Evansville guardsman attending White House thank-you event
As the only person outside of the vehicle, it was up to him to recognize if an enemy was signaling to detonate a roadside bomb, acting suspiciously or even shooting at them.
"Ultimately, if you're not looking in the right place at the right time, it has the potential to possibly not allow some people to go home," said Bennett, 29, of Evansville. "In my entire professional life, it's the biggest responsibility I've ever had."
Those experiences during his tour in Iraq from December 2005 to June 2006 made him realize and appreciate what's important in life. Now, he's receiving the biggest honor of his military career: a thank you straight from the commander in chief.
Bennett is set to represent Wisconsin tonight alongside 78 other service members at a White House dinner hosted by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. The Obamas are hosting the event "to express the nation's gratitude to—and recognize the significant contributions of—the men and women in uniform who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and/or Operation New Dawn, and the families who supported them," according to a news release.
Bennett, a fighter team leader, is a member of the Wisconsin Air National Guard's 115th Fighter Wing Security Forces Squadron. He has served for nine and a half years with the Guard and is one of only three Air National Guard members invited to the dinner.
"I'm very humbled by this opportunity," Bennett said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C.
His wife, Rachael, also will attend the event.
He never would have thought in his wildest dreams, he said, that he would be able to tell his son or future grandkids that he met the president at the White House.
He joined the military largely because of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and a long military history in his family, he said. He's been able to do some neat tasks, he said, including security for Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
Bennett serves one weekend a month and two weeks in summer, unless he's activated. He works full time as a recruiter for Northwestern Mutual in Middleton and part-time as an officer for the Evansville Police Department.
Bennett served alongside service members from other Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units in charge of the Iraqi Police Academy at the Mosul Public Service Academy during his tour in 2005-06.
They were tasked with making sure Iraqi police recruits received the best training possible. Bennett was on a squad in charge of combat patrol and convoys and was assigned to a security team for his compound.
The service members invited to the White House dinner come from varied walks of life and branches and ranks of the military.
"Words cannot even describe how much this means to me," he said.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and the chiefs of the five services and National Guard and Reserve will also attend the dinner.