Southeast Natives rally behind hurt Iraq soldier

Latseen Benson had been overdue for discharge

Posted: Tuesday, November 22, 2005

No matter their feelings about the war in Iraq, scores of Tlingits in Southeast Alaska are rallying behind Latseen Benson.

The 26-year-old Army infantry specialist with family roots in Southeast Alaska was critically injured in Iraq Sunday, Nov. 13, losing part of both legs and a finger to a land mine in Tikrit.

Benson's plight at a military hospital in Washington, D.C., is a bitter pill for many in his extended Tlingit family because he was due for discharge on Oct. 31.

Instead, he was redeployed the same day under the Pentagon's "stop loss" policy. His new orders were to remain in Iraq until 2007.

The Pentagon policy has resulted in extended tours of duty for thousands of National Guard volunteers.

"It just tears at the heart," said Pattie Adkisson, a Juneau resident who helped raise money for Benson at a luncheon Monday at Juneau's Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall.

Thousands of dollars are being raised in a flurry of fundraisers for Benson in Southeast Alaska, as well as Anchorage and Fairbanks.

In Juneau, some of Benson's supporters said Monday they are upset the government extended his tour. Others cited his patriotism and obedience to the government.

His mother, Diane Benson, an actress, author and 2002 Alaska gubernatorial candidate born and raised in Ketchikan, chastised the Bush administration last week in Anchorage media outlets over her son's re-deployment.

Benson, who then flew to Germany to be with her son, has since issued a written statement upon meeting some of his fellow soldiers.

"They are amazing and wonderful young people and this country is blessed to have their dedication. ... They are doing a great job," she said.

Adkisson said the military's "stop-loss" policy is not protecting soldiers or Iraqis.

"I wish they would make a sincere effort to stop the loss (of life)," Adkisson said Monday.

The policy has had plenty of detractors. In April, for example, the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an appeal from an Oregon serviceman and 11 others who challenged the policy's legality.

"I think that everyone has these mixed feelings," said Benson's aunt, Sylvia Carlsson of Anchorage.

"We thought he would be finished. That was a little hard to stomach," said Charlie Williams, a charter member of the Southeast Alaska Native Veterans in Juneau.

Williams calls Benson a "two-time warrior," serving both his country and his Native people.

"It's just really important for the community to show support for the families of people who are serving," added Evelyn Myers, of Juneau, who attended the Juneau fundraiser.

During the event, the Southeast Alaska Native Veterans, the local camp of Veterans for Peace, the Tlingit-Haida Central Council, the Alaska Native Brotherhood Grand Camp and other contributors committed more than $2,000 to assist with Latseen Benson's recovery.

Similar fundraising is under way in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Sitka and Ketchikan.

"Diane was just overwhelmed with the generosity," Carlsson said.

Benson was medevaced to Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Friday. His wife Jessica was with him at a hospital in Germany, and they were joined by Diane Benson and his step-father, Ton Vita, who helped escort him to the Washington, D.C., hospital.

Some positive news emerged about his physical condition on Monday.

Benson has now been taken off a ventilator and, despite previous reports, he does not suffer from a spinal or eye injury.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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