Monday, May 28, 2007

Benjamin Desilets remembered by mother

PEORIA - Her son may have been in Iraq, but Brenda Desilets faithfully received flowers and a phone call on Mother's Day.

Twenty-one-year-old Ben told his mother he had set aside some special savings. When he got home, he was going to take Brenda on a cruise to Alaska. He knew that was her dream trip.

"For as ornery and mean as he was, that was the way he really was," she laughs. "He just didn't want anybody to know it. He was an only boy, raised by a mom and two sisters. He had to be macho."

Mother's Day was the last time she spoke to Ben. The "ornery kid" who became a proud Marine was killed last week, just hours after the younger sister who idolized him graduated from Elmwood High School.

"We went from a graduation on Sunday to Marines in the front yard on Monday," Brenda said.

Full disclosure: I was Ben's Cubmaster. I knew the sleepy-eyed boy with the sly smile even before he became a girl magnet in high school.

"One thing I can tell you about Ben: If there was an easy way and a hard way, Ben took the hard way," says his den leader, Sherida Houlihan.

"Scrappy is a great word for him."

A Cubmaster tends to know the adults better than the kids, so there's a special place in my heart for Brenda. She probably wouldn't think this is important, but she was battling cancer during part of the time Ben was in Cub Scouts. Yet she was always there to back him up, never complained.

When she asked me to tell the full story about a Ben I don't know, the one the U.S. Marine Corps turned into a man - in such a way it couldn't be used to further anyone's political agenda - there was only one answer.

"I was proud of him," she says. "It made him grow up a lot. He was different, this last time."

Ben became a father while still in high school. That could turn a mother's hair gray by itself. Yet that's when Brenda saw the outline of the man her son could become. He loved his daughter and cared for Kyra often, with his mother's help.

"He was a teen dad. But, you know, when he was around, I never changed a dirty diaper," she says. "He made mistakes. He was a hotheaded little kid. But you won't find a teen dad like that."

Ben was a looker. Ben was a charmer. Ben was a classic.

"He was like Tom Sawyer," says Cathy Meyers, his English teacher, "He was ornery enough to be interesting and fun. But he was charming enough that you just loved him to pieces."

She remembers one time she thanked Ben for volunteering to hand out treats in class.

"Think nothing of it," he said. "I already had three."

Before exasperation could possibly turn to anger, he'd bat those blues, "You know I love you, Mrs. Meyers."

Smart. Smart and funny. Smart and challenging. But definitely smart.

Those are the words Ben's teachers use to describe him. Government teacher Emily Roberts says Ben floundered at times, like many teens. One day he was "a blast." The next day he was "a challenge." But she says when the teachers couldn't help him find his way, the military did.

"He didn't really have a direction," said Roberts, whose own husband has served in Iraq. "They made him a man. He needed something in his life, and they gave it to him."

That started even before he left school. Ben Desilets wanted to make a difference.

"He was definitely one of the most opinionated kids when it came to the terrorism and the patriotism," muses history teacher Phil Johnson. "We had spirited but friendly debates on the subject. I was respectful of him. It seemed he was reading up on the subject."

Johnson says Ben was a sophomore or junior when Ben took his class. That would have been two or three years before he enlisted in 2004. He was a talker who learned to "walk the walk." That commitment grew deeper as time went on, and so did Ben.

Brenda says he was "a daredevil" who liked the risk on the front lines, but "nobody likes killing people." When Ben visited EHS a few months ago, before he returned to Iraq this last time, everyone commented on how the typically slouching teenager had become a ramrod straight soldier.

"The way he carried himself," Roberts says. "He was so proud of who he'd become."

"You guys have to understand," Meyers says he told her classes, "It's not a game. You're not playing guns."

"He was growing up through all this," Johnson says. "Having it come to such an abrupt end is so sad."

And, from what Brenda Desilets says, her son may have had a premonition that he wasn't coming back. His roommate was killed during his first tour, just a few days before Ben's 20th birthday. He told his mother that something felt different this time.

"Somebody dies every time," he said.

"I know, Ben," she told him. "That doesn't mean it has to be you."

Even though Ben was right, Brenda Desilets wants to emphasize that this was his choice and he was proud of it.

"He wanted to give his daughter a better life," she says.

From the Journal Register

Related Link:
Benjamin D. Desilets dies 'while conducting combat operations'