BENFELL has come a long way since that 15-year-old jumped into "a strict boarding school".
How did he treat his own men?
"I wasn't one to be crossed, but I tried to treat people fairly," he says. "In the military, you are treated as you deserve."
Benfell says the New Zealand Army has a professional culture in which people "get on with their jobs".
During five decades of soldiering, he has seen many changes. The complexity of the job has increased significantly with changes to communications, battlefield technology, legal scrutiny and rules of engagement, which define when and how a soldier may fight an enemy.
Benfell describes some of those rules as "absolutely ridiculous" and is compelled to use one of the few minor curse words we hear during our two-hour chat.
"Having to wait until you're fired at," he says. "How bloody stupid is that"?
Benfell says that only people who have been in combat themselves are in a position to judge a soldier's actions while under fire.
BENFELL does not like talking about his combat experiences but, unlike many veterans, he is willing to do so to an extent. At one point he mentions being so close to an enemy as to strike him in the shoulder with a rifle butt. Some memories evoke strong emotions and are vivid. Uncomfortable subjects seem to include long-term health effects, post-traumatic stress and the morality of the Vietnam War.
"Rightly or wrongly, it was a body-count war," Benfell says of Vietnam. "The Americans believed that if they killed enough people, the enemy would lose the will to fight."
Benfell arrived back from Vietnam on the first birthday of a son he had never met, travelling by night to avoid anti-war demonstrations.
He volunteered for all this. Why?
"I joined to serve my country," Benfell says. "Nothing makes you feel better."
This prompts him to speak of nights spent under fire with his mates, of shooting at enemy soldiers just 30m away, and of looking at those mates again in the morning while lying in the mud.
"A bond is forged in adversity," Benfell says. "When you've been through trauma together, it's a brotherhood. I shed a tear when I meet these people again."
WE'VE mostly been chatting in the lounge of Benfell's two-storied Judea home. The walls are stacked with photos of people, and the deck outside offers views of the ocean that first drew Benfell to Tauranga. On the floor beside us is a mounted Steyr army rifle and on the wall behind us is a black baton presented "with appreciation from police snipers".
Now we move into the study to look through some old photos.
We find one showing a man's back covered with angry rashes. The back is Benfell's and the rashes were caused by Agent Orange, a controversial weedkiller used in Vietnam to deprive enemy soldiers of cover.
We come to another photo showing a group of soldiers in the jungle. "This is one I don't dwell on," Benfell says. He points at a man standing close to the camera. "He was dead two hours later."
We talk about Benfell's relationship with the Bay of Plenty. He learned just three years ago that he was related to the Whakatohea Maori of Opotiki.
Benfell had attended two tangi there without knowing of those blood links, and on both occasions experienced feelings that he described as almost spiritual.
"I'm not a superstitious person, but as I walked onto the marae the hair stood up on the back of my neck," Benfell says. "It was the strangest feeling."
Kaumatua questioned him about his background, then greeted him as a cousin. That British Army great-grandfather from all those years ago had married one of their ancestors.
BENFELL is 68, is married, and has three sons and a daughter aged in their 30s and 40s.
He's also a grandfather.
Last May, after passing a military physical test, he realised that the years were catching up with him. He retired in February, and his farewell dinner at Waiouru eight days ago was attended by 14 Vietnam comrades.
Benfell intends to spend his retirement hunting and fishing, writing a book about guns, and "being a grandfather extraordinaire".
Benfell was New Zealand's last Vietnam veteran in active service. He was also the last of our Anzacs - infantry units serving in Vietnam formally held that title while working with Australian forces.
Half a century in the military. How does it feel to leave?
"It's strange," Benfell says. "All these years ... I can't quite accept it.
"I still have this great sense of belonging."