RIPON — Army Reserve Drill Sergeant Vince Benitez made a difference in Afghanistan by setting up his own hometown supply line between the Ripon VFW Post and his small Camp Alamo compound of U.S. and coalition forces totaling about 600 troops and contractors from several countries.
Benitez, who owned a swimming pool company in the valley, was attached to a reserve unit based at Sharpe Army Depot when he received orders to report for an active duty assignment. It soon had him operating a small post office and a small field level post exchange (PX) near Kabul that was little more than a trailer with shelves providing the bare necessities.
He explained that the camp was just like a little community with a single dining hall for everyone in the compound for officers and regular GIs alike. There was one smoke shack and just one place for people to convene.
Soldiers found themselves having to interact with everyone compared to much larger bases like Camp Phoenix where they could stay to themselves or in familiar smaller groups. You would have coffee with a Greek or a Turkish soldier as you are developing new relationships, he said.
With his duties at the post office and at the PX, he pretty much knew everybody on base and wouldn’t trade the experience for anything, saying he could easily have spent an additional two years in the camp – dangerous duty, but so very rewarding, Benitez added.
The longtime drill sergeant and former acting first sergeant said that he was essentially his own boss, dictating the terms of his work for the most part.
“It was perfectly suited for me, because I am a business owner, and a drill sergeant in something of an alpha male position as an older gentleman as well as an E-7 grade.
“We were low on the totem pole in terms of receiving merchandise,” he said, noting that the larger PX operations would always get first choice in items they ordered. Items like white socks and towels were nearly impossible to order as were fingernail clippers.
If an item was on the PX requisition list, it could be ordered, but there was no guarantee it would be sent to them.
VFW steps up & sends towels
“So in the case of towels, I told my wife Wendy, hey, we could really use towels. The VFW stepped up and they were able to get towels and they sent them to me. I was able to distribute them as widely as possible,” Benitez said. “Chocolate was huge – couldn’t get chocolate – the only thing available was M&M Peanuts and for only a short time, obviously a No. 1 seller at the PX.”
The sergeant said he was in a very unique position, because of the assignment slots he personally had to fill in his varied duties. He was receiving the mail daily and would get the packages from home and the VFW, and at the same time operate the PX and distribute the many items the troops were wanting from home.
“Potato chips didn’t exist – so the VFW sent small bags of potato chips. Everybody got a little bit of everything and I tried to distribute to all personnel – not just to the military – but to all personnel throughout Camp Alamo,” he said.
A troop of Girl Scouts busied themselves filling the care boxes at the Ripon VFW and getting them ready to mail to Afghanistan.
Benitez went on the road with some 200 convoys while in Afghanistan. He would take orders from his troops for their wish lists they could only get from a larger PX operation such as Camp Phoenix.
“We did convoys on different missions for civilians and for Afghans, coalition forces, American forces – just kinda in our unique roles where we were the only ones who could run errands (and be gophers) for the guys,” he noted.
When he was first assigned to Camp Alamo, he wasn’t told much about his duties saying he pretty much had to figure out his assignments on his own, including how to reach the camp with a suggestion he take a helicopter.
“That freedom, that liberty to make it on my own was amazing, because we had to make it something fantastic. There were no real restrictions and no one was breathing down my neck and second guessing me,” he said.
He said he would send letters home thanking those who mailed the care packages and expressing the needs that were still on his men’s shopping lists. He said he asked his guys to do the same and send their thanks.
Benitez suggested that anyone wanting to know more about his compound in Afghanistan go online and simply type in Camp Alamo to get a better picture of the operation.
He added that public affairs continually update their Facebook page.
“It’s pretty amazing, I never thought I would be affected the way I was affected,” he said. “It never crossed my mind that it would be such an experience. I still keep in contact with the guys who are still there and haven’t come home yet – guys who were part of my drill sergeant division.”