From My Seat: Bennie Jose Perez
By Beth Kohl • November 25, 2016
My name is Bennie Jose Perez, and I’m from Freeport, Texas. I enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1991. Becoming a Marine was a dream since my early teens. Within a week of boot camp, I was made squad leader. Three weeks later, I made guide for my platoon, a recognition reserved for the No. 1 recruit. The three-month training was intense and challenging, and in September 1991, I earned the title “Marine.” It is a title that gave me an extreme sense of pride and honor to be able to serve my country.
I graduated as Private First-Class, an E-2, because my physical fitness score was the best out of 900+ recruits. It earned me the title “Company Iron Man.” The rest of my career as a Marine followed as it had started. With each new assignment or promotion, I was recognized as a standout among my fellow Marines, culminating in being selected for Marine Security Guard (MSG) duty, guarding American Embassies.
After a successful tour as a MSG, I returned to Supply Logistics, my military occupation specialty. Three weeks later, I broke my kneecap during field training. As a result of medical complications that arose from the accident, the Marine Corps had no choice but to give me an honorable discharge in 1999, crushing my dream of being a career Marine.
For the next 10 years, I struggled with depression and anxiety caused by the agonizing pain I went through on a daily basis and the overall stress of the situation in which I found myself. These years have to have been the darkest time of my life. Then, in 2009, an infection led to my right leg being amputated above the knee. Following the amputation, I began physical therapy and rehabilitation, but I continued to experience severe pain whenever I wore my prosthesis. Even after additional procedures, resection of a neuroma, and a series of remodeled prostheses, I continue to deal with both a disabling pain that radiates from the distal end of my limb into to my lower back, and an increased phantom limb pain.
By December 2013, I had earned an undergraduate degree business management from the University of Houston, Clear Lake, something that I had been striving for since my amputation. Battling severe arthritis in my good knee and borderline diabetes, I decided to use my wheelchair to get healthy and fit. My hard work over two and half years paid off, and I lost a total of 53 pounds and was no longer at risk for diabetes. Since my first 5k race on Veteran’s Day in 2013, in my everyday wheelchair, I have completed 34 other races, including a mix of short-distance races, nine half-marathons, one 25k, eight marathons, one 50-miler, and a 113.5-mile trail ultra-marathon.
During 2014-2015, I tried adaptive sports like archery, sled hockey, wheelchair racing, Nordic skiing, alpine skiing, surfing, kayaking, hand-cycling, and sailing. But it wasn’t until I tried rowing in 2015 that my life changed dramatically. I was participating in the National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic, and I met rowing coach Patrick Kington, another Marine Corps veteran. He was volunteering to get veterans on and off the water, and we spoke extensively about rowing and the opportunities the sport presents.
By October 2015, I was training on the erg five days a week, including strength training. Then I started lessons on the water at Greater Houston Rowing Club in Sugar Land, Texas from Jere Crean. I quickly learned that I had found a new passion in my life. This past April, I participated in my first regatta—the Space City Sprints, hosted by the Bay Area Rowing Club. Next, I participated in the BAYADA Regatta in Philadelphia, and then completed four head races in 30 days: Head of the Brazos in Waco, Texas, Head of the Charles in Boston, Mass., Head of the Colorado in Austin, Texas, and Head of the Hooch in Chattanooga, Tenn. Each challenging race gave me an increased level of confidence and appreciation for the sport.
None of these opportunities would have arisen if it weren’t for the Greater Houston Rowing Club, Unlimited Rowing, and Freedom Rows. These three organizations have had a profound effect on my life—giving me the opportunity to develop my skill, giving me the resources to travel and compete, and giving me a deep desire to pursue a spot on the U.S. national team. I know it will be a long and challenging journey, but my heart tells me I can do it. With the support of my wife, my family and friends, and surrounding myself with the right people who want to see me succeed, I believe my dream will become a reality.