Modest Homes Built by AFA Cadets Have Meaning for Navajo Recipients

Cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy use a saw while building two homes for the Navajo Nation June 22, 2016. The cadets are participating in the Academy's Field Engineering and Readiness Laboratory. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)
Cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy use a saw while building two homes for the Navajo Nation June 22, 2016. The cadets are participating in the Academy's Field Engineering and Readiness Laboratory. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

The modular homes being built by Air Force Academy cadets are modest affairs.

A single bedroom connects to a living room on the "dry side" of the dwellings, while the "wet" half with the plumbing contains a bathroom and a kitchen. The two homes are fabricated in 18-wheeler friendly pieces.

After a road trip to the Navajo Nation, they become something special, junior cadet Matthew Hale said.

"This is an amazing house," said Hale, who was raised on the reservation and has spent two weeks explaining the significance of the project to classmates.

For nearly two decades, the academy has assigned engineering students to build homes to be given to needy Navajos. The materials are purchased by the Southwest Indian Foundation, sergeants oversee the work and cadets swing the hammers.

Eight-sided dwellings have dotted Navajo lands for centuries. Single men get four-sided homes, but eight sides means family.

"It's a cultural thing," he said. "It's based off the Navajo hogan."

The houses serve a military purpose at the academy, which trains cadets to serve as civil engineers. While lieutenants seldom drive nails or pour concrete, they lead men and women in those jobs. The three-week construction course gives them context for future duties.

"Nowadays, we see a lot of folks who have never swung a hammer," Lt. Col. Chris Senseney said.

Cadets also learn how to weld iron and lay asphalt during the course. But the homes are the biggest project. The houses are built from floor joists to the roof by hand, with mostly hand tools. Cadets get the smallest hammers on the job site.

"They have to learn the old-fashioned way," said Master Sgt. Carlos Varela, a reservist from Minnesota who works in construction as a civilian.

Varela, one of 100 sergeants on the project, said cadets learn quickly.

"They're good," he said. "They're motivated."

Junior cadet Ryan Gorski said the house project is daunting at first.

"I've worked with wood, but never on anything this big," he said.

But the sergeants are patient. Piece by piece, the homes come together.

"It's awesome," Gorski said. "You learn a lot."

For Hale, the project allows him to teach while he learns. Few of his classmates understand the rich culture of the Navajos or the deep poverty that grips the nation's Four Corners region reservation.

"It's more fulfilling for me," Hale said as he worked on a door frame. "I'm able to share why it means so much to us."

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