Spokane native Seth Bendewald reared back Thursday and fired a one-hopper over the plate in front of the crowd on hand at Avista Stadium after his introduction as a Purple Heart recipient.
“It was OK,” Bendewald, 29, said with a shy grin as he left the field, and an onlooker reached out to shake his hand and thank him for his service. “A little nerve-wracking. I just wanted to get it to him,” he continued, referring to his catcher, Indians outfielder Daniel Montano.
A crowd of friends and family welcomed Bendewald to his seat behind home plate ahead of the Indians matchup with the Hillsboro Hops. The opportunity to throw out the ceremonial first pitch was a privilege not lost on Bendewald, or his wife, Julie, as the war he served in comes to a complicated and controversial conclusion halfway across the world.
“I’m so proud of him,” Julie Bendewald said, welcoming him back with a whoop. “It’s amazing, because – I don’t know if this sounds weird – being the hometown hero. He risked his life over there for all of us here.”
Bendewald, a graduate of the Spokane Skills Center, was on his way to Afghanistan in May 2011 when he received news from a friend already at the base.
“I landed in Afghanistan the day after Osama bin Laden was shot and killed,” Bendewald said.
The phone call from that friend, already in the country, relaying the death of the al-Qaida leader in Pakistan at the hands of a Navy SEAL team was punctuated by celebratory gunfire in the background, fired from the rifles of Afghanistan National Army soldiers.
“I had in my head, as a young man, I was hoping that maybe I’d be the one to find him,” said Bendewald, who completed basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia. “And, yeah, now it’s a matter of, what are we doing here?”
Bendewald was a team leader in a unit assigned to a Stryker, an armored personnel carrier, in the Panjwayicq district in Kandahar province. Roads were scarce, so the team often found itself patrolling on foot.
The majority of the patrols were “movement to contact,” Bendewald said.
“Which pretty much just means you walk around until somebody shoots at you,” he said.
The district was also riddled with improvised explosive devices. Bendewald’s team came upon a cluster of them July 17, 2011.
“I remember just darkness,” Bendewald said of the experience. His eardrums had been perforated, he was concussed and knocked unconscious after a colleague stepped on a pressure-plated explosive. “I don’t know how long I was out for. I remember thinking to myself, ‘You’re dead, you’re dead, you’re dead.’”
The blackness gave way to the brown of settling dust from the desert. All the while, the team was under fire. Bendewald grabbed the unconscious soldier in front of him and sat on him to get out of the line of fire. One fellow soldier, 19-year-old Pfc. Tyler Springmann, lay dead. Another had lost an arm in the explosion.
Bendewald was ordered to stay put as a gunship arrived to drive off the insurgent fighters. A colleague came up with a machine gun and lay down in the dirt next to Bendewald to provide cover fire. Master Sgt. Kenneth Elwell approached to check on Bendewald and the other soldiers when he stepped on a second explosive device and was killed.
“He’s a hero. He wanted to make sure that his guys,” Bendewald said, trailing off. “He was doing what he was supposed to do.”
It was for those wounds sustained in the blast that Bendewald received the Purple Heart. More than 12,500 servicemembers have received the decoration during the Afghanistan conflict, according to an estimate three years ago. Bendewald, who was back on patrol within 24 hours, initially tried to turn it down.
“After seeing people maimed like that, I didn’t think I was deserving of it,” he said. “Looking back, I’m happy I accepted it.”
Julie Bendewald said her husband was often quick to dismiss his own bravery.
“He feels like other people deserve that recognition; those people that are no longer able to come home and tell their story, he would rather them get the recognition,” she said.
Last month marked 10 years since the explosion.
“I haven’t cried every year, but this year was bad,” Seth Bendewald said.
TDS Fiber, the network service provider that selected Bendewald to throw the first pitch Thursday, sought out the Afghanistan war veteran earlier this summer, before U.S. troops withdrew and the Taliban retook the country. Bendewald, who graduated from Eastern Washington University with a degree in communications earlier this year, said it’s been hard watching the government fold, and that his thoughts are with those who helped the American cause but remain stuck in the country.
“I think that a lot of people are struggling, and a lot of veterans are struggling with the whole concept of whether or not it was all in vain,” he said.
Julie Bendewald said through tears that she wanted fellow veterans and their families to know that they don’t have to navigate complicated emotions alone.
“If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t necessarily have this freedom,” she said. “That they’re not alone, and that there’s always going to be someone who’s watching them, and care for them, and we appreciate everything they did over there.”
Seth Bendewald said he understood some of the helplessness veterans may be feeling, because his own outpost was overrun by enemy forces about a year after he left.
“The way I look at it is, while we were there, we did not allow that to happen,” he said of the instability in the country. “While we were there, we had the safety of the people in mind. And we cared about the people of Afghanistan.”
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