© Copyright 2014, The Oklahoman
FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — Nervous energy coursed through the Behenna family Friday morning as they waited in a parking lot just outside the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth. The ominous walls of the historic military prison loomed behind them as they scanned a nearby street for a white van.
“He’s supposed to come from that way,” Vicki Behenna said pointing east toward the main prison entrance. “But who knows with this place. He could come from anywhere.”
Just then, a white van approached on a side road from the opposite direction, turned into the lot and crawled to a stop in front of the small group of supporters.
A young uniformed woman stepped from the driver’s seat. After checking the family’s identifications, she turned and retreated to the back of the van and opened the doors. After serving five years in prison for the 2008 killing of an Iraqi man, former U.S. Army 1st Lt. Michael Behenna emerged to the cheers of his family.
Despite warnings from officers not to rush the van, Michael Behenna’s longtime girlfriend, Shannon Wahl, sprinted toward him, nearly knocking him over as she wrapped her arms around his neck.
Dressed in an orange hoodie and gray sweatpants, his head shaved and sporting a short, trimmed beard, Behenna soon was surrounded by his family. He closed his eyes and lifted his head toward the heavens, embracing the parents who never gave up seeking his freedom. He buried his face in his mother’s shoulder. The family then gathered in a tight circle to say a quiet prayer.
“This is such a surreal feeling,” Behenna said minutes later when he sat down for an exclusive interview with The Oklahoman. “The only thing I’ve seen for the past five years is concrete, a little bit of grass, fence and razor wire. So this morning when they took me to see my family and all the people I truly care about, it’s a day I won’t forget.”
Behenna, 30, is returning to Edmond with his family in hopes of picking up his life where he left off.
On May 16, 2008, just a few weeks after an improvised bomb attack killed two members of Behenna’s seven-man platoon in Iraq, Behenna killed known al-Qaida operative Ali Mansur while questioning him.
Behenna claimed self-defense, saying Mansur threw a chunk of concrete at him before reaching for Behenna’s gun. But military officials ruled against Behenna, stating that he was the one in the position of power as he questioned a naked Mansur with a gun pointed at him, therefore sacrificing his claim to self-defense.
A military court found Behenna guilty of unpremeditated murder in a combat zone and sentenced him to 25 years. In 2010, the U.S. Army Clemency and Parole Board reduced the sentence to 15 years.
This was the first year Behenna was eligible for parole.
A five-year fight
The night before his release, the scene kept running through Vicki Behenna’s mind. When Michael had been found guilty, she’d had 30 minutes to say goodbye. He’d left her in a white van.
Vicki Behenna: A Mother's Promise