Bryan Bennett knew he wanted to become a pilot and he wanted to enter government service. So he figured his best route was through Air Force ROTC.
He graduated from East Carolina University in 1965 with a bachelor’s in social sciences and received his commission. Four years later, he was a 27-year-old captain flying B-52 combat missions in Vietnam.
“I understood the mission,” Bennett said. “We did not want to lose Southeast Asia to communism. The strategy of the Americans was containment. Having said that, Vietnam was crummy about its execution. No question that Vietnam was a mess. It wasn’t a mess because the philosophy was wrong. It was a mess because of the execution.”
Bennett was an aircraft commander for two years, including six months flying combat missions under operation Arc Light from October 1968 to March 1969. The B-52 units rotated their missions out of Guam, Thailand and Okinawa. They were assigned to the Strategic Air Command. Bennett’s home base was in North Dakota.
The Virginia Beach, Virginia, native flew 60 combat missions and earned three Air Medals.
His second deployment took him to Tan Son Nhut Air Base at Saigon from 1972-73 assigned as a bomber planner to the SAC-Advanced Location. On his own time, he served as an extra pilot with other units. Instead of B-52 missions, these were other types of Air Force planes. He had five combat missions during the yearlong tour.
“We were one of the last units to leave Vietnam, to leave Saigon,” Bennett said. They moved to Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, in 1973. Three months later, Bennett was assigned to Plattsburgh, New York, as an FB-111 pilot and aircraft commander. Besides his three Air Medals, he received the Bronze Star for his Vietnam service.
His brother, Harry, six years older, was commissioned through Air Force ROTC at VMI and had served as a transport pilot in Vietnam. Harry died in 2013.
Bennett described what he most remembered from his service during the war.
“Absolutely all the guys I met, the quality of the people,” he said. “The Soldiers, the Marines and all the Air Force officers that were there. America’s very fortunate to have such dedicated people.”
In 1966 Bennett went through pilot training in Selma. He graduated in February 1967. Bennett later graduated from the National War College. He earned a master’s in political science from the University of North Dakota in 1975 and he was assigned to the Pentagon in 1976.
“When I was assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1978 we were not to wear our uniform downtown in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “We took that as an insult. I think that was rather symbolic of what was going on in the country.”
After 22 years in the Air Force, Bennett retired as a colonel in 1988. He was last assigned to the deputy chief of staff for programs and resources at the Pentagon. He became an airline pilot for Eastern Air Lines which dissolved in 1991. Bennett moved to Huntsville from Marietta, Georgia, in 1994 and started the Air Force JROTC program at Huntsville High where he retired in 2005.
Bennett has two sons, a daughter and five grandchildren. As a volunteer he helped found the Community Free Dental Clinic, served as chairman of the board for the first year, was president of the Madison County Child Protection Board and was chairman of the board for the Center for Pilgrimage and Reconciliation. He is past president of the Air Force Association and serves on its executive council. He is a docent at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center where he works with its Aviation Challenge program. Bennett is past president and still serving with the Kiwanis Club of Huntsville which will celebrate its 100th year in the city this summer.
“You take your military skills and you apply them into the civilian world,” he said. “I’m not unique to do that.”
Bennett, 76, likes reading about aviation history and playing the trumpet. He shared his thoughts about this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.
“I’m glad to see it because most young people don’t know anything about it and what they’ve heard too often is negative. And that’s a shame,” he said. “Now young people are asking questions like ‘What was it? Who went? What was it like?’ Those are good questions to ask.”
Editor’s note: This is the 221st in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.