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Mom’s grief turns to care for others

 (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Benson (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Whoever said time heals all wounds has not met Susan Henderson, whose son became the first Spokane-area resident to die in the Iraq war.

It has been a year since 20-year-old Army Spc. Robert Benson was shot on Nov. 5, 2003, while on guard duty in Baghdad, leaving his young wife a widow and a hole in his mother’s heart forever.

“The worst thing is to lose a child,” Henderson said this week. “I’ll never see him become the man he could have been. I’ll never see grandchildren from him.”

But time does help, she said, especially when you use it to help others.

Henderson is now devoting herself to other sons and daughters in the military, by helping their families send them care packages.

Henderson and her friend, Helen Hughes, have created a program they call Operation Mailbox to pay postage on packages that Spokane-area military families send to their soldiers overseas. Henderson said she would not presume to know what other soldiers need, and the Department of Defense discourages sending unsolicited packages to military personnel anyway.

But she does remember paying nearly $75 to send her son six loaves of banana bread.

“I knew what my son wanted, and most families know what their sons want,” she said. “We thought we’d help the families with loved ones overseas, not just Iraq.”

She is particularly concerned about National Guard families whose incomes may have decreased when their soldiers became active duty. So Henderson and Hughes contacted the family support services of the local Air and Army National Guard posts this summer to find out how they could help.

At the same time they put out donation jars at a Spokane church and the RV park Hughes owns in Deer Lake, Wash., to raise money for postage. The Northwest Car Council donated $500 and the Dukes Car Club kicked in another $230, earning Henderson’s gratitude.

The family support organizations put families in contact with the nonprofit Operation Mailbox, and Henderson meets them at the post office, where she writes a check for postage of up to $40 per soldier. Since August, the program has paid the postage on 11 packages, but she expects the operation to really kick in this holiday season. One woman recently sent Christmas tree ornaments to four different units in Iraq. They cost Operation Mailbox about $40 each in postage.

As demand for postage grows, Henderson and Hughes hope donations will too, and they have set up an Operation Mailbox account with the Bank of America. Donations can be made at any Bank of America in northeast Washington or North Idaho, Henderson said. She said she plans to contact family support services for the Idaho National Guard’s recently activated 116th Armored Brigade to offer help.

“There is still money in the fund and every time I go back, there’s more,” said Henderson, who added that if the money holds out she will continue the program after Christmas.

On Saturday, Henderson and about 45 friends and relatives held a candlelight vigil in the rain at Holy Cross Cemetery in Spokane, where Benson is buried.

“Last week was really hard,” Henderson said, adding that the past year was a major hurdle for her. “When my son passed away this town opened their hearts to me. I want to thank everybody for their love and support.”

Hughes believes Operation Mailbox has been good for her friend.

“The healing in this lady has been amazing,” she said.

Last June, Henderson and Benson’s wife, Aimee, joined the families of other soldiers killed in Iraq at a private meeting with President Bush and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at Fort Lewis, Wash. Before the meeting, Bush talked to members of the media about what he would tell them.

“I’m going to say to them, ‘Your loved one died for a cause greater than self, and it was worth it,’ ” Bush said. “It’s worth peace and security.”

Henderson does not concern herself with the politics of Iraq other than to say she believes the U.S. military is trying to help that country. Her son, when he was alive in Iraq, told her to turn off her television so she would not worry.

As of Tuesday, at least 1,145 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. Four soldiers besides Benson were from the Spokane area: Army Sgt. Curt Jordan Jr., 25; Army Sgt. Jeffrey Shaver, 27; Army Staff Sgt. Stephen C. Hattamer, 43; and Army Sgt. Jacob H. Demand, 29.

“I can’t make people remember these soldiers. I will remember them for the rest of my life,” Henderson said. “But I can help to remind people to support our troops overseas.”


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