WILLMAR -- On July 16, just before 9:15 p.m. Iraqi time, Spc. Jacob Benson, 22, of Willmar was talking with his three closest friends and fellow National Guard soldiers at a military base near Basra, Iraq, when a rocket hit, sending him flying.
"I hit the ground, and I got back up," he said.
What he found were his friends -- Spc. James Wertish, 20, of rural Olivia, Spc. Carlos E. Wilcox IV, 27, of Cottage Grove, and Spc. Daniel P. Drevnick, 22, of Woodbury -- all on the ground, dying. Staff Sgt. Blake Hayden called in an ambulance. It was there within 15 minutes.
"It felt like hours," Benson said.
Benson, a 2005 Willmar High School graduate, has identified himself as the fourth soldier involved in the attack that killed his friends and fellow Minnesotan soldiers assigned to the Stillwater-based military police unit, part of the 34th Infantry Division "Red Bulls."
His wife, Alison, and 1-month-old daughter, Avery, reside in New London. His parents, Dr. Terry and Betty Benson, formerly of Willmar, live in Prior Lake.
During a telephone interview with the Tribune, Benson said that pieces of shrapnel were found in his arm and his back after what reports from Iraq indicate was a rocket attack on the base. He also suffered a concussion and bruises all over his body.
He was later told that it took a struggle to pull him away from the scene. He left only when it was clear that his friends were being taken to the hospital.
"I was pretty emotional at that point," he said. "They were my brothers in arms. They were my best friends."
Wertish was dead before medics arrived, according to Benson. He said that Wilcox died on the way to the hospital, and Drevnick died soon after arriving.
Benson was taken to a hospital in Kuwait. He stayed there three days before being taken back to the military base in Basra. He said doctors see him every day.
In his six years of service, Benson said he got to know the three soldiers well. Both he and his wife were close friends with Wilcox.
Now, a week after his friends' deaths, Benson is still coping with the shock and pain of their loss.
"It's trouble every day," he said.
He said he wanted everybody to know that the three killed were not only great soldiers, but great friends.
"I want you to put in there: Wilcox made everybody smile. Drevnick was a great guy who made everybody laugh. James was a great friend.
"They were the best soldiers I ever got to know."