When South County's Ben Seekell went to war in Afghanistan in 2011, he did so with his trusted comrade-in-arms — a bomb-sniffing German shepherd named Charlie.
When South County’s Ben Seekell went to war in Afghanistan in 2011, he did so with his trusted comrade-in-arms — a bomb-sniffing German shepherd named Charlie.
Inseparable before their deployment, the two were together as usual when they paid a heavy price while serving their country: A few months after their arrival, a land mine took Seekell’s left leg below the knee and raked Charlie with shrapnel.
For their sacrifice, Seekell and his intrepid sidekick each earned a Purple Heart — the first of many medals the Air Force military policeman has since won in his determination to conquer the ravages of war.
Seekell, who grew up in South Kingstown and Charlestown, says he decided while still in his hospital bed: “Either you’re defined by your adversity or you can define yourself by the manner in which you overcome the adversity.
“People don’t think of me as the guy who lost his leg. They usually describe me as the guy who came back to work after losing his leg, and that I do things despite what happened.”
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Being back in Air Force service is just part of his story.
This past September, Seekell, 32, won gold for the U.S. in the 400-meter run and as a member of the wheelchair basketball team in Toronto’s Invictus Games, the international competition for injured military personnel created by England’s Prince Harry.
In July, Seekell won gold medals in the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter runs as co-captain of the Air Force team at the Department of Defense Warrior Games in Chicago.
These were just his latest accomplishments. Specializing in basketball, cycling and track events for which he uses a prosthetic running blade, the 5-foot-11, 182-pound Seekell also owns an array of other medals from this year’s games and previous ones starting in 2015.
Already in training to qualify for next year’s competitions, Master Sgt. Benjamin Seekell rises each morning at 4:30 for two hours of workouts before heading to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, where he trains military police.
Determined to surpass his previous athletic accomplishments, he puts in another two hours after his work day.
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Seekell and his wife, the former Meagan McQuaide, whom he met in kindergarten at the Charlestown Elementary School, have four children and a busy household in San Antonio. Also with them in retirement before he died at age 12 in 2015 was Seekell’s canine alter ego, Charlie.
The two warriors were brought together at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, after Seekell — who grew up with and loves dogs — volunteered for the working-dog security program.
Charlie, nearly eight years old at the time, was a veteran of seven previous deployments with other handlers, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Seekell also had already served overseas, in Iraq.
The pair first worked together domestically and on a number of occasions provided security for President Barack Obama.
In early 2011, the Air Force sent them to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, and just a few months later, Seekell’s life changed abruptly and violently.
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On the morning of May 8, he and Charlie — constant companions who even slept together — were sent off base in a 13-man foot patrol to investigate suspicious activity.
When they were almost a mile away, two blasts shredded the operation.
“We heard the first explosion, and your senses obviously go through the roof. I grabbed Charlie and shoved him down with me into a shallow depression in the ground.
“We started to hear people screaming, people yelling in pain. It was a unique sound — you hear children crying when they get hurt, but to hear grown men do it — pain mixed with fear — is a very distinct, terrible sound that’s unlike any sound I’ve heard in my life.”
The squad turned back toward the base, but then “the ground underneath me just kind of erupted and tossed me in the air. I remember the very distinct smell of explosive material that had been burning clothing, and probably was burning me. There was pressure — it felt like somebody had parked a truck on me.
“I was in a crater the bomb had made, and my first thoughts were that I didn’t know where my rifle was and Charlie wasn’t there — I was trying to call for him. Some of my guys jumped in and literally saved my life. They gave me a quick slap on the helmet and told me I had to be quiet because I had some pretty serious issues.”
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Charlie, who was able to return to base under his own power, was suffering from burst eardrums as well as wounds from metal fragments.
Seekell, whose human comrades applied a tourniquet to stanch his profuse bleeding, “kind of hopped, skipped and jumped” back to the airfield on his right leg with a supporting airman on each side of him. He underwent surgery on the base and within a day was evacuated to a hospital in Germany. In 72 hours he was at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, where he would spend months in recovery.
Seekell says that although people don’t think of the Air Force in connection with ground combat, “They were tested that day and they proved they can handle themselves with the best of them.”
He doesn’t mind revealing his fears.
“That’s where a lot of the bravado that everybody thinks war is all about goes out the window. You feel fear and anxiety, no matter how good you are.
“There’s nothing scarier than explosives — they’re used for the psychological impact. Your job is to look for things that are trying to kill you. At times you’re walking on eggshells, worrying if your next step is going to be your last step.”
And, he said, although Charlie was a pro at his work, myriad conditions in the field can short-circuit bomb detection.
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Back at the North Carolina base, Meagan Seekell had returned home from a communal barbecue and put their three children, ranging in age from 3 to 6, to bed when a somber cadre of service personnel appeared at her door.
It was a moment dreaded by those whose loved ones are away at war.
Before a word was spoken, Meagan asked, “Okay – is he alive or is he dead?”
They knew only that he had been hurt, and two hours would pass before she learned he would live but would lose what remained of his lower left leg.
She kept herself together because “I’m a person who in high-stress situations says, ‘Okay, what needs to be done?’ I try to stay calm and have my emotions later.”
At 6 the following morning, her husband, calling from thousands of miles distant and facing life-changing issues, gave her his reaction in a succinct message for the Air Force:
“His first words to me were, ‘Tell them I’m staying in.’”
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It was a trying time for the small-town couple, whose first date, at ages 16 and 15, was a stroll through the rustic Washington County Fair.
Seekell recalls that a day or two after his injury, “reality started to set in. I knew at that point that I was an amputee. I was pondering, ‘What am I going to do with my life? Can I be a father to my children and a husband to my wife?’
“You don’t have any of the answers.”
Meagan, now 31, says they handled the injury similarly, deciding that “looking at how horrible this is is not going to help us in any way.”
“We were thankful that he just lost his leg below the knee — there are so many other guys out there who have lost so much more, and we don’t have any of the other issues like drug addiction or PTSD.”
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Seekell’s father, Wayne, 66, a retired businessman who lives in Charlestown with Ben’s mother, Pam, admires the couple’s courage.
He recalls their son’s early desire to serve and his decision in 2004 to join the military instead of heading to college.
Wayne Seekell’s voice catches when he describes the day at Walter Reed where, in the exercise room, he saw “all these young men missing arms, legs; some had two legs missing. But the spirit was incredible.”
“My son rolls into the room for the first time and this guy yells out at him, ‘Where’d you get blown up?’ And my son yells back, ‘Bagram.’ And the guy says, ‘I’m really psyched today; I’m getting my new leg.’
“I lost it,” the elder Seekell continues. “This is something the public doesn’t see — the result of war. Some fall into despondency and some, like this Marine, he’s welcoming my son to the group and excited for his own opportunity to get his leg back.”
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His son spent up to five hours a day in physical therapy and getting fitted for a prosthesis before returning to active duty.
A big moment came in 2013, when the 80-pound Charlie, who had recovered and worked with a new handler but enjoyed frequent visits from Seekell, left the Air Force after a career spanning a decade and was given to his former battle mate.
Meagan Seekell says Charlie was good with the family but was devoted to her husband.
“To his dying day he was Ben’s dog. When Ben left for work, Charlie’s butt was by the door, and he wouldn’t leave until Ben walked back in.”
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Nearly two years after joining the household, the aged canine warrior — as old soldiers are said to do — began fading away. When he could no longer walk, it was up to Ben Seekell to send him on his final mission.
At Lackland, where a young Charlie had first trained, Seekell carried his comrade through an honorary formation of military personnel and into the base veterinary center.
“They gave him his last salute as we walked by. It was very fitting and I was proud of the life he lived and the way he got to go out.
“Everybody in the room was emotional — I cried like a child. They pushed the needle, and when he fell asleep I patted him for the last time.
“I covered him with a flag, and his Purple Heart was pinned to his collar, so he was wearing it when he went.”
Today, Charlie’s ashes “are in a nice little box on a shelf with my other military awards, amongst my career, I guess you could say. We speak every now and then when I walk by and ask him, ‘How you doing?’”
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Seekell, meanwhile, is pressing on as usual, downplaying any mention of the word “hero.”
But he is one, his former squadron commander said a few months after his injury in a video made by the Air Force.
“Ben didn’t want to be a hero but has become one because of the man he is,” said Maj. James Alves. “…He’ll tell you he was just doing his job, but what makes him a hero is how he’s acted afterwards. That’s what separates him from everybody else.”
Seekell says he has heroes of his own, including his father and his wife, and most of all, “the people to my left and to my right — the people who serve. Right now, as we speak, they’re in a dark hole somewhere fighting for their lives.”
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Ben Seekell says of his experiences since the explosion, “Your capacity is limitless. Everybody has this idea of what their limits are. They get comfortable with what they can or can’t do. You just need the right set of circumstances to be able to test that … to shatter those ideas of what your limits are.
“The games are a medium to see what you can do. You say, ‘I can be better than this. I can be three seconds faster than I was last time, or a little bit stronger than the time before.’”
His father, Wayne, recalls, “Six years ago when I was with my son at Walter Reed, I saw in him a young man whose life was changed in a tragic moment. I saw his uncertainty but also his resolve to overcome this life hurdle.
“I cried for my son at a dark moment in his life. But later, I saw an Invictus champion. I cried again but with tears of pride and joy.”
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Through it all, Ben Seekell holds faithful to the calling that brought him to the military in the first place.
“It’s our job to go and serve in time of war, and I’m more than happy to do that,” he says. “I have no problems with it — none whatsoever.”
Gerry Goldstein is a retired editor and columnist for The Providence (R.I.) Journal.