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Out of prison, Afghanistan vet works as ranch helper

Aug. 4, 2014 - 02:29PM   |  
Michael Behenna walks on the land that he helps work July 17 in Medford, Okla.
Michael Behenna walks on the land that he helps work July 17 in Medford, Okla. (Sarah Phipps / AP)
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MEDFORD, OKLA. — A handful of “old-timers” sit in a downtown cafe tucked between vacant buildings as old as they are and gossip over a pot of coffee.

With just shy of 1,000 residents, it seems everybody knows everybody in Medford and everybody loves to know everybody’s business, The Oklahoman reported.

On this day, the caffeine-fueled dialogue among the regulars at Make Your Mark Coffeehouse and Deli on Cherokee Street is about the quiet, young stranger that’s come to town.

“He was a soldier,” one man offers.

“He was just released from prison,” another chimes in.

“I think he’s here to help for harvest,” a third ventures, before offering the tidbit everyone seems most interested in.

“I heard he killed somebody.”

Miles away, on the far side of Grant County, in an open pasture, the stranger is running.

A bull with a length of barbed wire wrapped around a leg is sprinting full speed and Michael Behenna is racing to catch up.

Behenna is surprised by the agility of the 2,000-pound animal. Despite any pain or restriction, it seems to run without effort and jump with ease.

The bull plays keep away, hurdling back and forth over a shallow, muddy creek. Uneven terrain and a recent rain storm make for treacherous footing.

As he advances on the bull, Behenna’s foot sinks into mud to his knee.

He manages to pull out his foot, but his boot stays planted in the muck. He stoops to retrieve it, balancing a sock-covered foot precariously in the air like an awkward flamingo. Behenna looks up to find himself face-to-face with the bull.

“I think even he was wondering what I was doing out here,” Behenna recalled later while walking on the northern Oklahoma ranch where he now lives and works. “But these are the kind of moments I love. This is what I had been missing out on.”

Michael Behenna, 31, focuses on being the best ranch hand he can be. It’s what he can control.

Behenna says he no longer thinks much about his time in Iraq as a 24-year-old platoon leader. Nor does he dwell on the long-ago events that altered his life and cost him a half-decade behind bars.

Instead, four months after being released from the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth for killing an unarmed Iraqi man, former Army 1st Lt. Behenna is trying to free himself from his past entanglements.

On April 21, 2008, Behenna and other members of the unit he led, 5th Platoon, Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, were heading back to their base after picking up two Iraqi detainees from a desert village in Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad.

The platoon, part of the 101st Airborne Division, was traveling in four mine-resistant trucks down a narrow gravel road when a bomb exploded near the third truck, sending a mushroom cloud of dirt and smoke skyward. Two soldiers, Spc. Adam Kohlhaas, 26, of Kentucky, and Spc. Steven Christofferson, 20, of Wisconsin, died in the blast.

Behenna declared it his mission to find those responsible for the deaths of his men.Weeks later, Behenna and his squad were back on patrol when they captured an Iraqi named Ali Mansur. Behenna recognized the name as one he’d heard mentioned many times as an insurgent working with Al Qaeda.

The squad took Mansur back to their base to be questioned by intelligence officers. Two weeks later, higher ups ordered the man released because of a lack of evidence.

Behenna insisted more questioning was needed. Instead, his platoon was ordered to return Mansur to his home.

On May 16, 2008, enroute to Mansur’s village, Behenna ordered the convoy to stop, saying he wanted to check a culvert for weapons.

Behenna took a blindfolded Mansur from one of the vehicles and Behenna, another soldier and a translator led him about 300 feet away to a secluded spot away from the rest of the platoon. An earlier dust storm and evening twilight obscured visibility.

Mansur was stripped and interrogated. Behenna pointed his sidearm at Mansur trying to scare him into confessing to the earlier attack that killed Behenna’s men. At one point, Behenna said he turned away from Mansur, who lunged for his weapon. Behenna said he reacted instinctively and shot Mansur twice, killing him. According to trial testimony, Behenna then ordered the other soldier to throw a thermite grenade at the body.

Behenna claimed self-defense. Prosecutors called it an execution.

A military panel ruled that Behenna had no right to claim self-defense given that he was in the position of power against the unarmed, naked man. He was found guilty in 2009 of unpremeditated murder in a combat zone and sentenced to 25 years in prison. In 2010, the U.S. Army Clemency and Parole Board reduced the sentence to 15 years.

He’d grown up the oldest of three brothers in the comfortable suburb of Edmond. He’d played basketball and football at Edmond Memorial High School. He was the son of a law enforcement officer and a former assistant U.S. attorney who helped prosecute Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. He’d been raised to honor those in uniform. No one was surprised when he’d joined ROTC at the University of Central Oklahoma, where he was studying history and military science. He’d willingly gone to war. Joined the Rangers. Been proud to serve. Believed in the mission.

Now, trapped behind wire, he would rethink it all.

Keep your head down. Do your own time. Behenna lived by those words in Leavenworth.

It stung that the military courts didn’t believe his self-defense claim against what he said was a known al Qaeda operative.

“That kind of stuff is so poisonous to the mind,” he said. “It can consume you. I had to commit myself to something so I wouldn’t go crazy.”So, he read. Hundreds of books. Often pouring through 500 pages in a day. Each book had to help him better himself.

He started with Nelson Mandela’s memoir. He learned Spanish. He developed a passion for agriculture.

But it was the works of two mid-20th Century philosophers and spiritualists, G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky, that Behenna says saved him. The two men preached about the importance of being self-aware, of probing one’s own mental consciousness to gain a better understanding of the world.

“From the time you are born you start adopting bits and pieces of all the personalities of the people around you,” Behenna said. “I started trying to peel that back and figure out who I was and what I care about.”

With nothing but time, he began to relive decisions he had made, analyzing whether he’d made choices for himself or to meet the expectations of others. Was he his own person?

Miami Dolphins fan? Yes, but not really. They were his dad’s passion.

The false bravado he put on for old high school buddies? Different person, too. He leaned toward being soft-spoken.

His original desire to serve in the military?

“If I had to do it over again I wouldn’t,” he said. “You are just fighting the battles of the politicians. They don’t care about you. I tried so hard to convince myself we were doing some good over there.”

He continued to read. Techniques for harvesting crops and caring for livestock. Something to look forward to once he left prison.

When his family learned Behenna would be paroled, they looked for a comfortable place for him to land.

Greg Oplotnik, a former All-American wrestler at UCO who started his own pharmaceutical company, read about Behenna’s release and called to give him an opportunity for a fresh start.

He told the Behennas that Michael was welcome to help out to his sprawling 4,000-acre ranch he owned near Medford, about 120 miles north of Oklahoma City. He never had any concerns about Behenna’s integrity.

“I don’t think we give the proper respect to our guys in the military once they come home,” Oplotnik said. “Knowing what they sacrificed and what they gave to make our lives what they are today. We just wanted to offer Michael the chance to pursue his dream.”

Oplotnik was rewarded with a hard worker. Behenna was eager to prove his worth and put to use the knowledge he read in prison.

“He knew more about working a ranch than I did when he came out because of how much he read,” Oplotnik said. “He’s a grunt too. I thought I was giving him an opportunity but because of how hard he’s worked out there I’ve realized how much of an asset he is.”

Behenna said he never felt nervous about coming to the wide-open spaces around Medford. On any given day, a few cars or pickups might be parked in front of the lumber yard, town museum, insurance office, funeral home, storefront gym or other business that populate a short stretch of highway that serves as the town’s main street. He wasn’t worried about his reputation preceding him. He wasn’t surprised when he heard he was being talked about over coffee.

“People are going to talk of course,” he said. “But I’ve met everyone, and they couldn’t have been nicer. I’ve been welcomed here and that feels nice.”

The woman working the counter at Smrcka’s Dairy Snack on N 1st Street recognizes him, offers a big smile and asks how he’s doing.

Otherwise, Behenna keeps to himself here. His nearest neighbors are a mile away. He is surrounded by open fields and endless skies.

“The sunsets are really beautiful out here,” he says scrolling through landscape pictures he’s captured with his phone’s camera. “I love the pace of life out here. Nothing moves too fast.”

Neighbors Loren and Patty Mennem invite Behenna over often. Loren, 66, is an experienced rancher and loves to answer Behenna’s questions. Patty is just happy to have somebody around to eat her brownies.

Patty, 64, said she’s never concerned herself with Behenna’s past.

“I don’t care about that at all,” she said. “We like getting to know who he is now.”

Behenna lives alone in a house filled with silence. A television is shut away inside a cabinet. The radio is turned off. A computer is used solely for reading about agriculture; he’s halfway through a research paper about using goats as a greener alternative to big farm equipment.

On a mirror in his bedroom are pictures of Kohlhaas and Christofferson, the two soldiers he lost in Iraq.

Try as he might to forget so much, in the quiet of the country, Behenna said he thinks often about those guys.

“I think about them every day,” he said. “I see them every day.”

In Leavenworth, Behenna said constant support from family, friends and strangers gave him hope. The price of that attention became clear at his release.

Camera crews stationed themselves outside his parents’ house. Strangers wanted to meet him. Television and radio hosts invited him to appear on their shows to not only share his story but to comment on political debates he was unfamiliar with after five years away.

In early July, a producer for political commentator Sean Hannity’s radio show called Behenna while he was on a tractor spraying fields and asked if he’d speak on air with guest host Alan West.

Behenna agreed, hoping to share his story and those of several other soldiers he believes are being held unjustly at Leavenworth. He was confused when West asked him about the swap of Taliban prisoners for captured American soldier Bowe Bergdahl.

“Does that upset you when you see these Taliban being released, Michael?” West asked.

“No. It’s not something that I let upset me. If I sat there and thought about it, it probably would. But that stuff can wear on you if you continue to think about it. I try not to think about it unless it’s brought up like this,” Behenna answered.

The answer was polite, but carried a hint of annoyance. He stayed on the line but stopped listening to the conversation. Eventually, he returned to his work.

“He was just wanting me to be pissed,” Behenna said. “I felt tired of being used.”

How have you changed? The question draws a laugh.

“Easier to answer what hasn’t changed,” Behenna says on a recent workday.

Walking through a steady rain with green pasture as far as the eye can see is a stark contrast to the barren confines of Leavenworth. The gray jumpsuit and slip-on shoes he wore are gone, replaced with mud-caked boots, jeans and a flannel shirt. The full beard and shaved-head he emerged from military prison with doesn’t look out of place among folks here.

Behenna insists he didn’t move to the country to avoid his past. He visits friends and family in Edmond every weekend. He’s at his parents’ house every Sunday for a big family meal.

He’s visited Las Vegas with his girlfriend and lifelong friend, Shannon Wahl. Driving into town, he told her how the Nevada desert looked eerily similar to Iraq. They stayed one night and never left the swanky hotel suite. Michael, who doesn’t partake in coffee, much less alcohol, cigarettes or gambling, read a book.

The next morning, they drove to Zion National Park in Utah. They hiked the Angels Landing rock formation with Wahl’s father, a trip they had promised to take since before Behenna left for Iraq.

Moments like that make him realize his five years in prison weren’t wasted. He’s living out a promise he made to himself while inside.

He’s seizing the opportunities he has right now.

“I think about all the adjustments I’ve made and the person I’ve become,” he said. “I focus on that every day and just try to be better.”

Behenna parks his massive black pickup with oversized tires just a few yards off a remote gravel road. He steps on the running board, holds his hand over his eyes and gazes out over the fence lines that crisscross the landscape.

He’ll check them for weaknesses. He doesn’t feel like chasing that bull again.

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