Editor’s note: The story of Austin Gates Benson was patched together from interviews with his family and people he served with, his autopsy and a series of e-mails he sent to a close friend. Like the many U.S. troops who have taken their own lives since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the story of Gates Benson’s death leaves far more questions than answers.
Airman 1st Class Austin Gates Benson’s May 6 memorial ceremony at Robins Air Force Base could scarcely have been more awkward.
There was no mention of how he died. Even in casual conversation, no one mentioned Gates Benson’s cause of death, termed a “non-combat related” casualty by the military. But Chaplain Bradley Agee knew how Gates Benson died. Invoking the Biblical parable of the Garden of Eden, Agee asked the audience to “imagine if he had not taken (from) the tree of life.”
Three days earlier, Gates Benson was found dead from a gunshot to the head in his room at a small compound near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. His M-16 rifle had been set to “burst” so it would automatically fire three shots when Gates Benson pulled the trigger.
Gates Benson left a brief note on a post-it: “Firing a gun is a binary choice. You either pull the trigger or you don’t. P.S.: The people here had no affect on my decision. It was a long time coming. Sorry for the mess guys.”
The next day, three military officers arrived at Joie Gates’ home in Hellertown, Pa., about 60 miles north of Philadelphia, to deliver the news. At the age of 19, her son had committed suicide.
As Gates Benson’s remains were transported back to the United States, Fred Boenig, his father, went to a tattoo parlor to inscribe the Latin phrase “Si Vales Valeo” on his right arm. Gates Benson had the same tattoo.
Si Vales Valeo: If you are well, I am well.
The military culture long ago inured itself to the shock of losing one of its own to suicide.
According recently released Department of Defense report, 309 U.S. service members committed suicide in 2009. By comparison, during that same time period, 145 U.S. service members lost their lives in Afghanistan to Improvised Explosive Device attacks — the Taliban-led insurgency’s most effective and frequently-used weapon. More than twice as many troops were killed by their own hands as by insurgent roadside bombs.
In May, a newspaper near Fort Campbell, Ky., published an article that seemed to celebrate that only four soldiers at the installation had killed themselves in the first four months of 2010. After all, 11 Fort Campbell soldiers killed themselves in the first four months of 2009.
Austin Gates Benson was at Robins only about a year. In an installation with more than 6,000 airmen, few outside of his unit knew his name. In the first few months of his tour in Afghanistan, Gates Benson found a niche he did not find at Robins.
Gates Benson revered the most senior officer on his compound, Col. Wesley L. Rehorn, a career special operations commander, like a father figure. Rehorn was not Gates Benson’s commanding officer, but exercised a kind of paternal authority over the hundred or so troops at the outpost near the Pakistani border.
Once every few weeks, Rehorn would gather about a dozen enlisted troops and junior officers to smoke cigars. A colonel, his troops and Gates Benson — no formalities.
One conversation centered around cars. “GB, you can’t have a favorite car, ’cause you’re not old enough to drive,” Rehorn jabbed the 19-year-old Gates Benson.
“He is one awesome m-----f-----,” Gates Benson said of Rehorn in an April 14 e-mail. “Sadly, the Colonel is leaving tomorrow.”
Gates Benson did not see front-line combat, according to Rehorn. In a phone interview, Rehorn recalled that when he heard there had been a suicide at the compound without getting a name, Gates Benson was “the last person” that crossed his mind.
When Rehorn was sent back to the United States, Gates Benson seemed to have taken a dramatically different outlook on his deployment.
In Rehorn’s stead were a group of officers Gates Benson did not like, officers he described in an e-mail as “political a------- only interested in advancing their own careers.”
Once ready to extend his tour, Gates Benson now resolved not to stay in Afghanistan “one second longer than I have to.”
Two weeks later, he was dead.
Austin Gates Benson’s family is still reeling, searching for some greater reason why he took his own life.
Gates Benson, no doubt, could have accomplished much. He read and wrote at a collegiate level. He was well-versed in current events and articulated his thoughts on the health care reform package as well as most television commentators. He even had a brief movie career — as a 7-year-old, Gates Benson was an extra in the Susan Sarandon/Julia Roberts film, “Stepmom.”
His e-mails gave no obvious indication of what was to come. Not one person who spoke to The Telegraph suspected that Gates Benson was suicidal.
“It’s not terribly uncommon,” said Dr. Thomas Joiner, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and author of the book, “Myths About Suicide.”
“There are about as many (suicide) cases where there really are no external warning signs,” Joiner added.
Boenig, a radio disk jockey in Emmaus, Pa., has spent countless hours reading through his son’s e-mails, prodding the military, looking for some reason why his son died. Was it connected to Rehorn’s redeployment? Did his son see something? Did he know something? What was “a long time coming”?
Boenig’s search for an explanation has left him without answers. Boenig did not even find out that his son had written a suicide note until a full month after his death.
Five months after Gates Benson’s death, the investigation into his death has not been completed.
For the family left behind, answers will not come easy, if ever.