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Bellevue veterans receive national honors
A pair of local veterans received due recognition Thursday when Sen. Patty Murray presented them with military decorations during a ceremony at the Jackson Federal Building in Seattle.
Sgt. Kurtis Bennett, formerly of Bellevue, received the Purple Heart for wounds sustained during his second tour with a Stryker regiment in Iraq nearly two years ago.
Maj. David Dempster, of Beaux Arts, received the Distinguished Flying Cross for helping his nearly unconscious pilot guide their reconnaissance aircraft to safety during a mission over North Vietnam in 1968.
Bennett's Purple Heart was a bit long in coming, but at least he was there to receive it.
His brother, Staff Sgt. Lester Kinney, wasn't so fortunate. He earned the award posthumously after an improvised explosive device (IED) claimed his life in Iraq nearly six years ago.
"This is kind of a connection between me and him," Bennett said. "I think he'd be proud of me."
Two siblings with the same award, except one can smile at his sons inspecting the medal on his live and beating chest.
Bennett now wears a silver memorial bracelet that his brother's platoon gave him following Kinney's death.
"I've never taken it off," he said. "It goes everywhere with me."
Bennett and Dempster earned their awards in dire circumstances.
Dempster, an Air Force navigator, was completing a lengthy reconnaissance mission during his "year's paid vacation in Vietnam" when his pilot began drifting out of consciousness at 70,000 feet.
"I noticed some of his checklist responses just weren't crisp or normal any more," Dempster said. "Finally he said something bizarre, and the thunderbolt hit me that he was (deprived of oxygen)."
The aircraft could have lost control, but Dempster talked his dazed pilot through a descent procedure that brought the plane to a safer altitude where the pilot could regain awareness.
"He was so good and so well-trained that he could have reached those controls asleep with his eyes closed," Dempster said.
Dempster kept quiet about the incident to protect the pilot's reputation, but his comrades brought it out 40 years later to recommend him for the Distinguished Flying Cross.
As for Bennett, he was on a routine patrol in Iraq when an IED detonated beneath his Stryker vehicle, sending shrapnel into his left leg and both hands. All told, six soldiers were wounded in the explosion, and four required medical evacuations.
Bennett's Purple Heart came months later than the other soldiers who were wounded in that incident. His injuries were less devastating, and it wasn't immediately obvious that they warranted an award.
"Other than my leg, I was able to pull most of my shrapnel out," he said. "Was the award long overdue? No. I think it was just a matter of due process."
Bennett is still active with the military, serving as a mechanic with the Army National Guard. He is not expected to return to combat duty.
Dempster retired from the Air Force after 27 years of service navigating bombers, reconnaissance planes, and gunships. He earned four Distinguished Flying Cross awards during his career.