Miramar Memorial Services

8380 Miramar Mall, Suite # 105, San Diego, CA


Donna Marie Benson

July 17, 1941May 16, 2020

PNCS Donna M. Benson

Born July 17, 1941 in Gloucester, Mass (the best fishing town with the Fisherman’s Memorial) to Helen and Harold Benson. Her siblings consisted of four great brothers and one beautiful sister. Three brothers joined the Army; one went to the Air Force, and Donna joined the Navy in 1959 when she graduated from Saint Ann High School and turned 18.

Donna’s first Duty Station was in San Diego, with its Dairy Farm in Mission Valley, buffalo in Hazard Center, tiny airport on Pacific Highway, and a ferry with free popcorn going across to Coronado. In love with San Diego, she did not want to leave. She was discharged in San Diego. Donna always thought that she grew up in San Diego with that first tour: learning how to dance, drink, drive, and smoke. Of course, smoking didn’t last very long. She started working for the Federal Civil Service, playing basketball and softball, and running 5K and 10K races.

She really missed her Navy, so she joined the Naval Reserve in August 1970 and retired in 2001 from Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Center (NMCRC) San Diego. While NTC (Naval Training Center) was still San Diego’s Boot Camp, she assisted and then coached the NTC Women’s Softball Team until the base closed.

She was the first female assigned to San Diego’s Mobile Inshore Undersea Warfare Unit. Also, after making Senior Chief, Donna was the only female student at the Navy Senior Enlisted Academy in Newport, Rhode Island.

In August 1999, while camping in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta,Canada, seizures got her an air ambulance trip from Calgary to San Diego, resulting in surgery to remove a meningioma (benign brain tumor) as well as time spent in physical and cognitive therapy.

In September 2000, her #1 challenge was to get back on her bike so she could ride in her first Bike MS (Multiple Sclerosis) Bay to Bay bike ride. 2020 would have been her 20th Ride.

After almost a year away from her civilian job because of her brain injury, Donna went back to her job to see how much she could improve, but after dealing with the brain injury , she knew it was time to retire. It was time to love life more.

In September 2001, surgery for Colon Cancer and chemotherapy treatments put another year on hold.

Meeting another woman at Sharp Healthcare’s Community Re-Entry Program is what got her started playing Senior Women’s Basketball at the YMCA on Sunday afternoons. Since Wendy O’Donnell would never be able to play basketball – a game she dearly loved – she made Donna promise to play for her, even though Donna had to deal with some serious balance problems at first. Donna played in senior women’s basketball games and went to Senior Nationals in St. Louis, Stanford, Houston, Minneapolis, and Birmingham.

Then, because of having cancer, Donna met a beautiful, awesome, and inspirational group of women survivors with San Diego Team Survivor Sea Dragons – a dragon boat crew, who love paddling around Fiesta Island, our beautiful Mission Bay. “Dragon Boat races are exciting and competitive – our coach and “Driver” makes us want to paddle – she’s an awesome and much loved leader for so many people.”

Because of her brain injury, Donna became involved with the San Diego Brain Injury Foundation, which soon became another part of Donna’s family, giving her the tools and patience to start doing things on her own.

Without her brain injury and cancer, Donna would not have become involved with the wonderful SDBI Foundation, so many beautiful bike rides for MS, or the awe inspiring group of women cancer survivors.

Because of her brain injury, as time went on, Donna decided to go back to school to complete her AA degree. Before the brain injury, she always felt that she had “more brains than brawn”. Who knew that, post-brain injury, she would have “more brawn than brains” because of the basketball, bike riding, paddling, and softball.

Going through San Diego’s Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) Program at Mesa College’s Continuing Education program for special classes, Donna finally started classes through their Disabled Student Program Services in 2016. She graduated with an AA degree in History and received a Certificate of Performance in Women’s Studies. Why? It was another challenge.

Donna passed away on May 16, 2020 just before ships bells chimed 0800. Team Survivor Dragon Boat crew-mate, Kelly, was by her side. She visualized Donna through a fast bike ride down the coast, then had Donna board the boat and take some bow jumps before sunrise. Kelly also promoted Donna to a Four-Star Admiral before her last breath.

“It definitely has been a fun-filled life! Because of a brain injury, Wendy getting me involved with basketball, meeting so many people with MS because of my brain injury, and cancer getting me involved with Team Survivor.” Donna M. Benson

Donna was preceded in death by her parents, and her brothers Donald and Richard Benson. Donna is survived by her sister Barbara Catalini of Gloucester, MA, her brother Warren Benson (partner Rudy) of Boston, MA, brother Clifford Benson (Cathy) of Fairfield, CA, and Wallis Benson (sister-in-law) of Sacramento, CA and numerous nieces and nephews, great nieces and nephews and too many friends to count.

Donna’s family would like to sincerely thank those who took loving care and support Donna received.

Donna wrote the majority of her obituary.

Due to the COVID-19 Virus, Donna’s Memorial Service will be held at a future date. Please contact either Ellen at ellen180g@gmail.com or Nancy at nlrdrg@gmail.com in order for us to make contact when Memorial Services are planned.

You can donate to the San Diego Brain Injury Foundation, the National MS Society, or our own local Team Survivor San Diego Sea Dragons.


No public services are scheduled at this time. Receive a notification when services are updated.


Donna Marie Benson

have a memory or condolence to add?

Janet DeNardo

July 3, 2020

PNCS Benson was a Naval Reservist at NMCRC San Diego where I was stationed as a young junior officer on the staff. (1977-1980) I remember Senior Chief as very professional, knowledgeable and an outstanding role model for all Sailors but especially the young women she worked with. We both loved sports but I don't recall us being teammates on any of the USN teams at that time. I do recall how generous she was to offer her Chargers tickets when my favorite team was coming to play. Chicago Bears v Chargers! I believe it was the only game I ever saw in San Diego. And for some reason I can still hear her laugh-it was one that made you smile. RIP, Senior Chief.

Niles Johanson

June 11, 2020

My spouse and I have known Donna for a little bit over a year. Donna rented our condo apartment in University City beginning in February 2019 after our prior tenant moved out. We immediately took to Donna because of her outgoing and dynamic personality.
It turned out we had other things in common, my spouse Toula is a cancer survivor and joined Team Survivor for a while to paddle dragon boats and Donna was big into paddling and several other sports. We regret that we had only a short time to know her but we found Donna to be a wonderful person and a terrific tenant!

Marie FitzGerald

June 10, 2020

In 1985 I met Donna and it is safe to say that meeting changed my life forever. She took me under her wing, gave me a place to live, and pushed me....sometimes not so gently.....to finish school and become a Navy Officer. Along the way she took me “home” to Gloucester, MA to meet her family and show me where she had grown up. I was instantly accepted into the family without question, and Gloucester has become a favorite place to me. I visit whenever I am in the area. Donna introduced me to long distance bicycling, and learned to ski with me. Throughout the years, she continued to influence me and introduced me to many of the people in my life who are my good friends. She encouraged me to play sports, inviting me to play senior women’s softball, basketball (I’m lousy), and bicycling. In 2012 I signed up to do the MS150 bike ride with her for the 3rd time. This year I will do the ride in her honor. Donna wanted me to join her dragon boat team, but then realized that meant I had to be a cancer survivor and I wasn’t....at least not yet.
It is safe to say that Donna gave me the life I have now and many of the people who are in it. I am the confident person I am because of her. How much more successful can your life be than literally changing the course of another person’s entire life for the better. I will think of her every day and be thankful that I had the privilege of having had her in my life. I will remember her positivity, her stick-to-it attitude, and I will continue to use the lessons she taught me in life. I will miss her smile, but mostly I think I will miss that delicious laugh. Until we meet again, Donna. I will always love you.

Heike Kessler-Heiberg

June 10, 2020

Donna was a student of mine for years in the Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) Program and a dear friend. I was blessed to be able to visit her after her cancer diagnosis, a few weeks before she passed--and she was just a welcoming, funny, and kind as always. She was a volunteer extraordinaire in the brain injury community and a source of inspiration for all of us.
She will be very much missed on this earth.

Joy de Beyer

June 9, 2020

I loved playing basketball with Donna. She brought such delight and energy and fun to the court. Her warmth and love of life and cheerfulness were infectious. I so admire her courage and strength. What a remarkable, wonderful person.

Ellen Ichinaga

June 8, 2020

From the musical, Rent, there is a song that asks “How do you measure a life” – the answer being “how about love” . I only knew Donna post-brain injury – and all I can say is that her life really can be measured by love – by the love she gave to many and by the love of her friends and family. Even though she called so many friends “kiddo”, she had a gift – she made each “kiddo” feel special. Sharon and I will miss our breakfasts with Donna at Old Town Mexican Café, but know that she will always be with us, raising her glass filled with mimosa!

Nancy Rufener

June 8, 2020

I knew Donna over 36 years. She was a dear friend. I met her through softball at NTC SD in January of 1984. She was a coach along with Danny Gardiner, my wife, who recently passed before Donna from cancer. Me being the youngest of the three of us, looked up to both of these fantastic women. I, as well as many others, will miss them. Love to you both and keep a place on that softball team that I know you two already started.💜🐶🤠💜