A new battle: 4th Fighter Wing Staff Sgt. Ben Seekell fights to face a new life
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on June 19, 2011 1:50 AM
Staff Sgt. Ben Seekell stands up from his wheelchair to talk to his daughter Kayla, 5, behind their temporary home at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Seekell, a 4th Fighter Wing Security Forces Squadron dog handler, has been at Walter Reed since losing the lower part of his left leg in an explosion in Afghanistan.
Staff Sgt. Ben Seekell poses with his Military Working Dog Charlie, also injured in the blast, though not as severely.
WASHINGTON -- He considers himself one of the lucky ones -- the young father of three whose life was forever changed more than a month ago just outside the Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, perimeter.
He rejects the notion that he is heroic or special -- that the moment he stepped on an Improvised Explosive Device marked a sacrifice any greater than those made by the men and women he longs to resume serving alongside.
If anything, it's almost as if Staff Sgt. Ben Seekell sees his injury as a personal failure -- a setback that could somehow jeopardize the mission it forced him to leave behind; something that might further endanger the lives of those left to fill the void created when he and his Military Working Dog were removed from combat.
So as the airman works through the recovery and rehabilitation process at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he remains committed -- determined -- to getting back to the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base kennel -- and to the desert.
And his thoughts stay fixated on the place he feels he still should be -- and those comrades, like Staff Sgt. Franklin Walton and Military Working Dog Rudo, "still jobbing it."
"I worry about him. He's there doing the job that I left by himself now," Ben said. "So I lost my foot. It's kind of a bummer. But I'm going back. I'm not ready to call it quits."
It was nearly midnight May 7 when a woman approached the Seekell's front door and asked the airman's wife, Meagan, to step outside.
Several military spouses -- and Ben's commander -- were waiting on the porch.
"I knew right away that something was wrong," Meagan said. "I think the words that came out of my mouth were, 'Is he alive or is he dead?'"
But their response did little to comfort the woman who had just put three young children to sleep inside.
"They said, 'He is OK,' but said they didn't know anything else. It was really difficult," she said. "I'm thinking, 'They are just trying to keep me calm. It's probably a lot worse than they're saying.'"
And it would be several hours before more information would be disseminated down the chain of command.
Meagan described it as "hell."
Thousands of miles away, her husband was recovering from his first surgery at a base in Afghanistan.
A "routine" mission had gone awry.
Ben and his dog, Charlie, were on a patrol just outside Bagram when a member of their team stepped on a land mine.
"We took cover. We're looking around trying to figure it out," he said. "We didn't know if it was a grenade, a rocket ... so we all dove into ditches, so to speak.
"But it was kind of quiet after that, so we decided just to cut our losses and go back (to the base). I mean, there's no point. We've got an injured guy."
So with a navigator and spotter by their side, Ben and Charlie made their way back toward Bagram.
"I got to about 15 to 20 feet away from the wall and there is a ravine," he said. "So I told the two guys I was with, 'You all go ahead. I'll cover you.' They went down one by one and there was no problem. Then it was my turn."
Ben had no idea that a few seconds later, a blast would change his life.
"There was an explosion underneath me. It kind of blew me up in the air a little bit," he said. "I fell back down -- landed on my chest -- and when I rolled over, I felt a sensation of pressure in my legs.
"I was worried at first that I had lost both of them, but when I looked down, I saw my right foot first. I thought, 'Man, maybe this isn't so bad.' Then I looked at my left foot. It was just a mess down there."
But for a moment, he was more worried about the comrade he had been holding until just before he hit the ground.
"The first thing I said was, 'Where's Charlie? Is he OK?'" Ben said, choking up. "I mean, he's my dog. He's my partner.
"He was definitely a little anxious. I mean it's a loud explosion. His eardrums got blown out and he picked up some shrapnel in his hind quarters ... but he was doing a lot better than I was."
So with the knowledge that Charlie would likely recover from his wounds, the airman turned his focus back to his own plight.
But the team was only equipped with one litter and it was already being used to haul the man injured by the first blast.
So Ben started crawling.
"I knew I had to get out of there," he said.
And he simply wasn't willing to allow one of his comrades to endanger themselves by retrieving him.
"Then I saw somebody's hand reached out," the airman said. "So I grabbed it."
When he finally got out of the ravine, Ben began to assess his injuries.
"I knew I wasn't going to die from losing a leg, but I was worried about the bleeding," he said.
So he pulled out his tourniquet and had another man tie it on before the team continued toward the 12-foot concrete barriers guarding the base they had been operating out of since March.
"I had one guy under each arm and I was trying to use my good leg to help walk. After a while, though ... I just had them set me down," Ben said. "I don't know whether it was from the loss of blood or just the shock, but I started getting dizzy. But the whole time, the guys are talking to me -- doing a really great job."
Moments later, the injured airman would be in an ambulance and on his way to the hospital.
"When I got there, they told me I was gonna make it," he said. "That's always nice to hear."
Hours after the knock at her door, Meagan got to hear Ben's voice.
And by that time, she had gotten more information about his injury -- that her husband "had only lost his left foot."
"I say, 'only,' because that is something we can go on living our lives with," she said. "Right then, I felt at peace about it. I said, 'We can do this. We can handle this.'"
Their children, though, still had no idea what their father was up against.
And they wouldn't, Meagan said, until her mother arrived to help soften the blow.
"We left it on their level. I started with, 'You know Dad's in the desert?' They said, 'Yes.' I said, 'Well Dad got a boo-boo,'" she said.
Her 5-year-old daughter, Kayla, wanted more information.
"Her first question was, 'Will Daddy need crutches?' I said, 'Yeah. Daddy will need crutches,'" Meagan said. "Then she asked, 'Will Daddy need bandages?' I said, 'Yes. Daddy will need bandages.'"
But it would be several weeks before they would get to look into their father's eyes.
Meagan thought it would be best if she welcomed Ben "home" on her own.
And then she got to see his face.
"It was just a load off my shoulders. I felt so much better," she said. "Once I got here, they were great at getting me in -- at pushing me through the doctors to see him. And I have never had to leave his side."
So when the children finally stepped into his room, the couple were prepared for whatever their reaction might be.
"But they did well. It was really nice that they didn't come in and stop and stare -- like they were afraid. I was a little worried about that," Ben said. "I mean, they took a second look, but, to be honest, they were just glad we were together again as a family. And now they just want to see what it looks like -- my 'robot leg.'"
Next week, they will get their chance.
"I can't wait," Ben said. "It's not even so much about walking. I just want to be able to stand on my own two feet again."
Leaving the Air Force has never crossed the airman's mind -- not when he lay bleeding at the bottom of that ravine; not when he woke up to see that his foot had been amputated; not when he watches other Walter Reed patients with injuries far worse than his own struggle.
"Maybe if I had a desk job," Ben said, smiling. "But I love what I do too much."
It isn't just about the brotherhood forged during long deployments -- the family dynamic he says comes with being a member of the Security Forces community.
And it's not about the satisfaction that accompanies fighting for a cause.
For Ben, getting back to work is mostly about the best friend at the end of his leash.
"There's nothing like the bond between a handler and a dog. I mean, I stepped on a mine and my first thought is, 'Is my dog OK?' It's funny, you know?" he said. "He can't talk back but I talk to him. When we're deployed, we sleep in the same room. He's like a son or a brother. He's always there.
"So I'm going to press ... so I can go home to him. The sooner, the better."
And if the military decides to retire Military Working Dog Charlie, his home, Ben said, won't be too far removed from the Seymour Johnson kennel.
"Maybe he'll get better to the point where he can work again, but in my eyes, he's paid his due. He's served his country. He's done his duty," the airman said. "He deserves to come home -- to a real home -- and that's exactly what we're gonna give him.
"So I know I'm going to get tired -- it's basically learning to walk again -- but I'm gonna move as fast as I can so I can get back there to him."