Benjamyn Deneen | Riley, WI
Evansville was a really great town. My front yard was Main Street, and it was a quick bike ride to school or the parks. The backyards were all farms, so it was only a three-minute walk to the public hunting grounds or the creek. I really got the best of all worlds there. There was a lot of hunting, fishing, hiking, and getting into trouble.
I gravitated toward metalworking as a child. I don’t know exactly what age I was, but it started with a fascination with blades and weaponry (which I was too young to have). I would take bits of steel from my dad’s workshop and fashion knives or swords. Then I would conduct tests to see how good my tools were, and which metals were best. My parents eventually arranged for me to take lessons from a family friend who was a blacksmith. For the first summer, I worked for him trading an hour of labor for an hour of training and shop time. Since then, I have built on those skills and learned everything from jewelry making to machine work, and am familiar with most methods of manufacturing metal objects at some scale. I have more recently learned to make firearms, and enjoy creating my own hunting rifles and making art projects of them.
After high school, I took a year off from school, thinking that was a good idea. It turned out to be not such a good idea. The next year, I enrolled in UW-Stout’s art education program. After two years, the federal government started pulling funding for art and music, and I started to rethink my career path. It seemed like there were no full-time jobs in that field anymore. I’d done a semester of business school and decided it really wasn’t for me, so I got thinking about what I was going to do with myself.
I couldn’t come up with a good answer, so I enlisted in the military in 2002. There was a history of military service in our family. Both of my grandfathers served: one in the Air Force and one in an armored division in World War II. My father was a radioman on a ballistic missile sub, so he got a fairly cushy ride through the Vietnam era. Having had family members in the service, I could sniff out the recruiters’ BS. I ended up in the Army National Guard because that was the only recruiter who told me the truth. It actually turned out well for me. I spent 8 years in the National Guard, my time was a mixture of active and reserve service.
I first enlisted as a truck driver. It’s not that I grew up wanting to be a truck driver or anything, but the job was with a unit close to home. I volunteered for a lot of missions as a driver. We were sent down South for hurricane relief after Katrina. I also did a border mission down by Yuma, Arizona – I went there and drove a commercial dump truck with a cavalry unit and learned to drive a highway dump truck across the open desert.
The border mission was in support of the wall approach to border security. Nearly every border patrol agent I spoke with expressed an intense dislike for the wall and would have preferred a more organized approach to admitting more people legally. Most told me they felt that chasing people around who were simply looking for work to support themselves and their families meant that they were unable to address the actual threats posed by violent professional criminal operations. That experience led me to believe we were part of something ineffective at addressing any real problems. It just made the situations for decent people in hard situations even worse.
I volunteered to go to Iraq, then volunteered during mobilization training for a detachment with a heavy weapons company. I was the guy standing atop the truck with a machine gun. We’d drive through the same areas on patrols night after night, and there’d just be more barbed wire and bullet holes in everything. As frightening as the situation was for me in body armor in an armored truck with a 90-pound machine gun swinging around, it must have been far more frightening for civilians just trying to live life in that place. I can’t even imagine what that was like.
We spent a lot of time outside the wire– leaving the relative safety of our compound and patrolling the local population. My time in Iraq wasn’t all bad, but it sure wasn’t fun. I really enjoyed most of my time in the National Guard. I had the chance to respond to natural disasters and be on an active-duty force. I really enjoyed the opportunity to serve
The International Organization for Migration is the arm of the United Nations that handles the operational end of relocating refugees. So generally, they operate in a refugee camp, which was what we had at Fort McCoy. I was looking for work at the time because I’d been taking a second crack at the electrician’s apprenticeship that ended the first time when I deployed. The apprenticeship ended for the second time when a piece of equipment failed and broke my wrist pretty badly. It took about a year and a half after the accident before I regained the use of my hand. Now I have pretty severe arthritis and I can’t do the kind of physical work I used to. I still make sculptural pieces, knives, swords, and practical items, but only as a hobby. I have a blacksmith shop where I can work for a little bit at a time, but I couldn’t put in a whole day swinging a hammer again.
Blacksmithing is a unique trade. It’s sort of exponential problem-solving process. It trains the imagination to approach a desired outcome from a point many steps away, often requiring you to design and make a tool to make the tool you’re going to need to make the tool for the product you’re designing.
My time in Iraq has always kind of stuck with me, and I always wondered what happened to some of the people that I met over there. So, when I responded to the ad in 2021, I got the opportunity to hire on at Fort McCoy and help with the Afghan situation. It was called Operation Allies Welcome. We, in a matter of a few months, relocated 13,000 people. It was a lot of 20-hour days. Afghan refugees had arrived there in 2021 after Kabul fell. It felt like kind of an opportunity to clean up my war-related mess a little bit. I still attend veterans’ mental health groups through the VA in order to cope with the ways it affects my life.
Now I work with a resettlement agency in Madison, Jewish Social Services. I ran into them one really cold morning in February of 2022 at Fort McCoy. We had a family with some urgent medical needs who had been sent to the UW Hospital for treatment. Their children were still at the base and the resettlement agency sent some representatives up to Fort McCoy to pick them up. I was there for the handoff and got to meet a few case workers. The executive director was there, so I asked if they were hiring. They gave me a card and said I should call them when this is done. I did that and here I am.
We deal with a broad range of refugees from many places who speak many languages. I have clients from Afghanistan, Ukraine, central Africa, west Africa, and Southeast Asia. It’s interesting keeping track of all of it. This is the first job I’ve really loved doing since I was probably 12 years old. I look forward to Monday every week. It’s varied work, a lot of creative problem solving, and I get to help people out who need it and deserve it.
One of the things I like about working at JSS is that we all come from different experiences and perspectives. This really diverse set of backgrounds is one of the strengths of this organization. I’m a military veteran and might be working with somebody who served in the Peace Corps. Two of my colleagues doing the same work I’m doing are Muslim. I work with a gentleman from Afghanistan who was resettled in this process. And I work with a Palestinian woman who actually grew up in Baghdad and was a refugee living in Baghdad when the war I served in was happening. I can’t imagine fleeing one conflict and having another erupting around you, yet that’s what she did. This is easily the most supportive and constructive work environment I’ve ever been in. Everybody helps each other out.
My work at JSS is a good counterbalance for me. I’m helping people whose lives have been terribly altered by violence and destruction to build a new life as my neighbors. It doesn’t undo what’s been done, but it does build something worthwhile. I hope to spend my whole life from here on in the service of others.
That was my first real exposure to anybody who had any experience as a refugee. But now it’s my life. I spent 8 number of years in the Guard and today I am a Refugee Resettlement Case Manager at Jewish Social Services.
I myself am not Jewish. I am agnostic in my beliefs, though I do believe in things like democracy and the relative decency of mankind, which are certainly a faith of sorts. The organization I work for is built upon the foundations of the aftermath of the Holocaust. The foundation recognizes the need for this work from the perspective of a people who have experienced the loss and rebuilding that is central to the refugee experience. How can I, after living through a situation as dark as war, not want to help those who have been displaced?
Most of the refugees that were at Fort McCoy ended up being spread out across the country; many of the people who ended up in Wisconsin had been processed through bases in Indiana or the southwest. As refugees are processed, the United Nations identifies where a family originated in Afghanistan, and they try to keep those local communities intact. So, the people who relocate to a given city generally come from the same region. That way they have common language and common culture, because Afghanistan is not a monoculture in the way we’re used to thinking of national identity. There are a lot of different languages, different identities, different ethnic groups, and a wide range of education and technical abilities. In the larger cities, you have people who have a very easy time fitting in the U.S. The language barrier is there, but they are well educated and capable of fitting into a career here and making things work.
I expected to see a lot more depression and anger among the refugees I have worked with. I tried to think about how I would feel if I lost everything and got plunked halfway around the world in a place where nothing was familiar and nobody spoke my language, and where none of the government structures work in a familiar way. And I’ll tell you, these are some very tough, very resilient, adaptive people. That’s part of their culture, and they’ve been through hell for a long time.
A most important aspect of my job is being able to step out of my own shoes and away from customs that I’m used to, and function as a guide for people. My job is predominantly centered around helping people establish independence here. I help them find work, figure out how to navigate the systems and services, and help them get something like a driver’s license, which a lot of people haven’t had before. I help people who have never really had things centered around money or currency, help them figure out banking, how to deal with budgeting, how to pay bills. They’re familiar with the concept of paying rent, but not necessarily on a monthly by-this-date basis. In some cases, they had been paying with a percentage of the crop yield in the fall.
I’m working with school districts helping to make sure that they have the resources they need and that they know what they’re dealing with. With the adults, I have everything from 50-year-old people who have no formal education, are unable to read or write in their native language, which obviously presents a significant barrier, all the way up to people with advanced degrees and extensive experience in government and business and finance who have a much easier time.
This is the first job I’ve had that didn’t feel like a job. This is something I’d like to keep doing as long as I can. As long as my mind works, I can do this work. I don’t know if I would ever really want to retire from it. I’d like to keep doing it in some capacity as long as I’m alive.
It is interesting to me, looking at my life — the years I spent in the National Guard, getting injured while apprenticing to be an electrician, and now doing refugee resettlement work. In my job, there’s nobody else here who has a background like mine. A lot of people spent time in the Peace Corps or have been on this career path effectively their whole adult lives in one way or another. And at the age that these folks were getting their degree in social work or in the Peace Corps, I was waving a 50-caliber machine gun in people’s faces. Sometimes it’s hard for me to reconcile those things because I’m not just one or the other. But I much prefer this work.
It’s interesting how that life thing works, isn’t it? I mean, sometimes I wonder how did I get here? But I can’t imagine doing anything else – and that’s such a cool thing.”