Rev. Dr. Ken Bensen, past president of Habitat for Humanity, Michigan and SCUPE board member just returned from leading a team of Vietnam Veterans on a two week-long home building trip to Vietnam. “The healing for the vets was real,” said Bensen reflecting on the accomplishments of the trip.”More than half of them want to go back next year.”
Twenty-two vets, most in their 60s and a few in their 70s, made the trip, along with a few spouses to build houses in the village of Binh Ninh. “This is an opportunity to go back and close some doors,” said Richard Moyer, who served as a Sgt. in the U.S. Army as an Infantry Operations and Intelligence Specialist paratrooper and served a 13-month tour in Vietnam, where he was wounded and received three purple Hearts.
When Vic Romback who was 20 years old when he was a U.S. Air Force loadmaster decided to go back 45 years later to build houses for Habitat for Humanity in the country where he once fought a war, he was a little apprehensive, “wondering what the unknown was going to bring.” That apprehension soon melted, and after two weeks working alongside Vietnamese families and workers, Romback said. He found himself in tears at the dedication ceremonies, hugging the family he had worked alongside.
The seed for the Vietnam Veterans Build was planted during the 2009 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project, when volunteers built homes in several Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam. Afterward, several Vietnam vets approached Bensen and talked about how therapeutic the building had been. Bensen recalled one saying, “ ‘The last time we were here, we were trying to kill them, and now we are building houses for them and helping them rebuild their lives.’ ”
In Binh Ninh, the group divided into three teams of 10 and built three houses. Temperatures soared well into the 90s; two vets were felled with reactions to the heat, and one had to be hospitalized briefly. “Most of the guys were in halfway decent shape, but we were all in our 60s and 70s,” said Jerry Brabant, a former Army Specialist 4, now an attorney in Roscommon, Michigan. “You’d be wringing wet in an hour.”
“The first day or so I was questioning my sanity as to why I would subject myself to this kind of physical labor in such sweltering conditions,” said John Harris, a Marine sergeant who served from 1966 to 1967. “By the third day or so, the local people really started warming up to us, and you could really feel and see the warmth and heartfelt appreciation for what we were attempting to do.
Bensen said there will be another Vietnam Veterans Build next year — “there are so many homes yet to build.”
SCUPE is a consortium of eleven seminaries offering urban contextual theological education to seminarians, pastors and church and community leaders. Ken Bensen has been a member of its board of directors since 2010 and chairs its development committee.