WIESBADEN, Germany — When Capt. Ben Ketchum celebrated his 12th birthday at a hotel in the West African nation of Benin back in 2002, he would have never guessed that he’d be back in that same hotel nearly 20 years later traveling as an engineer officer with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This most recent visit was to conduct inspections on a series of construction projects while his first visit took place while living with his family aboard a non-profit hospital ship.
“It was a wonderfully fulfilling and somewhat surreal experience being back in Benin. The country has changed tremendously, but little things I remember as a kid are exactly the same — the hotel even had the same pizza on the menu I remember from my 12th birthday,” Ketchum said. “Benin has really come a long way since the last time I was there when my family was serving onboard the M/V Anastasis in 2002.”
The M/V Anastasis was part of the fleet of hospital ships associated with the non-profit Mercy Ships organization, which provides surgical care to impoverished communities in developing countries all over the world. Ketchum’s father, now a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, was then the ship’s captain. Ketchum’s whole family lived aboard the ship continuously for three years, traveling and supporting their mission.
“Mercy Ships is an incredible volunteer/non-profit organization that operates and maintains multiple hospital ships crewed by hundreds of highly qualified volunteers, medical professionals, and their families,” Ketchum said. “I think the biggest take-away from that experience growing up was the tremendous potential for good that just a few people can have if they are properly organized and motivated.”
Being a part of that organization and his family being dedicated to that kind of global service made a lasting impact on Ketchum. He knew he wanted to find a career that would allow him to continue the same kind of service to others all over the world. He saw the U.S. Army as that opportunity.
“Even though the Army and Mercy Ships are vastly different organizations in terms of mission-sets, there are a lot of parallels in terms of service and the capacity to do incredible things while supporting and being supported by a great community,” Ketchum said.
Ketchum started his uniformed service enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, but was accepted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point through a special program to admit top enlisted personnel from the U.S. Army and other services.
“My primary reason for joining was to give back to the country that has already given my family so much. I wanted to support and defend the core values of America and hopefully gain a few skills to help some people out along the way,” Ketchum said. “I originally enlisted in the Coast Guard Reserve prior to the Army and did a ‘moonshot’ college application to West Point that wound up accepting me. They told me later that I was actually the first member of the Coast Guard to ever be accepted into West Point which was really wonderful.”
Since graduating from West Point nearly 10 years ago he has had the opportunity to make an impact as a 12A engineer officer in the U.S. Army. This has included leading crews fighting wildfires in California to managing construction of security infrastructure in Iraq and traveling to places all over the world like Australia, Korea and Guam to name a few.
Those experiences were all before his current assignment as project engineer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Europe District’s Special Projects Resident Office. The SPRO manages construction of a wide range of projects in Europe and Africa in support of U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command. These are mostly humanitarian assistance projects and projects designed to bolster the capabilities of partner nations.
Europe District’s Special Projects Resident Engineer Angela Tugaoen oversees the SPRO team, which oversees more than 60 projects spread across more than 25 countries. She said making an impact is part of what drives the whole team, which is why Ketchum fits right in.
“The SPRO team delivers a lot of ‘low-cost, high impact’ humanitarian assistance projects like schools, medical facilities, and projects all over Europe and Africa delivered in close coordination with our Corps of Engineers teammates, local governments and U.S. Embassy partners,” Tugaoen said. “Our SPRO team of 8 project engineers is a mix of civilians, military officers and foreign local nationals — and Capt. Ketchum is a great addition to the team not only because of his capabilities as a project engineer but because of his desire to make an impact and ability to inspire others to do the same. The whole team is really invested in the powerful positive effects these projects have on their communities.”
Ketchum’s work in the SPRO is what brought him full circle, back to Benin where he helped oversee construction of a new boathouse and boat ramp in Cotonou, Benin. The project was funded by U.S. Africa Command and has increased the capacity of Beninese maritime forces to combat piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.
Benin is just one of the more than two dozen countries where the SPRO team has projects.
In addition to Benin, Ketchum supports projects in Togo, Gabon and Niger in Africa and in Balkan nations like Serbia and Croatia in eastern Europe. He said while he’s been a part of several memorable projects, certain ones stick out more than others. One of those was the completion of renovations to pediatric pulmonary wing at one of the major hospitals in Belgrade, Serbia.
“The facility serves hundreds of the most at-risk patients, which includes children from all over the country,” Ketchum said. “Being able to deliver that project into the community was a proud moment for the office and a humbling experience to be a part of.”
It’s the direct impact on peoples’ lives and entire communities that really resonates with Ketchum regarding projects being delivered.
“Here in Europe District, the projects we complete have a profound impact on thousands of people’s lives across two continents,” Ketchum said. “We are on the road quite a bit traveling to project sites all over the world in the EUCOM and AFRICOM AOR while also forging relationships and gaining invaluable cultural exposure to the unique environments many of these countries offer. The work is challenging, collaborative, and fulfilling.”
Ketchum said after growing up in a family dedicated to serving communities all over the world, joining the U.S. Army has been a natural next step in fulfilling his desire to continue a life of service to others and has lived up to his expectations.
“Having been a part of an organization like Mercy Ships it becomes nearly impossible to dedicate your time and effort to another organization that you cannot wholly invest yourself in,” he said. “The Army has been and continues to be an incredible place to grow, learn, and serve while striving to make the world a safer place.”