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Veterans honored by surprise




RUSSELL -- One thought something was up. The other had no idea he would be the center of attention.

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RUSSELL -- One thought something was up. The other had no idea he would be the center of attention.

But both Robert Rhodes and Jack Benander pleasantly were surprised, and honored, at a ceremony in the VFW Hall on the Fourth of July.

The way Micky Johnson and townspeople see it, they are the ones who are honored to have these two men as part of their community.

Johnson, one of the organizers of the annual Freedom Fest celebration, tries to surprise local veterans each year.

This year, she asked Rhodes to read the flag-folding procedure to make sure he showed up to the ceremony.

And Johnson knew Benander, an active member of Russell's VFW Post No. 6240, would be there anyway.

Rhodes said he thought "something was going on because I mentioned it to my girlfriend, and she said she didn't want to talk about it."

He really got suspicious when someone congratulated him at a local store earlier that morning.

"It's hard to keep a secret in a small town," he said.

The surprise still was on Rhodes.

Although he knew "something" probably was going to happen at the ceremony, which included videos of him and Benander, he had no idea some of his classmates from the Russell High School class of 1989 would be present.

"He is definitely a hero," said Tammy (Snook) Pellant, a high school classmate of Rhodes who now lives in Wilson. "We've been trying to do something to honor him, do something secretly, for six months. We (classmates) are proud of him. He's a great man, a great person, and we're glad he came back to Russell."

The 43-year-old Rhodes is a rural mailman at nearby Lucas and started his own business four years ago where he sells merchandise online. He also raises money for the Disabled American Veterans organization.

Rhodes, who grew up in Russell, signed up for the Marines his junior year for the late-entry program and entered the service following his graduation in May 1989.

Rhodes chose that branch of service to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, father and uncles and said he intended to stay in for the four years he originally enlisted. But one thing led to another, and before he knew it, he was close to his 20-year minimum eligible for retirement from the military.

After being deployed for combat overseas four different times, Rhodes retired from the Marines in 2009 as an E8 First Sergeant. And he decided to move back home to raise his family.

Another member of the RHS class of '89 who chose Russell as his landing spot to raise his family was Mark Popp, who helped get in touch with fellow classmates for this year's Fourth of July celebration.

A few classmates were present at the ceremony during the day, and several more attended the concert that night.

"It was a really good weekend all the way around," Rhodes said. "It was nice to see everyone. It was a nice class reunion."

Benander, an Air Force veteran, said it was another event at which he thought he might be honored when Johnson asked him earlier this year for some old photos and a resume of his military service.

Benander attended the VFW state convention in Salina last month, and "when nothing happened there, I thought it was a nomination for some award and someone else must have won and didn't think anything of it."

Benander, who grew up in Topeka, joined the U.S. Air Force after his junior year of high school and served in the U.S. Air Force from 1948 to 1961.

He said he dropped out of high school because "I thought I was smarter than the teachers."

"Then, when I got to basic training, I thought, 'What have I gotten myself into!' "

Benander earned his high school diploma and "got a lot of other training in the service" as well.

After leaving the military in '61, he worked in Oklahoma and Texas as a construction lineman for a telephone company and upon retirement in 1995, moved to Russell to be near relatives.

He said he got involved in the VFW "because it's a great organization that does a lot of good for a lot of people."

Johnson said she plans to keep honoring at least one veteran, if not two, each year.

"They need to be recognized," she said. "It's important we remember what they did for (our country)."