whenever he applied himself — but he applied himself more vigorously to extracurricular campus activities than to his classes.
Perhaps it was his diminutive size — he stood only 5 feet 6 inches and was slight of build — that made him want to be a ‘Big Man On Campus. From the day he first joined the student body at the university in his hometown of Morgantown, Bennett had been active in a wide variety of campus clubs, as well as student government. His main focus was the Campus Ecumenical Council he’d helped found in his freshman year.
Tom Bennett saw himself as a moderator. Though raised as a Southern Baptist, he openly embraced the validity of all religions — hence his activities in the ecumenical council. He wanted devotees of different religions to share their similarities rather than face off over their differences. To learn more about different religions, he began attending services of different faiths, visiting some churches so often that parishioners thought he was one of them. Through these experiences his belief in the sanctity of human life solidified — a frequent theme when he preached at his own church.
But Bennett was torn by other allegiances. His stepfather, Kermit Gray, a World War II Navy veteran, had raised him to believe in patriotism and to be ready to fight for his country if necessary. By late 1967 a number of young Bennett’s friends had already entered the service. Several had gone to Vietnam, and one buddy from childhood, David Kovac, had been killed in action with the Marines. Bennett didn’t want to dishonor Kovac’s sacrifice by refusing to serve or by fleeing to Canada. But he didn’t think he could be faithful to his religious beliefs if he went to war and was forced to kill. He wrestled with his dilemma, seeking the advice of friends, his minister and counselors.
That 1967 fall semester grade report forced Bennett to make up his mind. Once he lost his student deferment, he would become eligible for the draft. He thought he then would have only three choices: serve, leave the country, or declare himself a conscientious objector and refuse induction. But from the campus draft counselors he learned of a fourth choice: he could apply to be classified as a conscientious objector who was willing to serve. He did so, and on May 2, 1968, his request was granted. He would be trained as a medic.
Bennett reported for induction on July 11, 1968. Under the Army’s program, he and the other conscientious objectors would take their weaponless basic training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, then attend the field medical school there. It was a perfect compromise for Bennett, the moderator. He could still serve his country and honor his buddy’s memory, but his efforts in the war zone would involve saving lives, not taking them.
In his letters home from Texas, Bennett expressed his frustrations over the continuing war in Vietnam. On October 12, 1968, while in medical training, he wrote his family, That’s what I might like to do — gain the ability to save lives — in hopes they might learn to live in peace. He tried to reassure his parents that his chances of ending up in the war zone were slim. On September 15, he told them: Since September 1 there has been a sharp decrease in the number of medics going to Nam….I have just as good of a chance to serve in Honolulu as in Nam. Even if I do go to Nam, I might not serve in a combat zone.
Six weeks later, Bennett wrote: If I am called to Nam, I will go. Out of obligation to a country I love I will go and possibly die for a cause I vehemently disagree with. Apparently feeling some need to explain his position, he added, It is my obligation to give service to my country. That’s why I’m here — to help provide freedom for dissenting voices….I believe in America. I believe that our process of government can respond to the people’s needs — if we each will assume our responsibility.
Despite Bennett’s repeated assurances to his parents that his chances of actually going to Vietnam were slim, when assignment orders were read two weeks before his medic trainee class graduation, that all changed. His whole class was going to Nam.
Back home on leave during the Christmas holidays, Bennett tried his best to remain cheerful. He visited friends and relatives, surprisingly proud of his uniform. He bought presents and exchanged holiday cheer with his fellow church members. But the looming trip halfway across the world played heavily on his mind. One night he broke down at the dinner table. I just can’t do it, he suddenly sobbed. I can’t go over there. Mother, I’m too young to die.
His parents consoled him, and Bennett soon regained his composure. On January 5, 1969, Tom Bennett said goodbye to his family. Five days later he was in Long Binh, South Vietnam, awaiting further assignment. On January 12 he learned he was going to the 4th Infantry Division in the Central Highlands. Ten days later he joined Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry, at FSB Charmayne, deep in the thick jungles of the Central Highlands.
Bennett was impressed with Bravo and its commanding officer, Captain Carrett Cowsert. Under his skilled leadership Bravo had suffered no serious casualties and no KIAs in seven months. Though the GIs constantly patrolled the rugged mountains, the NVA had made themselves scarce.
But things changed about the same time Bennett arrived. Enemy soldiers had been spotted on nearby Chu Pa Mountain. Bravo was choppered into an LZ on the mountain’s west side, where two other companies from the battalion joined them. The hump up the 1,400-meter peak was, in Bennett’s words, …unbelievable. Several times we were climbing almost straight up. My shoulders were full of pain. He had learned the hard way why infantrymen in South Vietnam had sardonically nicknamed themselves grunts. With all the gear he carried, nearly every step he took brought a grunt or groan of protest from his parched lips.
After a week of intense patrolling on Chu Pa’s west face failed to find any evidence of the enemy, Captain Cowsert decided to continue the patrol down the mountain’s east side. He didn’t expect the trek to be much easier going downhill, either. The entire mountain was blanketed with dense, triple-canopy jungle and splintered by countless jagged ravines and fingers.
Bennett used a brief respite in Bravo’s movement on February 5 to tape record a message to his parents. It would be his last. In it, he tried to assure his mother he was not facing much danger: When you start adding up figures and taking percentages and stuff, over here there are very few places that I can be safer than with the U.S. Army.
He may have felt confident he’d return to Morgantown, but he still waxed philosophical about not making it. I feel that they can’t hurt me in any way, he said. I have had and am having such a rich, full, good exciting life that, well, nobody can take that away from me. There’s very little chance that anything’s gonna happen. And if it does, so what? I’ve had my 21 good years….
On February 9, the fourth day of inching downhill, Bravo Company suddenly halted when an intense blast of AK-47 fire echoed through the jungle. A sister company, Delta, moving on Bravo’s left flank, had walked into an ambush. Bennett’s platoon was ordered to attack toward Delta, a maneuver designed to hit the enemy from the rear.
The platoon hadn’t even moved 100 meters when it, too, was ambushed. The three lead men went down in the opening spray of enemy fire. Everyone else dived for cover — except Tom Bennett. Perhaps it was because this was his first firefight. Maybe he didn’t really understand the danger. More likely, he just wanted to help his injured buddies.
Ignoring the near-constant fire, Bennett snaked his way forward. Completely oblivious to the enemy rounds snapping through the jungle all around him, Bennett gave lifesaving first aid to the three wounded men. Then he boldly carried each casualty to a defiladed position of relative safety.
As the firefight continued, the young medic dashed back and forth across the battlefield. Whenever there was a cry for help, he was there, patching up a wound, offering words of comfort. At least twice more he ventured into the open to pull a casualty to safety. Bennett’s gallant conduct inspired all around him.
When the enemy finally pulled back, Bravo was left with five dead and six seriously wounded. Medevac choppers made it in before nightfall to pull them out. The nervous infantrymen dug deep holes, fearful the enemy might attack them during the night. Bennett, however, spent most of the night above ground, double-checking those who had been wounded and not evacuated. He ministered carefully to them, assuring them they’d be all right.
Sergeant James McBee, Bennett’s platoon sergeant, approached Captain Cowsert that night, saying: Sir, the men have asked me to put Corporal Bennett in for a Silver Star. He’s been doing an outstanding job today. He took a lot of risks to help the guys who got hit. In fact, I had to kind of chew him out for taking too damn many risks.
What’d he say? Cowsert asked.
He said he wasn’t afraid, replied McBee, who would be awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for valor during that fight. Said he was trained to be a medic and he was just doing his job. Said the Lord would protect him and if he died it would be God’s will.
Cowsert slowly shook his head. Okay, I’ll write him up, he assured McBee.
The next day the men of Bravo Company continued to push downhill. Several times they spotted small groups of NVA shadowing them, but the enemy soldiers always fled before the infantrymen could draw a bead on them. The grunts started to think they’d get down the mountain without further action. Then, around 1600 hours, they were hit again. B-40 rockets suddenly slammed into the column of men. Numerous AK-47s blazed away, their pinpoint accuracy dropping infantrymen into the tangled undergrowth. The noise was deafening, with screams from the wounded adding to the din.
Through all the carnage Bennett kept up his work. Ever fearless, constantly ignoring the danger, unmindful of the deadly slugs filling the air, the former campus religious leader slapped bandages on wounds, injected morphine to dull horrible pain and offered words of encouragement. Don’t worry, you’ll be okay, he assured the wounded.
By nightfall the firing had died down. Bravo’s survivors were exhausted. Bennett, his eyes red from the lack of sleep and the sting of cordite, was up all night treating his many patients. It pained him deeply to see his new friends so badly injured, but he never faltered in his care.
As dawn broke on February 11, enemy snipers took potshots at the embattled members of Bravo Company. Several more grunts fell, and Bennett instantly moved to their aid. Sergeant McBee warned him repeatedly to be careful.
A recently arrived private — so new to the platoon that no one even knew his name — suddenly cried out. He’d been hit by a sniper’s round. He lay about 30 feet from Bennett. As Bennett looked toward the casualty, McBee grabbed him. Don’t go out there! He’s gone, the sergeant warned.
Bennett shrugged him off. Without a word he jumped up, intent only on saving the wounded man. A flurry of rifle shots rang out. Bennett fell, his young body riddled with bullets.
On April 7, 1970, Tom Bennett’s 23rd birthday, President Richard M. Nixon presented his posthumous Medal of Honor to his mother and stepfather. When first notified of the award, Bennett’s mother had considered refusing it, her way of protesting the war and the senseless loss of her son. But then her husband spoke up, No. It was the boys in his outfit that put him in for it. They wanted him to have it.
Thus Thomas W. Bennett became the only conscientious objector to earn the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War, and only the second in history to be so recognized. The first was Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist who was cited for his heroism on Okinawa in World War II.
In August 1988 a youth center at Schofield Barracks on Oahu, Hawaii, was named for Bennett. It was an excellent choice. Tom’s adherence to his personal values, while still believing in and dying for his country, stands as a strong moral example to today’s young men and women.
This article was written by Edward F. Murphy and originally published in the June 2003 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today!