Bronx, New Yorker Marlon Benn was injured while serving in the Navy during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, but he didn’t have a name for the resulting medical condition until 2005, when an MRI revealed that he had syringomyelia. The disease is characterized by cyst formation in the spinal cord.
After leaving the military in 1993, Marlon became a police officer. The syringomyelia gradually worsened, leading to paralysis in his right leg and other health problems that prevented him from performing his law enforcement duties. He retired in 2011.
Marlon had learned to accept his medical condition and wanted to make the best of his life. He wasn’t ready to sit back and relax, but finding a job isn’t easy. “If I was walking around, I would have job offers. People look at you as a liability. The jobs they do want to give you are not challenging,” he said.
“I wanted to learn about computers, start a new career, to make something of myself,” Marlon said. He met Brenda Vazquez-Alvarez, a national service officer with Paralyzed Veterans of America, who pointed him to Per Scholas, a nonprofit program that offers free computer technician certifications and training. In 2011, he became the first veteran with spinal cord injury or disease (SCI/D) to complete the three-month program.
“It felt great to be a pioneer for paralyzed veterans of this program. Going to Per Scholas was the best decision I ever made,” Marlon said.
“If it wasn’t for (Paralyzed Veterans of America), I wouldn’t have known about the school, and they’ve tried to help me find a job,” Marlon said. He hasn’t found employment yet, but is keeping his skills sharp. “In order to keep myself up to date, I volunteer in VA computer labs. If I don’t find a job, I’ll go back to school again and get retrained in something else. The economy is not that great, and it’s hard to get a job, and it’s even twice as hard for me.” (Statistics show the unemployment rate for paralyzed or other catastrophically injured veterans to be 85 percent).
Marlon is now working with Ken Lipton, a PAVE Program vocational counselor in Boston. Operation PAVE (Paving Access for Veterans Employment) is Paralyzed Veterans’ vocational rehabilitation program for veterans with disabilities, especially veterans with spinal cord injuries/dysfunction.
“Per Scholas is a tough program. It’s like have a full-time job, and he did well,” Lipton said. “He was one of the first people with disabilities to ring the bell at the N.Y. Stock Exchange.”
Lipton said he expects Marlon to be employed by fall. He has had an offer, but the the commute was too long. With an area covering New England, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Lipton looks at public and private industries for jobs for veterans, but he finds a lot of success in government agencies. We don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket, but the government has more flexibility,” he said. “We’ve also had good success with UPS, Enterprise, Sears and Phillips.”