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Veteran overcomes injuries that threatened his college dreams

man smiling next to sign for Pat Tillman Veterans Center
November 07, 2014

For Evan Benson, the U.S. Marine Corps was an organization of honor, a place to express his patriotism after 9/11 and a way to redeem a squandered opportunity.

Today, after deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and a traumatic brain injury, Benson has finished his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, with a geotechnical emphasis, and is completing his master’s through the accelerated 4+1 program at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University.

But he wasn’t always sure he could do it.

Benson grew up in Mansfield, Massachusetts. He was good at math and science, and enrolled in engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

But he lacked focus, so he returned to Mansfield, where he worked two jobs while finishing a bachelor’s degree in earth science at Bridgewater State University.

“I saw my good friends from high school going on multiple deployments,” Benson said. “I felt selfish. I knew I squandered my opportunity in Texas.”

So Benson joined the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and went to boot camp. He was deployed to Anbar Province in Iraq, where he was the man on top of the vehicle with a machine gun during combat patrols.

Iraq was relatively quiet, and Benson returned to Bridgewater State, but the transition was difficult.

“Students would complain about not having coffee, things that just didn’t matter to me,” he said. “I was used to being glad I made it home that day.”

He was called up again, this time for Afghanistan. It would not be as quiet.

His unit was sent to Helmand Province, where Benson was an infantry section leader of a mounted weapons company. On his first patrol, the lead vehicle hit an improvised explosive device, or IED. On Nov. 25, 2011, Benson’s vehicle hit one.

“I don’t remember much,” he said. “I remember being pulled out of the vehicle, then being on the helicopter, then being at the hospital.”

He had spoken to his mother the day before for Thanksgiving. He called her again from the hospital.

“She cried,” Benson said. “I told her I was all right. It was a rough week.”

Everyone in his unit survived the explosion but Benson suffered multiple injuries, including a traumatic brain injury.

“I had memory loss. I would black out, shake, have nausea, light sensitivity, eye twitches,” said Benson, who spent eight months in therapy. “My plan had always been to go back to school, but I didn’t know if I would be able to. It’s really a waiting game to see how your brain heals.”

Benson said sometimes he’ll hear a name three times and still can’t remember. He has coping mechanisms he uses, and he studies in a repetitive, systematic way to give his brain as much of a chance as possible to remember.

“I used to be able to wing it,” Benson said. “I’d just read and go to class. Now, I can’t. I have to be organized.”

Benson chose ASU because of the Pat Tillman Veterans Center, where he ended up landing a job. “The center was integral in helping with my transition," he said.

He received money for tuition, housing and books as part of his federal benefits, and was chosen for a Veterans Education Fund Scholarship. He enrolled in the Fulton Schools of Engineering, where he says professors have been extremely helpful and positive.

Edward Kavazanjian, a professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, helped Benson get an internship with Haley & Aldrich, a consulting firm based in Boston that specializes in underground engineering, environmental science and management consulting. Benson hopes to get a job there when he graduates in May.

Benson said he continues to work hard at studying, and thinks his military experience gives him an edge with group projects. “I know how to organize people in groups,” he said. “I can say, ‘You’re good at this, and you’re good at that, so let’s break this down and come up with a plan.’ I’m the gel.”

He wants other veterans to know there is help.

“You can’t do it on your own,” he said. “Vets tend to close themselves off, but at the Tillman Center there are people with similar backgrounds who have been through similar situations. They can help you get through school.”

Benson, who received a Purple Heart, said his wounds were life changing.

“It shapes who you are,” he said. “It knocks you off the bike. But you see so many others who have been through a lot, and they’re taking it head-on. It’s inspiring.”