Belleville West war hero is Memorial Parade marshal

News-DemocratMay 21, 2014 

Air Force Master Sgt. Gustav Benjamin "Ben" Damann


When you see Air Force Master Sgt. Gustav Benjamin "Ben" Damann and his wife, Mary, riding in a convertible in Belleville's Memorial Day Parade, give them a big wave.

And a "thank you."

"I was shocked when they asked me" to be the grand marshal, said Damann, a 1993 Belleville West graduate who was awarded three medals for his heroic service in Afghanistan. "But the parade isn't about me. It's a tribute to all those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. There's great honor in that."

Damann, 39, who joined the Air Force in 1994, is command fuels inspector with the Office of the Inspector General. He talked about the honor of being parade grand marshal by phone from Philadelphia, where he had just finished an inspection.

Damann's Air Force career has included assignments to four bases and multiple deployments around the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Oct. 18, 2013, Damann and three others were in a vehicle destroyed by a suicide bomber in Kabul, Afghanistan.

"It was three feet from us," he said. "There was glass all over, and we were all knocked unconscious.'

Immediately after the blast, their convoy received heavy machine gun fire. Damann regained consciousness and realized the vehicle was on fire.

"I kicked down the door, so we could all push out," Damann said.

With no regard for his own safety, Damann provided cover fire so his teammates were able to load into a second vehicle. After all were safely on board, Damann climbed into the vehicle and continued to provide cover fire as they sped away.

For his actions, Damann was awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and the Combat Action Medal.

"Experts have told me that there's no way we should have survived that blast," Damann said. "The only reason I'm alive today is that everyone did exactly what they were supposed to do that day."

It took months for Damann to recover from physical injuries and trauma.

"I'm just back to where I can travel again and do my job."

John Shively, chairman of the parade committee and a member of Catholic War Veterans, said Damann's actions after the blast -- providing cover for his teammates before getting to safety himself -- shows his bravery, courage and concern for his fellow troops.

"I count him as a hero," Shively said. "All of these things distinguish Sgt. Damann as a great choice for grand marshal."

Damann was excited when they asked him and his family to ride in the Belleville parade.

"I'll be riding with my high school sweetheart, my wife Mary. But I told them we have five kids -- too much for one convertible.''

Mary also is a 1993 graduate of Belleville West. They have three sons, Ben, 19, Kelly, 16, and Bailey, 13; and two daughters, Taylor, 18, and Mackenzie, 10.

Damann is the son of Gus Damann, a retired teacher at Belleville East, and Mary Jane Soehnlin.

"I remember watching the parade when I was growing up," Master Sgt. Damann said. "My kids have been in it with dance school and other groups.

"That makes it even more special for me to honor those who gave their lives."

The Belleville Memorial Day Parade begins at 10 a.m. Monday.

The parade will lead to a ceremony that starts about 11 a.m. at Walnut Hill Cemetery. U.S. Navy Capt. Daryl R. Hancock, director of intelligence for the U.S. Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base is the keynote speaker. Hancock is from Marion.

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