Tom Bennett grew up on Chappaquiddick and in Edgartown, and served as a medic in the U.S. Air Force. He provides assistance for veterans at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.
I spent the first three to four years of my life on Chappaquiddick, and we moved over to Edgartown. I grew up in Edgartown, went to school there, and went to the regional high school and graduated in 1964. My family have been here a while, and I’m glad to be back. It’s my home, and I love this place.
I was going to go to [college] for a while, but I ended up not doing that, and joining on Feb. 2, 1965, [when] I went into the service, I believe it was.
I couldn’t afford to go to college. There was no work on the Island after Christmas. I worked on a farm. I was unemployed, I didn’t have enough money to really pay for tuition, and my parents couldn’t afford to help me, and I knew that if I didn’t go, I was going to get drafted anyway. I asked my uncle, who’d been in the service, which branch was the best one to go into to get an education for something, and he said the Air Force. So I joined the Air Force. Went up to Boston, got sworn in, and headed off to Lackland Air Force Base for basic training.
I served four years in the Air Force. I was a medic, and I served stateside medical air evac when I first went to Andrews Air Force Base [in Maryland]. I worked taking the wounded off the planes and taking them to our hospitals in the area — there was Bethesda Naval Hospital, Walter Reed Hospital, and the big Air Force hospital, Malcolm Grow Hospital. So I did that, and that was probably one of the most impactful things I did in my service — medical air evacuation as a medic.
When I left medical air evac, I served in the hospital working with some of the wounded there as well. I was then sent over to Turkey, where I spent a year and a half. The last six months of my work was as an independent duty medic in Izmir, Turkey. We [had] 500 men, and I ran the dispensary and took care of the guys up there for the last six months of my stay. I got out Jan. 2, 1969. But before I got to Andrews Air Force Base, where I did medical air evac of the wounded, I was stationed in Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, and I was sent to Gunter Air Force Base for medical training, and that was in Montgomery, Ala. Martin Luther King and the others marched from Selma to Montgomery while I was there, in Montgomery. So that was an experience, too, that kind of woke up this Island boy to what’s going on in our country.
Two and a half years, mostly at Andrews Air Force Base, where I did the medical air evac and I worked in the hospital in the different departments. Then I was given orders to go overseas, and back then, Greece and Turkey almost went to war while I was there. The whole place was put into preparation for war. We had to blacken the windows at the hospital where I was working. It was really something. Headlights were all blackened, and they had big howitzers right by the harbor ready, and people standing by. But then Cyrus Vance flew in from our government and settled the dispute between Greece and Turkey, and that didn’t happen.
It was over Cyprus, the island of Cyprus. We had to evacuate all dependents out of Izmir, out of Turkey actually. So they sent the fleet in, they all got on board and they were gone, and then just the rest of us were left there. It was a little hairy.
So, I spent … just a month short of four years, and I got out of the service, came back home, spent a year traveling trying to figure out where I wanted to go in life … I got out on Jan. 2, ’69, and I took a year off. I worked for a while on the Island doing manual labor, and a friend of mine and myself decided to just go to Europe and find a place where we could hang out. We were lost on what we wanted to do with our lives after the service. I was, anyway. One of the things that happened in the Vietnam War was [when] veterans came back, they were treated badly. They were blamed for being in an unpopular war, and [people] took it out on the veterans. We were told to take our uniforms off when we got back to the States, because we didn’t want to be accosted. People were spitting on the veterans as they were walking out of the gates, and there were all kinds of protests. Veterans were just treated very badly by the rest of the civilian population. Remember, one of the things that happens when someone serves the country, and especially when they have to go into combat and risk their live, is that the healing from that comes from the people back home, who put them on a pedestal and thank them for serving and saving them from being taken over by the enemy, or anything that had to do with ruining our country. But that didn’t happen. There were protests, there was actually a lot of racial tension. There were riots. Watts burned. There were cities that were lit on fire because of the racism that was going on in the country. It was a hard time, the ’60s, especially the late ’60s … early ’70s there was a lot of racial tension in the country, and a lot of real painful memories for me and most of the veterans who came back, because we’ve just been off serving our country, and we were being blamed.
It was really just a wound to an entire generation of males, because if you didn’t join, you were drafted, and a lot of people were sent into combat, where they saw horrific things. I mean, just my working with the wounded affected me and impacted my life, because I saw what happens in war, and I took care of those wounded veterans, and that was hard for me. But to be sent over there in harm’s way and have to come home and be treated like that by the people you were fighting for is a trauma in itself. It’s almost like a double trauma. It really is.
I was lucky. The risk is I could have been sent over there and been taken out. We lost a number of Islanders to the wars.
I took care of veterans in the service, and when I look back now, I realize … I’m still a medic taking care of veterans, even to this day, in a way. I’m still taking guys and women who have served their country. It gives meaning to my life. That’s why I’m still doing it at my age.
[When I got back], I got a job at [Martha’s Vineyard] Community Services, and started out working hotlines for people who were involved with drugs back then — 1970 is actually when I came here to work. I went from being the coordinator of the volunteers running the drug hotlines to running the project program itself, that was called the Summer Project. And then I also started working at the youth center, and I went on to begin the Daybreak Program here at Community Services, and I ran the mental health center for 20 years. I was the director of the mental health center. And then, finally, I became the associate executive director of the agency, and I was working in different departments here, being supervision, basically. But my first time working with a veteran was back in 1970 — I remember a Marine came in and was struggling with PTSD, which we didn’t know was post-traumatic stress disorder back then, came into my office and broke down. I can still remember that. It was tough.
I ended up taking over a group that was started by some veterans in the community — Woody Williams was one of them, Jeff Baker was another one — called the Rap Group. They realized that they needed a leader because it was hard for them to deal with some of the emotions and things that were coming up. I ended up taking over the group in 1984, and I think it was 1986 where we got a contract with [Veteran Affairs]. I’ve been working with veterans ever since 1984, as a major part of my caseload. All through the years, I ran the counseling center. I also had a caseload of clients that I saw as a therapist. I’m still seeing veterans and running the group today.
I would serve if I had to do it again. I think it’s important to serve your country, community, in some capacity. I’m a big proponent of national service for our young people. Not necessarily military — that could be one choice. Something to give back, to understand this isn’t free. None of this is free. A lot of people have died to make it so you and I can sit here and I can say whatever is on my mind. I don’t think that’s a conscious theme in this country like it should be. We also need to know our history, and that’s being lost. That’s a part of, what could be a part of this training. The real history and power has progressed. Even though we’re far from perfect, we keep working to make it better.
[Veterans] give a lot to me, more than they can ever know. They give back to me.
[Working with veterans] gives meaning in life … Other things do as well, of course: my family, my boys, my grandchildren. But this gives me something I can do for others, my community, my country.
There were things about the military I wasn’t crazy about. I’m not a guy who’s “militaristic.” I’m more of a guy who wants to help people and treat people and be a good medic. I’m not into being in charge of people, and giving orders, and that kind of thing. A lot of that was not my cup of tea, but I adapted and adjusted to it because that’s how the military works, and it was a part of the mission to take orders. So that’s what I had to do, and that’s what everybody has to do if you want to get through the military. And it worked out. I met some really good people in the military. Some of the finest people I’ve ever met, I’ve met in the military. I’m still in contact with some of my old friends from the military.
I didn’t want to make it a career. I’m not a “military guy,” if you know what I mean. But I wanted to continue to serve my community, and I wanted to contribute. And I wanted to come home. I wanted to come home to the Island and my community, and the people I know: my family, people I care about. But it wasn’t easy. It was not an easy transition. It was very difficult to go from, pretty much, a very structured environment to a totally unstructured lifestyle. That’s one of the adjustments people have to make when they come back from the military. They have to find their way, to feel like they have a mission or purpose to do something that’s worthwhile. They had that in the military, because the mission is to serve and protect. But as a civilian, you have to find it in your life.
I was a sergeant in the Air Force, and I was chosen to be an independent duty medic, so I was successful in what I did. I really liked what I was doing with the patients, a lot. I was on call 24/7 when I was in the service, and then I came back and I was on call for almost the past 40 years here, so it’s been a part of my makeup — to be available to people.
I just hope people realize how important it is to support their veterans in this community, and I hope they’ll do that.
Interview by Eunki Seonwoo.