Ross Benson enjoys reflecting on his life as an adrenaline junkie. As a foreign service officer working in counternarcotics, there was never a dull moment in his assignments in Mexico, Columbia, Saudia Arabia and work in Washington, D.C.
Benson, now 75, says that in his foreign travels with his wife Janet and two sons, Galen and Joel, an armored car and armed bodyguards were the norm.
“In one Columbian 26-story apartment building that we lived in, there were five neighbors who were major cocaine traffickers,” he says. “I loved being around bad guys and jails in my work. I was never the type for pinstriped suits and silk ties. I loved the adrenaline rush of being in the middle of the action.”
Benson participated in the destruction of more drugs than any other diplomat, he says. “I was instrumental in the destruction of more than 200 tons of marijuana and 50 tons of opium,” he says of the eradication program he spearheaded in Mexico in 1991-1992.
“During this time, our local resident Keith Baker, was on a ship in the U.S. Navy off the coast of Columbia, that would pick up the Columbian drug planes on radar. They would turn the information over to the customs jet plane. The customs plane then followed it into Mexico, at which time the Mexicans launched an airplane full of Mexican police. Following the instructions from the customs jet, the Mexican police would pick up the drug planes and follow them as they landed, where the drug lords would be captured.”
This life was an adventurous path, a far cry from the quiet roots of his grandparents who immigrated from Sweden.
“Their first stop was Telluride, where my grandfather worked in the mines,” Benson says. “My father was born in the Pandora Mining Camp in 1909.”
Later the family moved on to San Francisco, where Benson was born and raised.
“It wasn’t easy, though,” Benson reflects. “My father was disabled, and as an only child, my mother’s frustrations were taken out on me. It was a very hard childhood and I spent a lot of time raising myself. But, this really gave me a sense of independence and the ability to handle being alone,” he says.
“As I reflect on my life and my career, I wonder how I got so lucky,” he says. “I had a wonderful life with my wife and sons, and I have a wonderful life now with my family here. I know that when I was out doing my job every day, it was not easy for Janet to be escorted by armed bodyguards, but she never complained. I mean, how do you really get use to bodyguards? But she carried on with life and enjoyed teaching dance at local schools, and also worked in the international schools as an elementary education teacher.”
Benson graduated from University of California at Berkeley, with a degree in political science in 1963 at the beginning of the protest movement.
“I protested against segregation and my photograph landed on the front page of the campus newspaper,” he says proudly. He enlisted in the Air Force in 1963, and was commissioned as an officer in 1964.
“And as it often goes in the Air Force, a week after my commission, Janet and I were married. I served 7 years, living in Mississippi, Massachusetts, Turkey and Utah. I grew up a lot during that time. For that, I’m grateful, and I can’t say enough about my experience when I knew others who were draft dodgers.”
Only 2 weeks after his 7-year commitment to the Air Force ended, he applied to become a U.S. diplomat, which involved taking a written test, an oral exam and real life scenarios to determine his problem solving skills.
“About 20,000 people would apply every year, but only 200 officers were accepted,” he says. “I was one of the lucky ones.”
Benson says that during the international assignments that his family “would travel as often as we could and take in the local culture. We camped in wide, open deserts in Saudi Arabia, we visited ancient ruins and we took in all of the experiences with great interest.”
When living in Columbia, Benson was in charge of the consulate on the northern coast of Columbia in Barranquilla. “All the drugs that exited Columbia went through this coastal region,” he says. “There were bombs and shootouts, and one night we were told, ‘Now! You must go!’ and we were escorted out of the city in the middle of the night.”
After serving as a diplomat for 22 years, Benson was at the highest level – the most senior at that grade, equivalent to being a full colonel in the Air Force.
“The next step would be administrative work in Washington D.C.,” he says, “so I retired in 1992. I never wanted a desk job.”
Benson served from 1980-1982 on the staff of the Secretary of State and participated in planning for nuclear war.
“At the time, I objected to the approach taken, arguing objective should be peace, not war. I still believe this to be the only sensible path.”
It didn’t end there, however. “There are times when one stands on conscience and this was one of them for me.”
Benson spent 2 years spent in the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command with B-52 bombers on alert to launch. “Given the temperament of the times, such experiences make one shudder at the direction we are again taking.”
Las Vegas was home from 1992-2011. “After living on the Red Sea in the 1970s in Saudi Arabia,” Benson says, “I became accustomed to the heat, so Las Vegas made sense. I enjoyed playing tennis in retirement and played in 18 regional and national tournaments.
“After I lost my wife, I became an avid traveler and traveled to more than 138 countries, sometimes with tour groups, and sometimes solo for 2-4 weeks at a time.”
Benson and his family were regulars at Adventure Unlimited in Buena Vista as campers and staffers on and off during Christmas and summer vacations from 1978-1998. He settled permanently here in 2011.
He says he no longer needs that adrenaline rush.
“After being a wandering fool for so long, I’ve reached a point to realize anything that’s important in life is right here in Buena Vista, and why miss a moment of that?”