Editor's note: As we look back on the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, we are profiling local soldiers who have been involved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts that can be seen as a response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Looking through a 2001 Newton North yearbook, many of Cassandra Benes’ fellow classmates may not know – or even suspect – that she joined the Army.
They also may not know she’s served as a medic during tours in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, and is a recipient of the Purple Heart.
“I think a lot of [my former classmates] would be surprised,” says Benes, 28. “I know I surprised my family when I told them…I don’t think I came off as the type that would join the military.”
According to Benes’ uncle, Steve O’Brien, Benes is only the second woman in Massachusetts to receive the Purple Heart.
Benes, who is now stationed at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, received the honor after her unit was ambushed in January 2010. The truck Benes was in took a hit from multiple rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) and sustained heavy damage.
Along with three other occupants in the truck, Benes sustained cuts, bruises and other injuries during the attack. The group also had trouble breathing as they tried to get out of the area, as the attack caused the fire suppression system inside the truck to go off, creating a heavy inhalent out of fiery retardant solution.
After the attack, Benes says she was flown via Blackhawk helicopter to the ICU at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Benes stayed in the hospital in Afghanistan for a couple weeks before being released back out into the field. Four months later, she finished her tour and returned to the states.
Now, more than a year after the attack, Benes says she is still undergoing some treatment for her injuries, including multiple surgeries on her sinus walls and cavities. Just last week, doctors put in a nerve block to relieve some pressure in her head as they work to figure out a way to prevent nerves in her head from being crushed by bone.
“Later on down the road, [the doctors] will put a balloon in to try to block some nerve feeling on the side,” Benes explains.
During her time in Afghanistan, the Newton native worked as a medic with Company C, 704th Brigade Support Battalion. Working as a medic, she says, is a career she had not planned on, but quickly learned to love.
“Just to be able to help someone and see their expression...knowing that I helped someone out,” is what Benes says keeps her going as a medic.
But Benes' deployment to Afghanistan was not her first. In 2007, Benes was sent to Iraq for a seven-month tour, during which time she was awarded the Combat Medical Badge.
As Benes’ mother explains, the 28-year-old Army sergeant has “seen stuff most women never see.”
“As a mom, you just couldn’t be any prouder of a kid when they do something that’s so selfless,” says Cassandra’s mother Susan Benes. “She’s really done well in her life.”
After graduating from in 2001, Cassandra pursued some classes at Mass. Bay Community College and worked as a waitress at Woodland Country Club. But after a while, Cassandra says she decided she didn’t want to be a waitress for the rest of her life.
Susan says her family was “shocked” when a young Cassandra announced she was going into the Army. The news, she said, just “came out of nowhere.”
But Cassandra says joining the military is something she’s always wanted to do, and according to her mother, Cassandra is the fourth generation on her father’s side to serve in the Army and in war.
Her father, Richard, served during the Vietnam War and is also a recipient of the Purple Heart. However, his Purple Heart, medals and much of his Army gear was lost on his trip back to the States from Vietnam.
Now, Cassandra says her Purple Heart belongs to her father.
“To me, it’s a piece of metal with a little ribbon. I think it meant a lot more to him,” Cassandra says.
Even before she gave the award to her father, Susan remembers walking into her daughter’s apartment and seeing all her military medals and awards on display – all but the Purple Heart.
The honor, Susan says, is one that is “bittersweet,” and despite the family’s obvious pride, it is something that they rarely spoke about after Cassandra called home with the news.
“We were just so grateful she was alive.”