April 21, 2009 in Sports

The athlete in her helped her reaction to life-altering shot

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Photo courtesy of Morgan Bennett photo

Now: Bennett with her purple heart after being shot in Kabul, Afghanistan.Photo courtesy of Morgan Bennett
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

The words were chilling. “We were leaving the prison in a two-vehicle convoy,” she said. “I was the driver of the second vehicle. After we exited the outer gate, an Afghan guard raised his AK-47 and began shooting into the first vehicle. He then turned toward my vehicle – only a couple yards from my front bumper – and started shooting into my windshield.

“I think he aimed at my passenger first, because I had time to duck down to my left. This left my right shoulder exposed, which is where I was shot. My passenger was killed instantly. I don’t think he felt anything. I didn’t feel anything right away, either. I didn’t even know I’d been shot until I looked over at my arm and saw the blood. The first thing I thought was that I hoped I could still move my hand and arm.”

The speaker was Morgan Bennett, a 1999 Mead graduate.

After a high school career that included All-Greater Spokane League honors in soccer and basketball, including GSL basketball MVP as a senior, Bennett went to the Air Force Academy.

When last heard from athletically, she was playing basketball on a not-very-good Falcons’ team.

In March of 2007, Bennett was deployed to Camp Eggers in Kabul, Afghanistan. Her mission was mentoring and training the Afghan National Army Guard Force at the Afghan National Detention Facility, which required a daily commute across Kabul.

“I worked with two Afghan officers along with their personnel on managing the pay and personnel issues at the detention facility,” Bennett said. “You always wore every piece of your body armor and carried as many weapons and ammunition as we had available and were able to.”

The attack was less than two months after she arrived in Kabul.

Bennett was treated at the prison clinic for the wound to her right shoulder and shrapnel wounds down her arm and to the back of her head. She was flown to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and several days later sent to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, “more for peace of mind than anything else,” she said.

Bennett declined to be transferred stateside, then declined to be put on a job that kept her safely inside the base.

“I needed to go back to my unit,” the Purple Heart and Combat Action Medal recipient said. “I asked to be placed in the same job I was in before, and within three weeks, I was back convoying out to the same prison. While nerve-racking at first, it gave me a sense of closure over the situation.

“It also gave me peace of mind to know I was working on the same mission that the two soldiers that were killed had put their life on the line for.”

Her tour ended after six months. She transferred to Warren AFB in Cheyenne, Wyo., for about six months, and last March was sent to Squadron Officer School in Montgomery, Ala., for a three-month class, which led to her present duty “in beautiful northern Italy.”

Bennett is part of a small American unit near Verona.

“I am the Mission Support Flight Commander,” she said. “That includes every aspect of base and personnel support from fitness to food to facilities management to financial support.”

Better yet, she can travel. She took her mom and sister Jennifer, also a Mead basketball player, to Rome; her father to Venice; and wrote recently she was headed to Switzerland for a Chocolate Festival.

Bennett graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2003 with a biology degree. (She also earned an M.A. in organized leadership through Gonzaga, thanks to on-line courses, in 2008.)

Her first assignment out of the Air Force Academy was 16 months at Randolph AFB in San Antonio, followed by a stint at Warren AFB in Wyoming from Dec. 2004 through March 2007, when she went to Afghanistan.

She played for the All-Air Force basketball team in 2005 and 2006, winning gold and silver at the All-Armed Forces Tournament.

That was a better end than her college career.

First she played soccer in the fall of her freshman year, which proved too taxing with the academic and basketball demands.

Bennett started all but one basketball game as a freshman, playing point guard, a much different role than when she helped Mead finish fourth at state as a 5-foot-10 post averaging 16.8 points a game. She was second in scoring as a sophomore until injuries cut short her season. Her role changed under a new coach as a junior so she spent her last year playing intramurals.

She had been an All-GSL midfielder for the Panthers, who reached the state soccer championship game in the fall of her junior year, 1997. She was first-team All-GSL in basketball as a junior and MVP as a senior.

“You are a sum of you life’s experiences,” said Bennett, which she came to appreciate in Afghanistan.

“You don’t know how much physical and mental stress you can handle until you are put in a situation that tests your limits,” she said. “This concept hit me after the shooting, when people kept saying that there is no way they could have reacted the way I did in that situation. I partially attribute this to the fact that athletics tested my limits so many times I was more prepared for the rush of adrenalin. And I also think being in shape helped my reaction.”

Other lessons from athletics include the importance of teamwork, and resilience determines success and courage, she said.

“All courage boils down to is confidence in your abilities, along with the acceptance of the unknown,” she said. “Even if there are unknowns in a situation, including sports, you can’t go in hesitantly. You must have confidence that you prepared as well as you could have for any situation and you cannot control everything.”

Soon Bennett will start a three-year commitment as a recruiting services officer out of McChord AFB near Tacoma.

She looks forward to being closer to home but …

“I literally cried the last day I was at the prison in August before coming back to the U.S.,” she said. “It was like a part of me was left there. I still feel a part of me is there and I would go back in a second.

“I support every single one of our soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines in Afghanistan and the mission they are doing today. They deserve all of our support and continued manpower and resources until the job is done.”


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