Romanian Defector, Now Connecticut Yankee, Runs for USA
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
BALTIMORE, Md., Sept. 21, 1999 Running his way to a spot on the U.S. team in the recent Military World Games in Zagreb, Croatia, had a special meaning for Sandu Rebenciuc. It gave him the chance to see his parents for the first time since he defected from Romania 11 years ago.
Rebenciuc, 30, is a specialist in the Army Reserve assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 417th Infantry Regiment in Waterbury, Conn. He crossed the finish line 13th out of a field of 31 runners in the 1,500-meter track and field eliminations. That isn't the way to get into the final heat, but he took the defeat good- naturedly.
"I was the first person not to go to the finals," Rebenciuc said with a hearty laugh. "This wasn't my primary event. I'm a steeplechaser, but I ran the 1,500 in the armed forces meet to qualify for the Military World Games. As a matter of fact, I qualified for the Olympic trials in the steeplechase next year in Sacramento, Calif."
The U.S. team finished seventh in a field of 78 at the Croatia games in August, winning 10 gold, 10 silver and nine bronze medals in regular and exhibition events. The quadrennial games are sponsored by the International Military Sports Council, known as CISM for its French name, Conseil International du Sport Militaire. Formed in 1948, the group has 121 member nations today and held its first world meet in 1995 in Rome.
Relaxing in the USO lounge at Baltimore-Washington International Airport the day the U.S. team returned home, he recalled the Romania of the late 1980s. "Romanians were starving. I grew up in a politically and economically oppressed area and we were really having a hard time," he said. "I defected in Istanbul in 1988, right after the Balkans cross-country championships." Encouraged by his parents, he sneaked away from the Romanian sports team and asked for political asylum at a Turkish police station.
"'I'm not going back to Romania,'" he said he told the policemen. "They did my paperwork and put me in a refugee camp, where I spent 10 months waiting for more paperwork to be processed." Rebenciuc spent his last 14 months in Turkey as a construction laborer before being transferred to Italy.
"They interviewed me at the American embassy in Rome and asked me questions about my future plans and why I wanted to come to America," he said. "I guess they thought I was fit to immigrate to this country, and that's it. So it took me exactly two years to get to the United States.
Rebenciuc studied English as a second language, earned his high school equivalency certificate and won a scholarship to Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill., where he earned a bachelor's degree in biology and was a member of the track team and ran in national championships.
"I received a campus diversity-type scholarship," he said. "They were looking for someone from a foreign country to tell interesting stories to other students, and I came from a country that just had a revolution.
"I wanted to make it to America. Everybody wants to come to America," he said of his odyssey. "The reasons are too many to list, but my parents basically wanted me to go away, even though I'm their only son, it was important to them that I move to a country where I'd have a better future, better opportunities."
His parents' devotion and sacrifice spur him today. He said his father worked more than 30 years as a crane operator and his mother was mostly a housewife. They have nothing but a car, a little apartment and his father's monthly $50 retirement pension, but that will change, he insisted.
"My parents are anticipating coming to America, and that will happen soon because I'm an American citizen now and I filled out the paperwork for them to move," he said. "I'm an only child. I want to bring them here because I know they're suffering and always thinking of their only son."
The recent games gave Rebenciuc cause to reflect on more than just his family history and the past 10 eventful years in his life. He went home, but as an American. That changed things.
When he met some old friends in Croatia, they wanted to speak English instead of Romanian, but he insisted on speaking his native tongue. "They were all happy about having an American talking to them in their own language," he said. "They really felt proud to have a countryman on the U.S. team. I also met one of my old coaches and he was really proud that I made it. I gave him one of my uniform shirts and he was wearing it every day."
On the other hand, Rebenciuc the American was skeptical about going to Croatia whereas his old Romanian self would have been unconcerned. "I know there are many people in Croatia who are ethnic Serbs. I was afraid we might run into people on the street who might say bad things and be rude to us," he said. "That wasn't the case. I couldn't believe it. Everybody was polite."
He said he and his teammates thought they'd be spending their free time in their rooms because of the political situation -- NATO's Operation Allied Force against Croatia's neighbor Serbia had ended less than two months before the games. As it turned out, they needn't have been worried.
"At the end, most of us were trading our uniforms with athletes from other countries," he said. "So there were about 400 Americans who went to Croatia and there were about 800 people walking around looking American. It's unbelievable, everybody was walking around wearing 'U.S.A.' gear!"
He enjoyed mingling with athletes from other countries and felt gaps were narrowed, he said. Most of the time when military people meet, they meet in other situations, Rebenciuc noted, but "this time the circumstances were different and something closer to peace and friendship."
He said he joined the Army in September 1998 to earn GI Bill benefits and out of patriotism to his new country. "I think every man should serve in the military," he noted.
He's applied for the Army World Class Athlete Program at Fort Carson, Colo. If accepted, he plans to spend a year training for Olympic trials.
Noting that he'd competed in international competitions for Romania, Rebenciuc said competing as a U.S. citizen-soldier in the Military World Games was special. "This time, it was for the USA and it was a great opportunity, just a special feeling to wear these colors," he said, pointing at his red, white and blue outfit with "USA" stitched on it.