Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Afghanistan vet finds a new way to serve

By Jeremy Bradley, CNN
January 2, 2013 -- Updated 1702 GMT (0102 HKT)
Ricardo Benejam served two deployments in Afghanistan and now works at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City.
Ricardo Benejam served two deployments in Afghanistan and now works at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ricardo Benejam was born and raised in New York City and saw the twin towers fall
  • Benejam enlisted in the Army and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2007 and 2009
  • He now works at the 9/11 Memorial as a visitor services host
  • Benejam: It's like you're continuing to serve because you're telling the story

(CNN) -- Ricardo Benejam is a born-and-bred New Yorker. He grew up with a view of the World Trade Center from the window of his childhood apartment in lower Manhattan.

On September 11, 2001, he was a freshman in high school when the twin towers fell.

"I had actually blurted out, 'We'll be going to war,'" he recalls. "You knew it wasn't an accident. That was my first thought at 14 [years old]."

He witnessed the devastation firsthand as he walked home that day.

"I saw cars that were littered with dust," he said. "I saw people in business suits that were littered in dust."

Before the attack, Benejam was considering a career in law enforcement or the military. His father, who died of a heart attack in 2002, worked briefly for the New York City Police Department, and his uncle served in the Navy during the Vietnam War.

In 2006, the day before his 19th birthday, Benejam was sworn into the U.S. Army.

"One of the main reasons was a promise that I kept to my father that I would enlist," Benejam said, "and the second reason was the 9/11 attacks. I definitely wanted to serve as a result of that."

Benejam was stationed in Ft. Drum, New York, where he trained as a human resources specialist. He first deployed to Afghanistan for three months in 2007. He went back in 2009, this time staying a full year.

"I did my job," said Benejam. "I did what I was sent to do and I supported those guys in my unit."

In 2011, his service ended. He set his sights on continuing his education and working, but coming home wasn't easy.

"The first week or so, I'd be waking up and I'm like, 'I'm going to be late for formation,'" remembers Benejam. "And I'm like, 'There's no more formation.'"

Families face more challenges when military parents return

Benejam credits the work ethic he learned in the Army with his success at home, saying, "I think what actually helped me transition a little bit better is that I started school right after I got out."

He is just two semesters away from getting his bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Monroe College in the Bronx.

Benejam visits ground zero several times a week now, not just to pay respect to his fellow veterans or to reflect on the events that inspired him to serve his country. He works at the 9/11 Memorial.

"Working down there, it's like you're continuing to serve because you're telling the story of what happened and what was there before," he said.

Part of what makes his job so special is the bond he shares with other veterans visiting the site.

"You meet a veteran, and it's almost like seeing a brother or sister," Benejam said. "A lot of us have deployed (as a result of) what happened on 9/11."

On the day CNN visited Benejam at the 9/11 Memorial, he was answering visitors' questions about the "Survivor Tree."

"It's the only tree that actually survived the initial attacks," he explains. "It actually survived not only the attacks itself but already two nor'easters and two hurricanes."

Benejam, too, is a survivor. He's thriving in his post-military life.

When CNN asked what advice he would offer to other veterans coming home, his reply was reflective and hopeful, much like memorial where he works.

"It may start off rocky, but, you know, there's light at the end of the tunnel. Just stay positive, and good things will happen."

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT