For the first five minutes they spent in their new home, U.S. Navy veteran Matthew Benson and his wife, Keziah, walked around in near silence.
"Oh wow," Keziah murmured, over and over again, as they walked from room to room. "Wow."
The family's new home is a powder-blue, three-bed and two-bath house in Grand Forks' South End. The Bensons knew they'd be given the home mortgage-free before they hit the doorstep. But before Wednesday, they had never stepped inside.
And at that moment, the couple, who was holding their 15-month-old son, Eli, were almost speechless.
"There's the topshelf words that you use, like it's going to help this much, but this is above that," Matthew said, standing on the carpet in the home's basement. "It's going to help a lot, a lot, a lot."
Matthew, a UND student who served in the U.S. Navy from 2009 to 2014, was given a home by the national nonprofit Operation Homefront in a special ceremony held on Wednesday. For the Bensons, who lived in an apartment on UND's campus, it's a step up.
The home was donated by Wells Fargo. Josh Steinke, a Century 21 Red River Realty agent present for the family's first peek inside the house, said it could have sold for as much as $225,000.
For the Bensons, however, the home comes at a fraction of that price. They'll have to pay a series of fees on the house, but it comes to less than $500 per month for two years, an Operation Homefront official said.
After that it belongs to the Bensons--no strings attached.
Matthew said he got the news about the home in a phone call from Operation Homefront.
"When she called us to say, 'Hey, you got the home,' she was saying she still had to ask if we were still on the phone because neither of us spoke," he said. "(We were) just awestruck."
The criteria for applying to Operation Homefront's program is relatively basic. Participants have to have a clean criminal record and past or present military service. They also have to be committed to and capable of owning and caring for a home for at least two years.
Maurjon Alston, a home caseworker with the organization, said her group looks for individuals who aren't homeowners but who have a clear connection to the community.
The gift marks the first time Wells Fargo has donated a home to a North Dakota veteran, and a drove of bank officials came out Wednesday to see the big moment. Alston, who also attended the event, explained how important these kinds of gifts can be for veterans all over the country.
"With the military, you get your paycheck on the first and on the 15th (of the month)," she said, but in the move to civilian life, that kind of regularity is upended--not to mention the additional problems that can come with some service members who struggle with issues like PTSD and anxiety.
For Matthew, the biggest benefits are financial.
"The ability to be mortgage-free, ... we're going to be saving almost a grand a month," he said.
Originally from Minneapolis, he grew up in Washington state and met Keziah in 2008. The two married just before he went to boot camp in 2009, and he was initially stationed in the Seattle area on Whidbey Island. He later served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2011 and 2013 working as an aviation electrician.
"We stayed on base," he said of his time abroad. "I worked on planes, so the guys that were shooting mortars over the fence, the planes were their big target because the planes would take off and find them on search-and-destroy missions."
Asked if there were any close calls, Matthew quietly said there were, though he didn't go into detail.
He said he left the Navy to start a new chapter in his life. He's figured out he wants to fly planes, he said, which is what led him to taking courses at UND this past fall. He plans to graduate with a double major in commercial aviation and flight education in late 2018 or early 2019 and become a pilot--maybe for a major airline or a corporation.
And now, he gets to do it all with a new roof over his head.
"We're so thankful for this opportunity," he said. "That can't be said enough."