Austin Harper Gates Benson
Airman First Class, United States Air Force
Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
IMMEDIATE RELEASE No. 359-10
DOD Identifies Air Force Casualty
The Department of Defense announced today the death of an airman who was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.
Airman 1st Class Austin H. Gates Benson, 19, of Hellertown, Pennsylvania, died May 3, 2010, of injuries sustained from a non-combat related incident near Khyber, Afghanistan. He was assigned to the 54th Combat Communications Squadron at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia.
For more information related to this release,
please contact the Robins Air Force Base public affairs office at 478-926-2137.
Days after Joie Gates learned that her son had killed himself in Afghanistan, she dashed off a letter to President Barack Obama. It was an impassioned plea for him to take action to stem the number of military suicides, which last year exceeded the number of those who died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a Congressional Quarterly report.
On Wednesday, after taking a week to consider her position and learn about efforts the military has undertaken to guard the mental health of troops, she penned another letter. "What can I do to help you?" she asked the president. "How can we get to the bottom of why this is happening?"
Gates knows that her son, Airman 1st Class Austin H. Gates Benson, 19, of Hellertown, Northampton County, believed wholeheartedly in the good the U.S. military is doing in Afghanistan, but the horrors of war became too much for him. He shot himself May 3, 2010.
Share He was stationed at a remote combat outpost in Khyber, near the Pakistani border, where he was helping to establish communications. It was a region that had recently suffered civilian deaths in a Pakistani airstrike.
Gates Benson was known by his friends and family as a man who fought for his principles. He enlisted in the Air Force shortly after graduating from Saucon Valley High School in 2008. The voice of the student body at Saucon Valley, Gates Benson believed forcing students to wear ID badges infringed on their rights. He often debated the issue and other topics with school administrators.
Friends say he got his standup character from his mother.
"I tried to raise him to be responsible, to think things through, to look beyond the first thing he saw," she said. "Today I can't help but think I got exactly what I wanted."
Gates believes her son sacrificed himself for peace, "so he'd never be responsible for the loss of another life."
She has been moved by the outpouring of love and support from his fellow airmen, his "family" at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, where he was assigned to the 54th Combat Communications Squadron.
"I do not grieve alone," she said. "These people grieve along with me. I had no idea how hard this was for them."
A surge in suicides has been a troubling fact in all branches of the military. Last year Air Force officials reported 41 active-duty suicides, while 52 Marines and 48 sailors took their own lives. The Army reported the most suicides, nearly 170.
Moved by the numbers last year, the Army created a suicide prevention task force to examine all of the recent suicides and try to find commonalities.
There is no easy solution, Gates said. She believes the problem is more complex than she can begin to imagine. "I believe that the military has done everything that it can," she said. "They are at a loss."
As she sat in her living room in Hellertown on Wednesday, surrounded by pictures and other keepsakes she has gathered for a memorial service, Gates said her son was a rare gem, a young man who felt keenly the plight of others.
In Afghanistan, surrounded by abject poverty, he told his mother he'd always be appreciative of his life in the U.S. He believed so strongly in the mission in Afghanistan that he had requested to extend his tour, Gates said.
He always wanted to be in the military, she said. As a boy, he played with G.I. Joe action figures. In high school, he joined the Civil Air Patrol in Quakertown and had decided to enlist in the Air Force before he graduated.
Before he went to Afghanistan, he and his friends got tattoos. On his forearm, Gates Benson had inscribed the Latin greeting "Si vales, valeo," which means "if you are well, then I am well."
For his high school yearbook he chose to quote Oscar Wilde: "Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it." But his other favorite saying was from Edmund Burke: "All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."
For Gates, those three sayings sum up what
her son stood for. "He was selfless, and he died for what he believed in,"
she said. "I guess that would be his epitaph."
HELLERTOWN, Pennsylvania - A close-knit community came together Friday night to help a family unraveled by war.
Those mourning the May 3, 2010 death in Afghanistan of Airman First Class Austin H. Gates Benson walked into Heintzelman Funeral Home on Main Street past American flags borne by Warriors' Watch Riders.
At the nearby corner of Main Street and Magnolia Road, a 12-foot-by-18-foot American flag hung from the extended ladders of two firetrucks.
Nearby residents ventured out into the humid night to pay their respects.
Glenside, Pennsylvania, resident Wayne Lutz, founder of the Warriors' Watch Riders, said the club's members often form a motorcycle escort when the bodies of those serving in war arrive back on American soil.
Lutz said he and other club members came to Hellertown on Friday because "a hero has died in service of his country. We just want to honor that."
The military veteran said the club was formed partly in response to a lesser reception for those returning from the Vietnam War.
Hillary Bender, 21, of Hellertown, said she knew Gates Benson for about two years through a church youth group.
"He had a bubbly personality," she said before adding about this death: "It didn't seem characteristic of him."
Joie Gates, the airman's mother, has said the U.S. Air Force informed her that her son took his own life.
Gates said recently she is looking into her son's death, trying to find out more.
The yellow ribbons tied up on trees and poles along Main Street also reflected the community's support for Gates. Gates Benson was her only child.
Members of the Nancy Run Fire Co. in Bethlehem
Township, Pennsylvania, and the Se-wy-co Fire Co. out of Lower Saucon Township
provided the ladder trucks to hold the American flag high over Main Street
But we do know this: Gates Benson loved his country. And we know that far too many of our men and women in uniform are dying by their own hand.
Share According to the U.S. Department of Defense, there were 160 reported active-duty Army suicides in 2009, up from 140 in 2008. Even though military suicide rates are similar to civilian rates in the U.S., officials say last yearís numbers are alarming because military rates traditionally have been lower than civilian rates.
This isnít solely a problem with ground troops. It is happening across the services and across the ranks. Officials say the reasons vary, including new soldiers haunted by what theyíve witnessed in combat; difficulties with fellow soldiers; failed relationships; drug and/or alcohol abuse; depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems.
So how do we fix it? While the governmentís track record has not been strong, there are signs that it is getting better. A discussion about suicide among our troops is taking place; gatherings of military mental health professionals focusing on what is being done and what needs to be done. They include top military brass speaking openly with troops about their own struggles, encouraging others to come forward and seek help.
In 2007, a 24-hour suicide hot line was set up by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. It has counseled more than 185,000 veterans and relatives and says it has prevented more than 5,000 suicides.
A look at Fort Campbell suggests that efforts can pay off, but it takes time. Located on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, Fort Campbell has one of the highest suicide rates in the Army. In 2007, after nine soldiers took their own lives, it created a suicide task force. In 2008, the number jumped to 12. The base hired a suicide prevention program manager, increased awareness training and added more mental health professionals to its staff to counsel troops in combat and upon their return. In 2009, the number climbed to 14. More efforts were poured into prevention. And even though itís early, this year the tide seems to be turning, with just four suicides reported so far.
The Fort Campbell experience suggests we as a nation cannot give up. We must demand the military do all it can to educate soldiers about the risk of suicide, encourage them to get help when they need it and make sure that they are not stigmatized and punished professionally or personally for doing so.
Austin Gates Benson will be buried June 4, 2010, in Arlington National Cemetery. His mother, Joie Gates, has shown remarkable courage, going public about his suicide in the days following his May 3, 2010, death in Afghanistan. She has promised to continue speaking out about military suicides once her son is laid to rest.
We as a community should be grateful for her
sonís service and for her determination to demand more for other mothers'
sons and daughters.
Airman First Class Austin Harper Gates Benson, 19, of Hellertown died Monday, May 3, 2010 at KBCC/FOB Torkham, Khyber, Afghanistan. Born in Hunterdon County, NJ on June 17, 1990. His mother is Joie M. Gates with whom he resided and her partner Christopher F. Verone of Warminster. His father is Frederick J. Boenig and his partner Janice E. Johnson of Emmaus and Fredericks former wife, Victoria V. Boenig of Hellertown. He had been attached to the 54th Combat Communications Squadron at the US Robins Air Force Base, GA. Austin is a 2008 graduate of Saucon Valley High School. Survivors: In addition to his loving parents and extended families, he is survived by a half brother, Search D. Willson of Hellertown; maternal grandparents, Milo E. Benson and his wife Lois of Oak Harbor, WA; paternal grandmother, Elaine L. Blair of Flemington; and innumerable friends. Services: Family and friends are invited to an informal gathering to celebrate his life from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, May 14, 2010 at the Heintzelman Funeral Home, Inc. 326 Main Street - Hellertown. The interment will be private at Arlington National Cemetery, Fort Myer, VA. Online expressions of sympathy can be recorded at www.heintzelmancares.com Contributions: Please omit flowers, a Memorial Scholarship is being established in Austins name at the Saucon Valley School District. Please make checks payable to SVSD care of the Heintzelman Funeral Home, 326 Main Street - Hellertown, PA 18055.
BENSON, AUSTIN H GATES
Posted: 10 August 2010 Updated: 16 August 2010
Photos By Eileen Horan, August 2010