ASHEBORO — Larry Bennett went from centerfield to the battlefield. It was the height of the Vietnam War when the Army sent him to Southeast Asia.
For his service, Bennett was invited to join a Flight of Honor for veterans to Washington, DC, on Oct. 12.
Bennett had been a star athlete at Seagrove High School with special skills on the baseball diamond. He could have played college ball but chose to enlist rather than being drafted.
“I asked the recruiter if I could have a choice of where I went if I enlisted,” Bennett said from his home east of Asheboro. When told that the possibility was pretty good, he signed up, listing Hawaii and Germany as his top options.
“I was stationed in Hawaii (at the famed Schofield Barracks) and played baseball for the Army,” he said. “We traveled a lot.”
That idealic posting came to an end in August of 1965, when the Army decided to close Schofield and send the troops to disparate locations. Bennett’s new home was about 30 miles south of Saigon.
“It was hot and there was no air-conditioning because we were living in tents,” he said. Added to that was a commanding officer who saw Bennett, then with a rank of E-4, as a forward observer. “This is your chance to move to E-5,” Bennett was told, which would make him a sergeant.
Forward observers, or FOs, took a few men out at night looking for Vietcong forces, who were known for their sudden strikes on US military bases. Bennett’s job was to locate the VC for counterattacks.
“We went on a troop carrier and they let us out,” he said. “It was always a challenge to figure out where we were. A lot of FOs got hurt or killed.
“It was nerve-wracking, in areas you know nothing about,” said Bennett, who wore a night scope to see. “I tried to be as protective as I could, go in a helicopter if I could, think ahead. Guys wanted to go with us,” he added, noting that “it was rewarding that they thought that of me. It was probably the most important job” in Vietnam.
Bennett also spent time in Cambodia. He said he and his guys rode there in a helicopter and had to jump out still four feet from the ground. When he asked the pilot to land, the answer was, “‘There might be mines.’ I guess the helicopter was more important than we were.”
Bennett was discharged from the Army in 1966, having been awarded the Bronze Star. “I guess I earned that (sergeant’s) stripe,” he joked.
He returned to Randolph County and in 1967 married Faye Edwards, a Franklinville girl he had been dating. Together they had four children and Bennett worked for a number of years with Rampon, moving to South Carolina and back to Greensboro before buying the home Faye was raised in.
Bennett will turn 80 in December but still drives a van for RCATS and umpires softball games. In fact, he’s been a sports official for 53 years.
Son-in-law Jimmy Simpson was Bennett’s companion on the Flight of Honor. Being in “pretty good health,” the two were able to see more than most of the veterans, many in wheelchairs. Bennett was especially impressed at the changing of the guard at Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Even more impressive to him was the return to Greensboro's Piedmont Triad International Airport. "I was shocked coming into Greensboro airport," Bennett said. "There were maybe 200 people singing and hollering (to welcome the veterans back). It was really great. I didn't expect it, that people would come out at that time of night.
"We got to see a lot,” he said. “It was great. The Vietnam Memorial (with the names of more than 58,000 killed in action) was pretty sad. All those names and I’m still here.”