Officer finds niche halfway across the world

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Michael Voss
  • 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
It's late in the afternoon, and a warm April day in Afghanistan is coming to an end. The blistering sun, which has worked to heat the tall mountains, is setting; the wind has kicked up a cloud of dust over the base.

In a small office at the Craig Joint Theater Hospital, Col. (Dr.) Christian Benjamin laces up his red and grey shoes, tucks in his Air Force physical-training shirt and recites a statement he has said nearly every day for five months.

"I am going," he says. "If you need me, call."

The doctor then exits the hospital door, walks out to Bagram Air Base's main road and takes off at a slow pace on a journey that has accumulated more than 1,800 miles in the last year while serving on a 12-month deployment as the commander of Task Force Med-East.

Although not sure at what point it is coming, his staff knows running is a priority to the commander.

"Some might think it is a selfish thing for a commander of such an important place to take off for a run, but it is a time for me to escape the e-mails, the phone calls and focus on those things that need detailed attention, like how we are going to equip the next rotation of doctors here," said the family practitioner.

The journey around Bagram's perimeter road, approximately eight miles, is exactly the type of terrain that most professional athletes would avoid, with rocks, uneven surfaces, traffic and potholes, but for Dr. Benjamin, running isn't about competing, it is about an athletic endeavor.

"Running is the culmination of an athletic journey," he said.

The 50-year-old, blond hair, blue eyed, five-foot-ten doctor has felt a passion for sports since playing softball in junior high. Prior to the joining the Air Force, a self-professed weekend athlete, Dr. Benjamin bounced around between sports trying to find his niche.

The second of five children, Dr. Benjamin was the 'runt' of the group, and when the family moved from small-town America to Oaktown in northern Virginia, his middle-of-the-road ability didn't allow him to be the star of the team at a large school.

Through his high school years at Oaktown, Dr. Benjamin played various sports trying to find where he could fit in. Always interested in the team aspect and athletic side of sports, he tried football, basketball, and track and field. On the track is where the young athlete found his calling, though not as a sprinter or a hurdler.

"I didn't have blistering sprinter speed, and I was too short to clear the hurdles with ease, but at 17, I found a sport called decathlon that incorporated running, jumping and strength," the doctor said. "I wasn't excellent at any one sport, but I was good at all three which made it a perfect fit for me. Decathlons were it for me in high school. I found my niche. Over the years I would find a few more, but in high school, decathlons were it."

Throughout his years in college at William and Mary, and later at Medical College of Virginia, life was hard for Dr. Benjamin. The day consisted of going to class from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., followed by hours of study time and tests on Saturdays. Dr. Benjamin continued to compete, not only in decathlons, but after an invite by some local players, he took to the pitch, playing rugby.

"As a wing, I wasn't the best player on the field, but it hasn't ever been about that," he said. "It has always been about being athletic and finding a niche, but I can promise you there was no one on that field that wanted to be there more than me."

Throughout the years, life has changed for Dr. Benjamin. In 1985, he tied the knot with his college sweetheart and entered the active-duty Air Force in June the following year.

"My wife was a tennis player and athletic, and the military not only encourages but demands that you stay in shape, so both were perfect fits," Dr. Benjamin said.

During the early to mid 1990s, Dr. Benjamin enjoyed various assignments like being the 49th Medical Group's chief of flight medicine at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., but as bases came and went, he found that his love for certain sports would do the same.

"I am a bit of a fanatic," he explained. "I will find a sport or a hobby and become fanatical about it for a time until the door closes on that opportunity, and then I just seek out a new sport. About 13 years ago the doors on track and field, rugby and football had all closed, but one opened: running."

Twelve years ago, the lieutenant colonel, without noticing, used his scientifically inclined mind and began tracking his runs. To this day, he really can't explain why he started recording his daily mileage, but steadily three miles a day turned into six and later to eight.

"Because I am just an average guy, I am not interested in competing in races or marathons," Dr. Benjamin said. "Competing would take something away from me that I do for fun or to relax."

And as the simple notebook pages filled up, he began to record his totals in a spreadsheet, even color-coding months based on how many miles he had completed.

In 2006, the doctor was in full stride with his daily running and accumulated more than 900 miles during his four-month tenure as commander of the 447th Expeditionary Medical Squadron at Balad Air Base, Iraq.

Now nearing the end of his fourth deployment to Southwest Asia, his color-coded sheet he keeps secretly tucked away in a planner is tracking some serious mileage. The doctor has accumulated 2,750 miles during his time between the Iraq and Afghanistan combat zones.

Even more impressive, during the 12 years he has kept track of his steps, he has passed the half-way equivalent of running around the world.

Today, next to his desk are boxes sent by his replacement. The doctor has yet to allow himself to begin packing his possessions or counting down the days before returning home. Instead he works each day from 8 a.m. to midnight to ensure the injured U.S. service members seen in his hospital get the best care possible. As the days of his Bagram tour wind down, you can be sure of three things about Dr. Benjamin: one, he is thankful to be part of the military; two, at some point in the day, he will be going running to clear his mind and focus on the things that matter; and three, his red and grey shoes will be one of the last things packed in his bag before heading home.

"A lot of people become fanatical about things; I just happened to a fanatical about fitness, and guess what, the military is the perfect match because they foster it," he said. "They think I run for them. I am just glad they let me run, because somewhere in all those miles it has allowed a normal guy like me find my niche."