Alumni Spotlight - LTC Sanford Bennett
"General Bennett" (left) with LTC Sanford Bennett
By Jamie Kornegay
You couldn't ask for a better guide to Camp McCain than LTC Sanford Bennett (Class of 1980). The base operations supervisor for the National Guard training center in Grenada County is personable, enthusiastic, and obviously well-liked by colleagues. Fellow officers and guardsmen — even maintenance and service workers — stop to talk or wave and shout hello wherever he goes.
But back in town, he's better known as "Rhonda's husband." The Colonel may run the base operations, but make no mistake, he says, Rhonda Bennett (or "General Bennett," as she's affectionately described) runs the home base.
That suits the easy-going officer just fine. As much curious explorer as steady family man, Bennett made a smart play back in the 1980s when he married Rhonda and joined the National Guard. His job in the military has satisfied his inner adven-turer and allowed him to raise a family in the community where he grew up.
Growing up in Grenada, one of the most memorable pieces of advice he ever received was something his father once told him: "Boy, if you're gonna be dumb, you better get tough."
Bennett strived to get tough at Grenada High School, playing football and baseball for two notable coaches, Alan Wallace and David Hartley, both of whom encouraged mental as well as physical toughness.
He also enjoyed his English classes, especially with Mrs. Charlene Leverette, as well as his drafting metal trade class at the vo-tech center. But all in all, he says, "I just didn't have a good grasp of where I wanted to be."
An avid reader, Bennett enjoyed stories of military pilots like the Lafayette Escadrille of World War I and local World War II flying ace Max Juchheim. So with a willing curiosity, he enlisted in the Air Force right out of high school.
After landing at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for basic training, Bennett's interest in aircraft electronics led him right back to Mississippi. He was stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, and from there, he had the opportunity to explore the world, including Italy, Guam, Hawaii, and Japan. Closer to home, he served with the 3380th Avionics Maintenance Squadron, working on C130 jets and flying with the 54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron — known as "the Hurricane Hunters" — in the military's only unit that provides aerial weather reconnaissance for the National Hurricane Center.
At the end of his five-year Air Force active duty, Bennett heard about a job opportunity back home in Grenada County — the reopening of Camp McCain.
Built in 1942, the base was a major training camp for soldiers as America entered World War II. Some 50,000 troops passed through Camp McCain, including the 87th and 95th infantry divisions, both deployed to Europe. During the war, it served as one of the largest German POW camps. Over 7,000 enemy soldiers were kept in detention, many working in the local cotton fields.
Camp McCain closed in 1946 but became active again during the 1970s and '80s. Bennett's background in aircraft electrical systems made him an attractive candidate to help reboot the training center, and he returned home to accept a job there in 1986.
While employed at Camp McCain, Bennett joined the National Guard Officer Candidate School, where he once again proved his physical and mental toughness. He graduated Second Lieutenant and accepted a commission with the 223rd Engineer Battalion, working in various positions at Camp McCain, from range officer to public works director to administration.
"The military is constantly changing, evolving, improving," says Bennett. "I've been going to school ever since I put this uniform on."
Bennett credits the military with allowing him to continue his education by branching off into new disciplines while mov-ing up the ranks. "You never stop learning," he says. "If you do, you're pretty much done."
One of the defining moments in any officer's career is a call to war. Bennett's came in 2005 when he deployed to Iraq with his unit, the 184th Sustainment Command.
"I'm an explorer, so it was a good mission for me," he says. "I got to travel from one end of Iraq to the other."
The unit's mission was to account for, and sometimes recover, the shipping containers that were critical to the military's supply chain. Their efforts saved the government tens of millions of dollars.
"You don't often think about it, but the supply line is a very important part of war, from water to ammunition to toilet paper," Bennett says. "You find out right away what's important."
Bennett was older when he shipped off to war. His kids were becoming adults, and he already had a young granddaughter. "Separation from family is tougher than the anxiety and fear of being deployed," he recalls. "We don't give families enough credit, as far as being a soldier's support system."
After his service in the Middle East and returning home once more, Bennett spends these days managing the Camp McCain resources — his military title is Deputy Garrison Commander — and he's also an excellent public relations resource for the center, speaking to various civic groups and welcoming visitors.
Camp McCain currently has the capacity to house 1,700 soldiers. Forty-two weeks out of the year the center hosts training sessions from National Guard units all over Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Alabama to active duty Air Force, Special Forces, and Army Reserves. Even DEA, customs officials, FBI agents, and local police train there from time to time.
When prompted for advice to offer current GHS students, Bennett wishes to clear up one misconception. "We're not just soldiers," he insists. "The National Guard, or any other branch of the military, offers experience and a vast array of opportunities in any field — medical, electrical, construction, technology. If a student is unsure about a path to pursue, this is a good place to get the basics. Especially if they don't have the means to pursue college."
Though many enlistees like himself are drawn to the military as a career, he adds, "It's not a lifetime commitment. You can pursue school while you're a soldier. The military gives you a depth in education that you can use throughout your life."
And while his career with the National Guard has given him both stability and adventure, the next phase of life beckons. Bennett says he's already preparing for his future back at home base. He and his son recently began farming, which he plans to take up full time after retirement.
"I've already been promoted," he says with a grin. "From lieutenant colonel to tractor operator."