HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – In 2003, Sgt. 1st Class Jessica Biggins was deploying with the 1058th Transportation Company in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. She knew from family stories that her grandfather was a big hero in the Korean War, but it wasn't until the day of her deployment ceremony that the stories came together with the man she always knew as "Pa."
Clifford "Cica" E. Benoit joined the Army when he was 17. Before he was sent to fight in the Korean War, he was a Soldier in General Douglas MacArthur's Honor Guard. While fighting with the 1st Cavalry Division during the Korean War in the winter of 1950, he was captured and held as a POW until late 1953.
After he returned to the United States, Benoit decided to continue serving his country by transitioning to the Massachusetts National Guard's 182nd Infantry Battalion. He retired as an Infantry First Sergeant with the 182nd in 1989, after 33 years of service.
The day of her send-off ceremony, Biggins got to see a side of her grandfather she, up until then, only knew from stories.
"I always knew he was a badass guy, but he was still my grandfather and that's how I saw him," said Biggins, a recruiter with the Massachusetts National Guard.
She was surprised when he was recognized and warmly greeted by many of the senior leadership at the ceremony.
"It really hit me though, when there were sergeants major and colonels coming up to him with big smiles on their faces, reaching out for handshakes and hugs," she continued. "In the 16 years since then, I've met even more of his friends in the Massachusetts National Guard and have been lucky enough to hear stories about him from them."
When family or friends asked about his time as a prisoner, he would humbly acknowledge his time in captivity. While she was growing up, he didn't speak about his POW time, but he did proudly wear his POW hat and display his EX-POW license plate on his car.
"Since returning home from Iraq in 2004, my grandfather and I have had a much closer relationship. He's told me stories about his time in the Chinese controlled POW camp, about the friends he lost and the experiences he went through" Biggins said.
His stature in Biggins' family as a war hero might seem to give him a larger than life reputation, but he fits the part.
"My grandfather stands 6-foot-4 and is a strong, angry-looking man with the biggest hands anyone has ever seen," said Biggins. "He's seen things and survived what most of us couldn't possibly imagine."
Biggins and her siblings grew up knowing a slightly different side of him.
"Behind his angry-looking and intimidating exterior is a witty, charismatic, goofball that used to give all of his grandchildren Bubblicious bubblegum when we were leaving his cottage at Salisbury Beach," she said.
While handing each their Bubblicious he'd conspiratorially whisper that when they were done chewing the gum to "stick it under the car seat," Biggins reminisced.
"He's always been the hero of our family that everyone looked up to and didn't want to disappoint," Biggins said. "We all still think he's, by far, the coolest and most badass person on the planet."