The Michael Behenna Story: Getting Personal
EDITOR’S NOTE: On July 31, 2008, Army Ranger 1st Lt. Michael Behenna was charged with the premeditated murder of Ali Mansur, a known Al-Qaeda agent operating near Albu Toma, an area north of Baghdad. Seven months later, the leader of the 18-member Delta Company, 5th platoon of the Army 101st Airborne Infantry Division was convicted of unpremeditated murder and sentenced to 25 years confinement at Fort Leavenworth. Below is the first installment of a multi-part investigative series detailing the spurious case against Lieutenant Behenna, now 26, adapted from “The Michael Behenna Story (pdf)” (26 pgs., PDF) by new BMW contributor Carrie Fatigante.
By Carrie Fatigante
The resemblance of Michael to his mother is compelling and impossible to miss. Their jaws are firmly set and their eyes appear acute, as if even the smallest details are catalogued. Although I was not allowed to contact Michael because of the status of his case, I did meet the rest of his family one afternoon last August, and couldn’t help but note the intense loyalty to Michael and each other. Despite the somber reason for the meeting, the Behennas welcomed me to their table as a friend, sharing even the most difficult aspects of Michael’s case.
Vicki and Scott Behenna raised their three boys in Edmond, Okla., an affluent suburb of Oklahoma City. Vicki is a federal prosecutor and Scott is a former Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent who now serves as an intelligence analyst for the FBI. Law enforcement, justice, honesty and loyalty are running themes that extend to each member of the family.
Michael joined the Army to defend his country after the attacks of 9/11. Middle son Brett is a 24-year-old law student at the University of Oklahoma and a legal intern at the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. The youngest, Curtis, is a 22-year-old pre-med senior at the University of Central Oklahoma. He is currently interning at the Veterans Hospital in Oklahoma City as a research assistant studying the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The younger boys are as commanding as their older brother, though in different ways.
Brett’s dark eyes seemed to search my motives immediately, and it became clear throughout the interview that he has taken over Michael’s role as protector of the family.
Curtis, who wears Michael’s dog tags every day, has sandy hair and a boyish smile that seems to spite the difficulties his family has endured.
“He is a gifted leader” said Vicki, when asked to describe Michael. “Not in a student council sort of way, but more of a finding someone in need and getting a group together to help them way.”
A perfect example, she says, is how, shortly after Michael arrived at the military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., he met another soldier whose wife and young children were now without income because of the soldier’s conviction. Michael called home and implored Scott and Vicki to help this family, not just financially, but also in processing social security forms and aid requests. Even in prison, “Michael wants to help people,” Vicki smiles proudly.
Both his parents and brothers agree that Michael was the family protector and stood as a strong force of alliance with Brett and Curtis if they encountered trouble at school. Even so, Vicki says he was friendly with everyone, and had nicknames for those closest to him.
“It’s sort of his thing,” Vicki explained. “It’s his way of showing affection.”
“He had an amazing ability to get along with anyone,” Scott added. “His friends ran the gamut. And while serving in Iraq, he was known for his ability to build rapport with people of all different cultures. He always tried to learn the languages of the people he was dealing with.”
Indeed, emails and correspondence from those who knew Michael before he was sent to prison confirm that this is a man respected for his intelligence and loved for his compassion.
Although he was an Army first lieutenant, the Behennas disclosed that he rarely wore his bars, because he didn’t like to advertise his rank when establishing accord.
“He is a very relatable guy,” says Curtis. “He had friends who lived in wealthy gated communities and he had friends who lived in trailer parks.”
Brett describes Michael as “the least prejudicial and most open-minded person I know. He has an insatiable interest and incredible respect for people of different cultures. The idea that Michael would engage in any kind of angry revenge killing is the total opposite of his personality.”
What is perhaps the most telling of Michael’s traits, at least in regard to his criminal case, is his unwavering loyalty to those he loves and for whom he feels responsible.
Michael was so dedicated to spending time with his family that in high school he instituted a family game night ritual, and wouldn’t take no for an answer when other family members might have wanted to bow out.
But, Michael has been no stranger to loss and betrayal.
Like millions of other 11 year old boys, Michael played baseball and especially liked his coach, Mike Weaver, an attorney for the Department of Housing and Urban Development located in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. But on April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah building, killing 168 people, including Weaver.
When I asked Vicki how Michael dealt with such a horrific loss at this young age, she answered candidly.
“He never picked up a baseball bat again. He wouldn’t even look at one. And his healing process was prolonged because of my position on the case. He couldn’t escape what had happened.”
Vicki was an integral part of the federal government’s prosecution team that ultimately secured the death penalty for McVeigh, who was executed for the bombing in 2001.
According to a NewsOK.com report, Michael was so affected by the OKC bombing that he scrawled Weaver’s initials on his notebooks for years. Looking at the picture of Michael in his baseball uniform with the happy smile and bright eyes, Brett told me, “The innocent boy in this picture ceased to exist.”
Shortly after the bombing, Vicki’s father began molesting Michael, who undoubtedly would have been vulnerable to such a psychological and physical attack. Despite his own emotional repercussions, Michael’s courage and protective nature allowed him to disclose the abuse two years later so that his brothers, who were nearing the age in which Michael’s abuse began, could be spared.
“Michael’s life hasn’t been easy,” Vicki says, showing a glimpse of the anger she still feels about Michael’s abuse. “Nothing has been handed to him, but he’s worked hard to move past these things.”
Michael spent his high school years undergoing counseling to deal with the events of his young life.
After graduating from Edmond Memorial High School in 2002, Michael discovered the ROTC program at the University of Central Oklahoma and finally felt he’d found a purpose for his interest in history and languages.
He finished his bachelor’s degree so that he could enter the Army as an officer. However, this plan was almost preempted, because Michael wanted to quit school in his freshman year and instead enlist immediately to help defend his country. Michael understood more than most the devastating effects of the 9/11 terror attacks, and he empathized with the victims and the families left behind.
Once Michael completed his degree at UCO, he promptly enlisted in the Army. After basic and officer training, Michael completed Ranger training, which Vicki describes as “unbelievable,” including 12-hour road marches performed on little sleep and minimal food rations.
Despite his success with the Rangers, Michael opted out of the Special Forces and requested a ground combat assignment. Full of pride and purpose, he was deployed to Iraq as a second lieutenant and leader of the 18-member Delta Company, 5th platoon of the Army 101st Airborne Infantry Division in September 2007. Less than a year later, he was under investigation for murder.
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To read other BMW posts about Lieutenant Behenna’s case, click here.
To learn more about the case and the legal defense fund set up to help defray costs associated with Lt. Behenna’s defense, visit DefendMichael.wordpress.com.