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Biography of Morgantown Medal of Honor recipient Tom Bennett republished

There was many a furtive, teenaged night when Medal of Honor recipient Tom Bennett would find himself sneaking back into his house.

No, the Morgantown High School student wasn’t out parking with his girlfriend.

Nor was he trying to bluff his way into a Sunnyside bar with a fake I.D.

He was in church.

“Can you believe it?” sibling George Bennett recalled with a chuckle.

It was Veterans Day 2016, and Tom Bennett’s big brother was speaking from his home outside Boston.

Today is Memorial Day 2023, and the peaceful patriot who saved lives in war, and died in war, has picked up a new audience and generation now discovering his deeds on Earth.

The younger years

“Tommy was in these ecumenical study groups,” his brother continued, “and a lot of them would go pretty far into the evening.”

And curfew in that two-story house on leafy Junior Avenue, just down from the old Suncrest Primary School, was strictly enforced for the Bennett boys: George, Jim and Tom.

No exceptions. Not even for the Bible.

Tommy, who was as resourceful as he was wiry, literally climbed over that domestic directive, though.

He’d shimmy up the side of the house, perch himself on the porch roof — and rap on George’s window.

“And I’d let him in. Nothing to it.”

Except, there was everything to it.

Because while Tommy Bennett was going vertical in Suncrest, America was getting in deep in Southeast Asia.

It was the mid-1960s, and Lyndon Johnson was ratcheting up U.S. troop involvement in Vietnam, which suddenly wasn’t as far off — or as infused with John Kennedy’s “Ask not” ethos and idealism, as it had originally seemed.

Vietnam wasn’t a John Wayne war movie — though the actor would go on to make a spectacular cinematic failure in that regard — nor was it an American morality play.

Vietnam was where politics and alliances were difficult to discern.

And Vietnam was where American kids were dying.

Flashing lights from the tree line meant holes in backs and bellies — and “Taps,” that 24-note elegy of loss, wafting mournfully across hometown cemeteries.

Dave Kovac, a popular classmate at MHS who was nice in the hallway and cafeteria even to the kids who weren’t cool, was already gone.

Kovac was killed in an ambush two days before Christmas in 1965 while patrolling with his Marine unit.

Leaning into those curfew or no Bible study groups, with their ranging discussions of God, the Golden Rule and the mystery of faith, young Mr. Bennett began to formulate a personal philosophy as he grappled with the sudden loss.

And it would mean everything when he took his turn in the jungle.

Dilemma of duty

Tom grew up in a solid house.

His father died when he was a little boy, but his stepfather, a U.S. Navy man who fought in World War II, instilled both discipline and a love of the American ideal.

“Don’t give up on your country,” he’d tell George, Jim and Tom.

Tom’s family had the resources for college and he went, throwing himself into the fabric of WVU, same as he did at MHS.

Generally, he was more about social awareness than he was being social.

And he was definitely more of a student-activist than he was a student.

Faltering grades from all that moderating, marching, organizing, arguing and discussing meant his student deferment was standing on shaky ground.

He didn’t want to be drafted. He didn’t want to be handed a rifle.

“Tommy was morally opposed to killing,” George said of his brother. “You weren’t going to move him on that.”

But he also wasn’t going to be moved on his love of country, either, even in the tumultuous 1960s.

Retreating to Canada, he reasoned, would disappoint his stepfather while dishonoring the sacrifice of his fallen buddy, Kovac.

When he found out he could enlist as a conscientious objector, he leapt.


Feb. 11, 1969: Pleiku, the Central Highlands.

Second Platoon, Company B, of the Fourth Infantry, is on the move again — and the bullets are snapping the air once more.

Charlie has been gunning for the company for three days straight.

“Medic!” and “I’m hit!” came the cries, and Bennett answered each time.

At just 5-foot-6, he wasn’t scraping any doorways at the PX.

He was a slight, pipe-cleaner of a guy, but still, he carried himself bigger.

Like a pulling guard on Pony Lewis Field, he’d lumber into the combat chaos and save a life.

And another, and another. He’d been like that his whole tour in Vietnam, and his officers were worried he was too quick on the draw.

By Feb. 11, that third day of skirmishes, incoming rounds and snipers, the wartime fates finally caught up with conscientious objector from Morgantown.

Another buddy had been hit, and the company, even dug in, could see from across the expanse it wasn’t good.

Sadly, if the kid wasn’t dead already — he was going to be.

The medic uncoiled. A sergeant yelled for him to hold up, but he waved him off.

Then he pitched over and down like a toppled statue — when the bullet bore into his forehead, just below the rim of his helmet.

In that one inexorable heartbreak, that one pulse of the trigger-pull and that one last overture of a beating heart that had been so full … everything that Tommy Bennett ever was, or ever was going be, was gone.

Just like that.

April 7, 1970: The White House

On the day of what would have been his 23rd birthday, Tom Bennett was posthumously recognized with the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest recognition for battlefield bravery.

Richard Nixon, a president just as defeated by Vietnam as his predecessor Johnson, was there.

Knowing her son’s conflicts over going to war, and his Pacifist proclivities, his mother at first didn’t want to even accept the medal — much less go to Washington.

Until she found out the chief petitioners for the bestowing were also going to be in attendance: the soldiers her son pulled to safety during three uneasy days in the Central Highlands.

George Bennett, as he recalled, was moved to his last full measure.

“I can’t describe to you how it feels when somebody looks you right in the eye and says, ‘Your brother saved my life.’”

‘That was Tom’

In 1980, Bonni McKeown, a WVU classmate of Bennett’s who went on to be a newspaper reporter before reinventing herself as a community activist and blues musician in Chicago, wrote a biography of him entitled, “Peaceful Patriot.”

The book had been out of print for years, but not out of mind at his high school alma mater.

Jenny Secreto, who teaches English to freshmen honors students at MHS, has long championed the account.

With the help of people who work in the industry, plus the blessing of the Bennett family, McKeown and support from the Morgantown High Foundation, the book was republished this spring.

Secreto’s students are just now getting to turn its pages.

“It’s starting to resonate,” their teacher said.

“I think it’s because Morgantown High is still here and it hasn’t really changed all that much,” Secreto continued.

“Tom walked the same hallways. He went to football games at Pony Lewis Field just like they are. He had dreams, just like they have dreams. He’s from where they’re from.”

McKeown is pretty sure she knows where her friend would be spiritually and emotionally residing, had he survived the war.

Bennett, the book-writer said, would probably be an activist-clergyman, given his allegiance to faith and the Family of Man.

“He’d still be trying to save people. That was Tom.”

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