He remembered it like it was yesterday. The young woman was dragged out into the streets by her father. As a woman in Afghanistan, she would pay a high price for her disobedience. Marine Ben Bruce was seated in a military vehicle not far away when the woman’s father took a brick to her head, striking her over and over.
He remembered it like it was yesterday. The young woman was dragged out into the streets by her father. As a woman in Afghanistan, she would pay a high price for her disobedience. Marine Ben Bruce was seated in a military vehicle not far away when the woman’s father took a brick to her head, striking her over and over. Bruce called over the radio, asking for permission to engage the enemy, but his orders were to stand down — this wasn’t his country, these weren’t his laws. All he could do was watch until the screams stopped and she lay in a pool of her own blood where her father left her.
And life along the busy street and in the rest of the world carried on, the woman’s body nothing more than garbage to step around.
Today, out of active duty, Bruce works for the Air Force. He spends nine months of the year in Afghanistan and has seen many atrocities, especially against women.
“I was raised a gentleman,” he said. “I was raised to take care of women, to protect them.”
Three months of the year belong to him for some R&R. He says it is his time to detox and to just be himself. This year, Bruce found his solace in a small sailboat, rowing along the Erie Canal, just him and a dog named Blue.
His journey started in late August after he bought his boat, dubbed “Junkyard Dog”, on eBay. He met Blue on Craig’s List — she needed a new home and he wanted a companion for his trip. He’s been told Blue would make great “bait” for attracting women to the 46-year-old bachelor whose has dedicated his life to the military. But for Bruce, Blue, a 7 1/2-month-old Akita/Pitt bull mix, makes the perfect companion on his latest adventure and later for his aging mom, who lives alone in Pennsylvania not far from the New York border.
He hopes one day to visit the Bahamas, but not this trip. For this journey he met his mom in Detriot and sailed east across Lake Erie, his mom following on land for a time to meet up with him each evening. From there he followed the Niagara River to the Erie Canal for an anticipated peaceful journey painted in the colors of fall. When he was greeted by local officials and a reporter in Fairport last week, he was stunned.
Ever since, Bruce has been greeted in each community and hears calls of welcome from residents walking along the canal trail.
“Blue is especially a major league celebrity,” Bruce said. “People ask ‘where’s your dog?’ and I tell Blue ‘Hey, Blue, up on deck. Your audience awaits.’”
Friday night, Bruce could be seen lounging on the dock in Newark beside his boat, eating his dinner and sharing scraps with Blue. He had already met the mayor and was granted a tour of ARC, which he called highly impressive, adding that every person there was refreshingly genuine.
He was baffled by his new found notoriety as he traveled from Fairport and through Wayne County. From shore, local residents see a hero, a soldier who dedicated his life to their freedom, a man who fights so they don’t have to, who chose to spend his brief respite from that fight rowing down the canal in their town. But Bruce sees himself as just a man rowing a boat because his sail is too tall to fit under the many bridges spanning the canal. From his perspective, residents should be marveling at the world around them and the amazing historic waterway that is the Erie Canal.
The first thing Bruce said he noticed was the trees. The next thing he noticed was the water — something he doesn’t see much of at all in Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan is a rocky, barren, inhospitable place,” Bruce said. “This is just night and day. The air even smells different.”
Along the way on his trip, he said he has hung over the side of his boat to capture photos of everything right down to the saturated leaves floating along with the current even as those resting just on top of the water are blown by the wind in the opposite direction — the effect was like a kaleidoscope, he said. And he described with great wonder the “amazing stone work” along the canal.
“No mortar, just fitted, stacked stones,” he said, then gesturing about him he added. “It’s amazing to think in that era what they accomplished.”
Bruce offers a view of the local community from eyes that have not grown accustomed to the surroundings. He pointed out the sights and sounds, the buildings, the restaurants, the stores all within in easy reach. Local residents are lucky, he said. No matter how bad it seems, Bruce noted, living in the U.S. is better than anywhere — there’s help here, he said. In Afghanistan there’s nothing, he said, and the suffering there is immense as people struggle to simply make it each day. Then he asked if residents knew just how fortunate they really are.
Bruce rose bright and early Saturday morning to continue his journey east with no definite destination in mind, just enjoying the freedoms he has traveling, an anonymous man on his sailboat with his dog. But in his wake, he hopes his modest fame leaves a new perspective on life for the many people he was honored to have met along the way.