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MILITARY DEATHS

Navy Special Warfare Operator Petty Officer 1st Class Darrik Benson dies at 28; SEAL was killed in downing of helicopter in Afghanistan

Darrik Benson planned to reenlist for four more years and then leave the military, and he hoped to become a flight instructor. He leaves behind a 2-year-old son.

August 28, 2011|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • When his grandmother asked whether his job was tough, Darrik Benson would shrug off the deployments, the fear, the uncertainty, saying only, Its not so bad.
When his grandmother asked whether his job was tough, Darrik Benson would… (unknown )

It seems as if Darrik Benson, 28, had always wanted to be a Navy SEAL.

There was no real logic to it. His father was not a military man. His grandfather was, but he was a pilot, serving with the Army during World War II. Benson grew up inland in Angwin, a small community at the northern end of the Napa Valley.

He also hated the water.

His grandmother remembers seeing the boy standing beside her backyard pool when he was 4 years old. He just stared at the other kids, she said, unwilling to take a dip. "He didn't want to get in over his belly button," Claudia Benson said.

So she threw him in.

Pretty soon, he learned to swim. Then he got his plastic SEAL action figures, and it was all over.

Years later, after he had graduated from St. Helena High School in 2001 and joined the Navy, buddies asked Benson where he had learned to swim so well.

"My grandma taught me," he said. It was their joke.

Benson had talked his best friend, Dylan McDaniel — the one who fixed cars with him and took his sister to the prom — into joining the Navy too.

They enlisted through the Navy's buddy program, which kept them together during basic training in Great Lakes, Ill., and further training in Pensacola, Fla. McDaniel didn't want to be a SEAL, though, so in 2002 they parted ways.

Benson was one of 19 SEALs to graduate from a class of about 140, his grandmother said. She was there to see the graduation in Coronado.

Benson, a Navy special warfare operator petty officer 1st class, did not talk much about his work, his grandmother said. Like other SEALs, he learned to keep his job to himself.

"Isn't it kind of tough?" his grandmother would ask. Benson would shrug off the deployments, the fear, the uncertainty, saying only, "It's not so bad."

Before long, Benson met Kara Nakamura, who would become his girlfriend, in San Diego. Two and a half years ago the couple had a son, Landon. They settled in Virginia, where Benson was based.

After that, "he was more afraid going overseas, what might happen," his grandmother said.

Benson came home on leave last year from a deployment to Afghanistan and spent time with his family. He got his commercial pilot's instrument rating and talked to his father, Fred Benson, about his hope of becoming a flight instructor.

His plan was to reenlist for four more years, then leave the military, said the elder Benson, an administrator in a convalescent home.

In June, when Darrik Benson headed back to Afghanistan, he carried one of Landon's toy airplanes with him, as he always did, tucked in his pack.

On Aug. 6 Benson was among 30 U.S. service members, including many SEALs, who died when their Chinook helicopter was shot down over Wardak province.

Among items recovered in the wreckage was a small plastic airplane.

Dylan McDaniel heard the news while deployed aboard the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan. Soon after, he switched his Facebook profile picture to an old black-and-white snapshot of himself with Benson. The friends are arm-in-arm, both sporting reflective shades.

Benson's father flew to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to witness the arrival of his son's casket, along with those of others killed in the helicopter crash.

There were dignitaries seated near him, and some SEALs. To Fred Benson, it all seemed unreal. "You just get numb after a while," he said. "It's just so many people. So much pain."

Benson had wanted to be buried in a military cemetery, Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego. His father will follow his wishes. He has never been there, but looked it up online.

"It's a beautiful place," he said.

Benson's funeral is set for Monday in Coronado. His family has planned a memorial service in Angwin in November, when the rest of his SEAL team is scheduled to return.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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