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'Bittersweet'

Widow of soldier killed in 2016 attempt to foil robbery collects his national award

By Alicia Dunkley-Willis Senior staff reporter
dunkleywillisa@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

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THEY never got the chance to finish their last conversation due to a faulty phone. Within a few hours of that telephone call ending, Petronia McLeish Bennett woke up to a never-ending nightmare — life without her husband of six years.

Yesterday, while Jamaicans celebrated the lives and contributions of the country's national heroes, McLeish Bennett was one of several making the momentous walk to a dais at King's House in St Andrew, to collect an award during the annual Ceremony of Investiture and Presentation of National Honours and Awards.

While many others walked in response to their own names and received their awards from Governor General Sir Patrick Allen, McLeish Bennett took the emotional trek to receive the Medal of Honour for Gallantry on behalf of her husband, Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) Lance Corporal Ricardo Bennett, who was being honoured posthumously for his quick, daring and selfless actions on Friday, September 2, 2016 in order to counter the threat posed by a gunman to himself and other civilians at a beauty and barber salon in Cross Roads, Kingston, with no apparent regard for his own safety.

“It was a bittersweet feeling, but a proud moment to know that his bravery was acknowledged by the Government and to know that he selflessly tried to save the lives of others, while forgetting that he himself needed to be safe; but he did what he would do and the type of man that I knew him as. It wasn't just the sense of his job, it was who he was,” she told the Jamaica Observer after the ceremony, her face evidencing a war of emotions.

The day he died at the hands of criminals is one she still remembers vividly, for many reasons.

“It was a Friday — September 2 — he had just returned to Jamaica from our anniversary visit, so he had just left the Sunday before to come back home to our two children who were here with their grandmother,” she shared.

“Before he died, we were just on the phone — he was booking a flight for me to come home. We were doing the details of the flight, my phone was acting up and so he said he was gonna be right back. I said, 'Okay, I am running to Walmart to get some things to pack for the kids'. By the time I got back, my phone was having some charging issues so I fell asleep. The next thing I know, my aunt is waking me up with the news that that happened,” she said heavily.

“I was in Pensacola, Florida. I was like, 'What do you mean? He's at [Up Park] Camp. I know he is going to the barber but that is Saturday.' I was like, 'No, he's at [Up Park] Camp, so I don't understand',” she said, recalling the pain of that terrifying moment.

The following days passed in a daze, she shared.

“Everything after that, for the next week following, I couldn't tell you how I got through the airport, I couldn't tell you how my flight was booked, I couldn't tell you anything at all — it was like sitting in a bubble just watching everything move around you,” McLeish Bennett shared.

Fast-forward to 2019, their children who were three and five at the time are now six and eight years old, and she admits it has been “a trying process”.

“But I believe I have gained a lot of strength. It has actually built me, but until you personally get in the position where you have a loss that's so close to you, it's not a matter of you just saying, 'I am sorry', you never fully understand until it hits in your household, and for that I had to ask God for a lot of strength to take me through, and I had the support of my family and friends and that has brought me a long way,” a firm McLeish Bennett told the Observer.

“The children are good, they recently migrated to be with me, so unfortunately they could not be here, because they are in school, but I know that my husband, wherever he is, is smiling. He's very proud to know that I am still living up to the memory of raising our family,” she said, smiling slightly for the first time during the interview.

Asked about the control she displayed in accepting the award, she said: “I'm always crying inside. You never get over something like this. It's just a constant reminder, especially for me. I'm rarely here in Jamaica, so every time I come back, as soon as I get off the aeroplane the first thing that hits home is that your life is not what it used to be.

“Being at home, most of the times I try not to be home alone. You get this sudden rush of memories — you see the pictures on the wall, you see a lot of things that remind you of the household we had, and it was a loving one. So, for something to be so easily removed, it is really painful,” the 29-year-old widow shared.

Of the award, she said: “The award helps in a way that I can speak proudly of this moment, of the bravery by him, and it's also another piece of memory I can share with the kids as they grow, because when he died they were babies, so each day I have to remind them of who their father was and what he did as an individual.”

Bennett — who served the JDF for 10 years — was killed while trying to foil the robbery of patrons by three gunmen at the barbershop. Bennett challenged the robbers with his private firearm, hitting one in the process. He was, however, shot by the gunman's accomplices, who took his weapon before escaping. Bennett was pronounced dead on the spot by a JDF medical officer.

He was one of several members of the uniformed forces, among some 215 people, who were recognised at the awards ceremony for contribution to nation-building yesterday. Bennett was one of only two members of the uniformed forces to receive the Medal of Honour for Gallantry.


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