By Emily Younker
Globe Staff Writer
WEBB CITY, Mo. —
Jonathan Benson, 22, had never experienced anything like graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“It was probably the best feeling I’ve had in my life,” he said Sunday, four days after his graduation ceremony in Colorado Springs, Colo. “When I threw my hat in the air, that was definitely a great moment.”
Benson, a 2006 graduate of Carl Junction High School, returned home for a reunion with family and friends over the Memorial Day weekend.
Benson said he has always wanted to be a pilot. He began flying as a young child with an uncle, and he got his pilot’s license at age 17.
But a neck injury in 2008 left his plans to fly with the Air Force up in the air for almost two years, though he recently — to his delight — was cleared for flight.
Benson said his first two years at the academy were largely uneventful. But in December 2008, during one of his classes in unarmed combat, the unexpected happened. Benson already had performed combat techniques as part of the course’s final exam, and he had volunteered to be the model for a classmate’s test.
“I was running at him and acting like I was going to tackle him around the waist,” he said. “I anticipated him picking me up under my arms and throwing me behind his back. ... Instead, he just reached under my shoulders and dropped me down so his weight came down on me.”
Several ligaments in the back of Benson’s neck tore, and he spent the next eight weeks in a neck brace. When he began the next semester at the academy, he was not allowed to take physical education classes or participate in the intramural program. He also was grounded indefinitely from some of his favorite activities, including the soaring instructor pilot program and the glider aerobatics team.
In June 2009, Benson decided to undergo spinal fusion surgery at the suggestion of his doctor. To help stabilize his neck, he received a plate in the front of his neck and two titanium rods in the back of his neck.
“The rods and plate hold my bones and vertebrae in place and protect my spinal cord,” he said. “The ligaments help act as a suspension system for your neck. ... If I received another blow to the head (without having had the surgery), it could paralyze me.”
Benson spent that summer at home in Webb City with his family. He said that when he returned to school last fall, his mindset had changed because the surgery itself didn’t automatically qualify him to fly with the Air Force.
“My dreams (of flying) were basically dashed,” he said. “What pursued in the following months was a lot of connections (of) my commanders and doctors talking to the people who make the decisions (about qualifying people to fly).”
Benson continued to look for opportunities, noting that he likely would be allowed to fly as a civilian. As a member of the military, though, his chances of flying were nonexistent unless he could get a medical waiver.
“It (flying commercially) was something I was willing to give up because I wanted to serve in the Air Force more than I wanted to be a pilot,” he said.
In April, Benson received an e-mail telling him that the Air Force Medical Service had reviewed his case and qualified him for flight. To say that Benson was happy to hear that would be an understatement.
“The ceilings in my room are over 8 feet tall, and I felt my hair touch it because I jumped so high,” he said. He celebrated the good news with his friends and his squadron, and when he called his parents to tell them, “the tears were just running down my face,” he said.
Benson graduated last week with a degree in aeronautical engineering and with a commission as a second lieutenant. He was 34th in his class of 1,001 students and was one of 43 students recognized for participation in the academy’s scholars program.
His mother, Ruth Benson, said her son has always aimed high. In high school, he was a captain of his soccer team and achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. He also put his studies first, she said.
“He’s kind of a natural leader, in a way,” she said. “He has accomplished so much.”
Benson said he is an Air Force graduate thanks to support from his family, friends and girlfriend, and his faith. His ultimate goal is to become a professional pilot and have a family, but he said he doesn’t know exactly where his life is headed.
“I just want to live life and have some fun,” he said. “The Air Force is a great organization, so I’m excited for the future and what it’s going to have for me.”
Jonathan Benson will begin pilot training in November at Columbus (Miss.) Air Force Base. He anticipates graduating from that program in December 2011.