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'Brother in arms': Veteran Brian Benesh receives Stark County Spirit of Excellence Award

Brian Benesh valiantly served his country as a combat medic in Vietnam. Years removed from the battlefields of the southeast Asian country, Benesh was recognized Thursday for his undying spirit of patriotism. For the past 27 years, Brian has taken on the task of placing an individual flag at every veteran’s gravestone for Memorial Day.

Renee and Brian Benesh
Renee Benesh stands with her husband Brian as he holds the Stark County Spirit of Excellence Award.
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press
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DICKINSON — Brian Benesh arrived on Thursday evening to the Stark County Veterans Pavilion and would leave as the newest inductee of the Stark County Spirit of Excellence Award.

Tricked into a "rushed trip to Walmart to buy cookies," he instead had to wait 45 minutes in the car so the organizers of the surprise award ceremony could stall him while getting everything prepared. Later, Benesh joked that his wife and daughter were in deep trouble for the ruse.

Vets Pavilion
Friends and members of the community wait for Brian Benesh and his family to arrive so they can surprise him with the Stark County Spirit of Excellence Award.
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press

The ceremony opened with a moving prayer from Deacon Bob Stockert of St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church. Kelsey Rodgers, a voice coach at Dickinson State University, sang “America the Beautiful.”

‘Kick ass and drive on’

Benesh served on the front lines of the Vietnam War as a combat medic from 1969-70. His daughter, Holly Bloodsaw of Dickinson, said his service was recognized with a Presidential Unit Citation for achieving a 98% survival rate for soldiers he treated. He also received a Vietnam Cross of Gallantry for showing valor, discipline and heroic conduct while fighting the enemy. Bloodsaw read excerpts from a poetic letter her father wrote about his service in 2012.

“I was a soldier once and young, and went where others would not go. I did what others would not do. I saw what others would not care to see. I accomplished what others deemed impossible,” the letter read.

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The deeply personal letter, penned by Benesh, chronicled the agony suffered in returning home to a country rife with anti-American sentiments and contempt for the service members who risked their lives to fight the evils of communism in Vietnam. She recalled a welcome home parade for a local soldier after Desert Storm when she was seven years old, and at the time didn’t understand why that was tough for her father. She noted that her father and fellow soldiers were flown into American airports at night so they’d be less likely to be seen.

Previous Spirit of Excellence Award winners
Dedicated philanthropy was recognized on Tuesday evening when a Dickinson woman was named the newest member of an exclusive and prestigious club — Stark County Spirit of Excellence Award winners.

“I returned home to a place that was no longer my home. I was scorned, sworn at, disrespected and distrusted by many. I returned to a country that refused to recognize me, ignored me, disowned me and totally rejected me. I had to fight hard for my rights, my benefits, identity, my self esteem, my self worth,” the letter reads. “Now 43 years later… I have survived all of the above. But you must remember, I will say with great pride, I was a soldier once and young.”

Benesh found a new calling as part of a personal healing process he began more than a quarter century ago when he made it his mission to ensure that the graves of every deceased American veteran in this area would be properly honored on Memorial Day. It was in this calling, 27 years ago, that Benesh began dispersing nearly 1,000 American flags to their resting places each year.

More than his personal healing journey, Benesh also spearheaded an initiative called ‘Adopt a Vet,’ which encouraged local residents to join in placing flowers on the graves of veterans, so that no sacrifice is left unappreciated. For 18 years he led and organized the local Veteran’s Day programming, passing that torch onto fellow veterans only last year due to health issues.

“I have understood for many years that the tradition of decorating the veterans graves for one day becoming the responsibility of myself and my children. And Dad, I can assure you, it will be done with the utmost respect and honor that you have always given it,” Bloodsaw said. “Dad you are the very definition of a hero in the way you carry yourself on a daily basis… We love you. We are proud of you. And for all the times you didn't hear it when you should have, welcome home. ”

Bloodsaw, who submitted her father for the award, follows in his footsteps of public service as a Stark County Sheriff’s Deputy. Today she serves as a school resource officer at Belfield and South Heart Public Schools and said she struggled through her police academy training, battling fears of letting herself and her family down.

Holly Bloodsaw
Holly Bloodsaw embraces her father after an emotional speech about his lifetime of service and sacrifice.
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press

“I received texts with words of encouragement several mornings from my dad. They were often small messages such as… ‘Let the stress go, you'll feel great,’ or ‘Kick Ass and drive on, it don't mean nothin,’ which have been my Dad's words of advice to me for as long as I can remember,” Bloodsaw recalled.

Friends become family

Stark County Veterans’ Service officer Jessica Clifton commended Benesh for the countless hours he has dedicated to veterans’ events and causes, always shying away from the spotlight.

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“When I've asked you for your help and your advice with the veterans events and programs, you’ve always mentioned, ‘But it should be done without the fanfare.’ Through your guidance and example, the veterans in our community have always been honored in the most humble and gracious way,” Clifton said. “I am grateful. I am blessed. And I'm humbled to call you my friend, my mentor, my brother in arms. You're a friend that has become my family.”

The winner of this award is selected by a committee consisting of the six mayors of Stark County. This one was presented by Dickinson Mayor Scott Decker, who himself served 21 years in the ND National Guard and U.S. Army — including a deployment to the Middle East during the first Gulf War.

“When this award came forward to us as mayors, I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving,” he said.

Scott Decker
Mayor Scott Decker thanks Brian Benesh for exemplary service to his country and his community.
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press

While presenting the award, he empathized with the Benesh family’s struggles during his post-war battles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“We've known each other for a few decades now… As veterans, sometimes we don't get to bring back exactly the same person that left. So it’s tough for families,” Decker said. “So, again, thank you so much for your service Brian. Thank you to Brian's family, for being on this journey with him and being that rock that he could fall back on. I'd like to also thank you for all the time you've spent in this community, making sure that veterans are never forgotten.”

Benesh thanked everyone for coming.

"I would ask that you remember the people that I do this for... Please, please do not ever forget our veterans," Benesh said, expressing gratitude to his family and the younger veterans who've helped continue his volunteer work. "My beautiful grandkids that are sitting here, acting decent for a change. And to everyone else thank you so very, very much. I appreciate everything. And I will continue to do what I'm doing until I cannot do it anymore."

The Spirit of Excellence Award was started by Dickinson Visitors Bureau Marketing Director Julie Obrigewitsch in 2021 to recognize exceptional leadership, customer service, stewardship and random acts of kindness throughout Stark County. The nomination deadline for the next award is December 15.

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Benesh family
Brian Benesh with his wife Renee, daughter Holly, and three grandchildren Quintin, Lilly and Eli.
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press
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Jason O’Day is a University of Iowa graduate, with Bachelor’s Degrees in Journalism and Political Science. Before moving to Dickinson in September of 2021, he was a general news reporter at the Creston News Advertiser in southwest Iowa. He was born and raised in Davenport, Iowa. With a passion for the outdoors and his Catholic faith, he’s loving life on the Western Edge. His reporting focuses on Stark County government and surrounding rural communities.
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