Sunday, March 25, 2007

Benjamin Sebban remembered

It happens every time a U.S. soldier or Marine dies in Iraq.

The bad news immediately spreads across the base like wildfire, and in the troop recreation centers, Internet connections are shut down.

Plans are made within hours for a memorial service, but commanders don't want word of the death to reach the soldier's family before military officials can personally deliver the news.

That knock on the family door cannot come before 6 a.m. or after 10 p.m. But once it's made, military commanders lift the electronic blockade back in Iraq, and a torrent of e-mails flows from the battlefield to the dead soldier's family in America as they begin planning the funeral.

The practice of military commanders sending personal letters to the families of fallen troops dates at least to the Civil War. But in an era when deployed soldiers can maintain MySpace pages, families have immediate access to a digital community of former comrades offering condolences, stories and even glimpses into a loved one's final hours.

This is exactly what happened a week ago, after Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Sebban, a senior combat medic in the 82nd Airborne Division who grew up in South Amboy, was killed by an explosion while tending to wounded paratroopers in Iraq.

Sebban, 29, died in the early evening of March 17, a Saturday, in Baquba, which is seven hours ahead of New Jersey time. By 6 p.m. here, the phone rang in the casualty assistance office at Fort Monmouth.

Three hours later, a chaplain and two officers arrived at Sebban's mother's home in Neshanic Station. Then, almost immediately after the visit, came a tide of personal e-mails, offering condolences and testimonials to Sebban's life.

Among the first e-mails was one from Sgt. John Gilbert, a fellow medic. "He risked his life to make sure others were not harmed," Gilbert wrote. "That's the type of person he was."

The missives sent from the field to Sebban's family paint a portrait of a young man who could be funny, generous and uncompromising in performing his duties -- all at the same time. The e-mails describe a practical joker who once hid a sausage in the duffel bag of a paratrooper headed home on leave; a confidant who lent $600 to a fellow soldier who really needed it; and someone who was at work saving lives the day he died.

The e-mails make very clear that grief over Sebban's death runs as deep in Iraq as in New Jersey.

"I have lost one of the greatest people that I have ever known," wrote Staff Sgt. Jessica Kraatz. "I am sure he is up there right now looking down at me and making fun of me for sitting here crying."

Besides his mother, Barbara Walsh, a nurse who was working as a missionary in Africa when he was born, Sebban is survived by two younger brothers, Daniel, 28, and David, 27. Both are Army veterans.

Daniel Sebban said the family decided to share the e-mails about his brother soon after they began arriving from Iraq and then from other military outposts around the globe. Messages also arrived from sources as varied as the owner of a South Amboy pizza parlor, former classmates of Benjamin Sebban's at a Bible college in New York, and a Navy physician who urged him to consider a career in medicine.

"These e-mails say more about who my brother really was than I can," Daniel Sebban said.

The e-mails written by the men and women who served with Sebban return to many of the same themes: his skills as a medic, his generosity, his sense of humor and his love for the Army. Many also make references to Sebban's deep faith as a Christian.

One, from the physician's assistant who served with Sebban on a two-man trauma team that was often first to respond to wounded soldiers, covered nearly all of it.

"Ben was one of the best medics I've ever worked with," Maj. Brad Rather began. He added: "... I always knew Ben had my back when we were out on combat missions."

Rather wrote about leaving Iraq for a two-week leave and discovering that his sergeant had mailed a $75 gift certificate to his home in North Carolina "so my wife and I could have a romantic dinner" when he arrived.

Barbara Walsh said the e-mails confirmed her belief that her son was "an awesome medic."

Messages like the one from Sgt. Rodney Metoyer made that clear: "He was the guy in the group that everyone looked to because we all knew that he had the answers."

"From the time he was 12, he knew he wanted to do something with medicine," Walsh said. She remembers her son begging her to let him transfer from a parochial high school to Middlesex County Vocational-Technical High School for a new health technology program. "Please, please sign me up," he told her.

She realized he was serious about a career in medicine when he went on a school outing to a rehabilitation hospital and came home talking about helping a man walk with prosthetic legs. "Most teenagers shy away from those kinds of things," she said.

Still, there was something pulling her son toward the military. He almost joined the Navy after high school. His mother steered him on another path.

"Benjamin, just give God one year of your life," she said. He went to a school in upstate New York that prepares young Christians for missionary life. He liked it enough that he finished a second year, then moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., to finish a degree at a Bible college.

He was only there a short time when his brother Daniel visited him. The younger brother had joined the Army and was stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky.

Even after his brothers left the Army, Benjamin Sebban stayed in, rising quickly through the enlisted ranks, going on specialized missions, training army medics for the Republic of Georgia, then serving as a Special Forces medic in Africa.

Walsh, who as a youth had protested the Vietnam War, never imagined any of her sons would join the military. "They could be pastors, they could be missionaries," she remembered thinking when they were young. But she learned to accept their decision, especially Benjamin's.

"For him, the military was just meant to be," she said.

Early last Easter morning, Benjamin Sebban called her from Fort Bragg, N.C., and told her that he had volunteered to deploy to Iraq in the fall with a unit that needed a senior medic. "He wanted to go so someone who had children didn't have to," she said.

The last time Walsh heard from Sebban, he had good news. He had been promoted from staff sergeant to sergeant first class. That meant he was within two ranks of the highest enlisted position, sergeant major.

"He told me before it happened that if he got it, he would make a career of the Army," Walsh said. "Two days later, he was dead."

In one of the dozens of e-mails that have come from Iraq, Staff Sgt. Brian Merry wrote that Sebban had talked often about a visit he made to Arlington National Cemetery before shipping out. He had insisted Merry do the same.

"Talked me into visiting before I deployed here," Merry wrote. "Told me it made him feel humble to be there and it was just a spiritual place."

Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin L. Sebban will be buried at Arlington on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the e-mails from Iraq keep coming.

From the Ledger

Related Link:
Benjamin L. Sebban dies of injuries from I.E.D.