JAN. 16, 2016 / JORDAN VINSON
He was a dear friend, with a bushy gray mustache, a low, warm, cavernous voice and a stupendous sense of humor. He was a father, grandfather, husband and brother, a sweetheart of a man and one of the kindest, most generous and funniest Roi Rats to grace the small community with his presence. He was a Navy Veteran and a radar engineer, whose work was integral to the Reagan Test Site’s Kiernan Re-entry Measurement Site. He was an avid scuba diver and licensed fireworks explosives tech with a flair for photography, both underwater and on land.
He was that and much more. He was Jim Bennett, and he will be dearly missed. Roi residents woke Monday morning to the news that Bennett had passed away in his sleep. He was 67. He is survived by his sons Kevin and Jason, his grandchildren Addison and Matthew and siblings David, Regina, Robert and Judy. Shaken, members of the Kwajalein and Roi communities paid their respects at several events on both islands early this week. Roi rats gathered at the Outrigger Monday evening to grieve and console one another and celebrate Bennett’s life with stories about the man. Installation residents, led by American Legion Post 44, saluted Bennett Wednesday morning, draped an American flag over his remains and travelled together to Bucholz Army Airfield to transfer him to the plane that took him back to family and friends in the States. Wednesday night, Chaplain Steve Munson and Roi resident Laura Pasquarella-Swain hosted a memorial service for Bennett at the Trade Winds Theater. There, U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll Command staff joined Bennett’s TRADEX colleagues and dozens of Roi and Kwaj friends to share and hear personal stories of Bennett, stories of how he lit up each and every one of their lives.
“When I think of Jim, I think of three words: drinking, stealing and lying,” Reagan Test Site Range Director. Lt. Col. Humberto Jones told the crowd at the theater. “Jim drank from the fountain of love for his fellow man. He stole. He stole the moment every day to do something for each and every one of us. And he lied. As he lied down every night, he thanked God almighty that he was a member of one of the greatest teams that anybody put together. You know, the Roi team, the TRADEX team, the Kwajalein Atoll team, we’re pretty impressive. And you can see the love right here by your presence to say farewell to Jim. … Jim, we know you’re up there. Thank you so much for touching each and every one of us. We love you. We will see each other again.”
A resident of Roi for the past six years, Bennett worked as a receiver antenna engineer at TRADEX, contributing decades of knowledge to the radar’s team, placing his team’s safety above everything else and improving the sensor site’s workflows. Kwaj resident Johnathon McClellan, a fellow receiver antenna engineer at TRADEX, worked alongside Bennett. He emphasized the impact of Bennett’s sudden absence on the TRADEX team.
“I feel fortunate to be able to say that I’ve had the unique pleasure of working with Jim on a daily basis for the last couple of years,” McClellan wrote via email. “He was one of the most kind-hearted, quirky, hardworking and genuine individuals that I’ve ever met. Jim’s expertise spanned many fields, and I feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to learn so much from him, personally and professionally. His passing came as a shock, but it’s exactly as he would’ve wanted it—to have been loved and surrounded by his friends right up until the end. Even though it’s painful now, I’m glad that my life was one of the many that Jim touched.”
Reading from an email from Rick Saggers, one of Bennett’s old co-workers at Motorola in the U.S., Roi resident and friend Jerry Baxter highlighted Bennett’s unrelenting work ethic.
“I remember one of his anniversary celebrations at Motorola, he didn’t show up at the cafeteria at the appropriate hour,” Baxter read. “We went back to the lab and found him discussing an installation problem with someone in the field. After a couple of attempts to get him to hang up, we finally disconnected the telephone from the wall jack and started pushing him in his office chair down the hallway toward the cafeteria. He was one dedicated, hardworking individual. We will all miss him.”
But Bennett was far more than a radar engineer. He was a social engineer who knew how to find common ground with a diverse range of individuals and make connections that went far deeper than simple niceties and small talk. Want a pick-me-up during a bad day? Go see Jim Bennett, his friends said this week.
“I guess it finally sank in this morning, in the pouring rain, at the spot on the road where I would pass Jim Bennett every morning,” friend Brandi Mueller wrote on Facebook Thursday. “He would have smiled and waved, even though he was soaked, and it would force me to smile too, at 6:30 in the morning, as rain was pounding us both. It made me think about how much he gave to all of us, Nonstop smiles and jokes, always brightening whatever day we were having. We should all strive to share that sort of positivity with the world around us.”
A born raconteur, Bennett had a gift for gab and making others laugh and feel special. Whether he told you a story about his days as a pyrotechnic, a lewd joke, some photography tips he’d picked up recently or the number of computer programming languages his sons knew, you’d often walk away having learned something interesting about him, about life and maybe even about yourself. Roi resident Bo Dearmon, who often ate lunch with Bennett attested to that.
“We were sitting over at the old fart’s table one day,” Dearmon said Wednesday. “We were sitting there, and I went up and got me some cake, and I got some chocolate ice cream and mixed it all up in there. And I came back and I sat down. And Jim says, ‘Bo, it looks like your cake took a crap.’ I didn’t bat an eye, and I said, ‘Yeah, Jim, but that’s alright. I’m a trained professional. I’m a certified waste water operator.’ And he about fell off of his chair laughing. He was one of those people who liked it when you came back at him with all those kind of things.”
Kwaj resident Jon Sok and Roi resident Todd Gowen also picked up on Bennett’s wit and ability to build personal bridges with anyone immediately after meeting him. It was something you couldn’t escape—or want to—they said.
“I met Jim when he was a patient of mine at the dental clinic,” Sok said. “When I first met him … he had an NRA hat on. We started chatting about guns, God, family. The nurses left the room, cancelled the next patient, and we became fast friends. So anytime we had Jim on the schedule, they had to do a sweep after him for about an hour, because they knew that he and I would just gab. He was always a highlight. And I’ll remember him for that always.” Gowen echoed Sok’s sentiment.
“One of the first things you would do when you first come to a new island to start a job as your vocation, is you go and you meet the people you talk to,” Gowen said. “You meet your customers. It’s a good thing to put a face with somebody. Except with Jim. I went off and met him. He greeted me. He was super friendly. He showed me everything he was working on. He showed me the history of it, how it was going. Two hours later, I was still there, and all I wanted to do was say, ‘Hi.’ But I was entertained. He made connections with me. He found the little bits of common ground. He found those little connections and found them in not only myself but anybody he talked to.”
Bennett was a sentimental and loving man. His wife Barbara had passed away 11 years prior, but he brought her along with him wherever he went, with some of her ashes tucked away into a little vial he kept in his pocket at all times—even while scuba diving.
“I remember a story about Jim losing the vial on a dive one day near the Gardens at Eighth Island,” Roi resident Sandra Garrison wrote via email. “The next day some other divers went to the same area and found the little vial in the coral! Considering how tiny the vial was and how big the Gardens area is, it really amazing.” It was a story Bennett loved to tell.
Bennett not only loved his wife and family deeply, but also encouraged others to go out and love others as much as they could. Bennett drew a parallel between his affection for his wife and others’ love for each other. Friend Rachael Shidler looks fondly on those words of encouragement, she said.
“Anytime I saw him he’d always give me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek and make sure that life was good,” Shidler said. “He was always the first one to ask me to dance at the bar when we were having a good time. He was always telling everyone, especially me, to always love and dance as much as you can. I’m going to miss him.”
Kwajalein residents Melissa Oliver and Paul Haislip were constantly goaded by Bennett to not delay and go ahead and tie the knot, Oliver said. It’s something they can now say they’re moving quickly toward, and it’s news that Bennett was thrilled to receive shortly before his passing.
“When Paul came along and our love grew, Jim would always ask when we were going to get married,” Oliver wrote via email. “He would playfully hit Paul in the arm and tell him he’d better hurry up and marry me. He told us about his love for his wife and how they had so many wonderful years together. He grieved over her and wished for more time with her. He was very happy when he heard we were engaged and hugged me when he saw me. I was able to tell him last month that we had narrowed the time of our wedding to October, and he was very excited. He told me he hoped we will be as happy as he and his wife were.”
In addition to playing cupid, Bennett was known on Roi as someone the community could depend on. He’d often lend out his tools and other belongings. You might have to listen to a 30-minute instructional session by Bennett and get an itemized tour of everything he’d made with the tool before checking it out, but he’d gladly lend it out. He’d take countless photos for everyone at the island’s parties and community events, giving them out as keepsakes and mementos and passing them off to the Kwajalein Hourglass. He’d fix people’s jewelry out of the kindness of his heart and do a better job than a paid professional. In the end, if one had to define Bennett’s legacy on Roi, it would be one of constant giving. Whether it was a classic “dad” joke to chuckle at during lunch or a sewing machine to borrow to make Christmas stockings; an idea to improve operations at TRADEX or a warm face to smile back at during a rainy bike ride to work—or a reason to reach out and love like there’s no tomorrow—Bennett’s existence centered on the act of giving, and that act of giving touched the lives of everyone around him. His sudden absence has now left behind a void on Roi-Namur, a void that community members will overcome and fill with the fond memories they have of Bennet, Chaplain Steve Munson said Wednesday.
During a conversation with family back in the States, Munson had to explain a bit about the type of person who moves to the Marshalls to advance USAG-KA’s and the Space and Missile Defense Command’s missions. His explanation was revealing.
“Someone asked me back home, ‘What are these people like on Kwaj and on Roi?’ And I said to them: ‘Have you ever watched the old Western movies where the pioneers go west?’ I said, ‘These are the rugged people that go west, and when something happens, they just dig deep, suck it up and move on.’ I said, ‘They’re kind of like Soldiers that I’ve met that have gone through difficulty, who know how to deal with life and just choose to march on and make the best of things.’ People that come here … to this part of the world are a little different than everyone else.”
Indeed. Jim Bennett was a little different than everyone else. As we continue onward, he will be truly missed and never forgotten.