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Giving the Gift of Life: Marine Donates Bone Marrow

Lance Cpl. John Faria, II Marine Expeditionary Force Public Affairs

Cpl. Brandon Benjamin serves his state as a corrections officer, his country as a Marine and as of June 18, a total stranger as a bone marrow donor. Bone marrow donation is the only chance for a cure for many patients afflicted with terminal diseases such as leukemia. Benjamin decided to undergo the painful process despite an upcoming deployment to Iraq in just over a month. II Marine Expeditionary Force Public Affairs


How far would you go to save the life of someone you've never even met?

That's the question Cpl. Brandon Benjamin, a military policeman in the Marine Corps Reserve, faced when he was called up for active duty and a second deployment to Iraq.

When Benjamin volunteered to be listed on the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program back in 2004, he never dreamed he'd be confirmed as a match with a terminally-ill patient right as he was preparing to leave for a combat zone.

However, he didn't let that stop him from giving up part of himself to save a life.

"I wasn't sure how much down time I was going to have, and if it was going to make me nondeployable or not, so that was a concern. But once we started to learn more about the recovery time, and the actual procedure, the command was a lot more receptive, and they said, 'Let's go ahead with it.'"

Since then, Benjamin has subjected himself to a long battery of medical tests, screenings and paperwork to pass on a part of his bone marrow before he ships overseas.

"It's obvious this young man has an extreme desire to put others' needs in front of his own, which is very rare no matter where you are." said Capt. Casey Vigelanni, Benjamin's platoon commander with Security Company, Combat Logistics Battalion 46. "I really couldn't say much except for 'This is very special what you're doing, and Security Company will support you to give this man another chance at life.'"

Benjamin's donation is literally a lifesaver, because the anonymous bone marrow recipient suffers from an aggressive leukemia, a form of bone and blood cancer, which has a five-year survival rate of 40 percent. Survival rates go up to 90 percent with a bone marrow transplant.

Bone marrow transplantation remains a high-risk operation, but for many patients with a number of terminal diseases, it is their only chance.

For the week prior to his donation, Benjamin received shots that increase his body's production of bone marrow to the point where stem cells are painfully forced out of his bones and directly into his blood stream, where they can later be collected and given to the patient.

Preparation for the recipient is even more traumatic. To give the healthy new bone marrow a chance to grow in the patient's body, doctors must first expose the patient to high levels of radiation to deliberately kill all of the patient's remaining bone marrow.

Without any bone marrow, the patient is then unable to produce red blood cells to carry oxygen to his organs or white blood cells to fight off infection, but this perilous road is often the only path to recovery.

Since the creation of the National Marrow Donor Program in 1986, more than 500,000 service members registered as marrow donors through the Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program.

"We make sure they understand the process, work with their chain of command to get proper approval for the donors to proceed, arrange for their physicals to make sure that it's safe for them to donate and then track the recovery after they donate," said David Means, a workup supervisor with the Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program.

Donors can give bone marrow without the risk of surgery or anesthesia. Most donors through the Marrow Donor Program undergo a technique called apheresis, which can filter stem cells directly out of your blood.

After the procedure, the donor's bone marrow replaces itself naturally.

"It's really not as bad as everybody makes it seem," said Benjamin. "Because everybody I've talked to before who really didn't have experience, all they said was 'I hear that's the most painful thing that somebody can go through.' In reality, I've been getting these shots for three days now. It is painful. I'm not going to lie, but the nurses make you as comfortable as possible."

Benjamin won't have any word on his recipient's progress until 30 days after his surgery, and because of the on-going risk of transplant rejection, medical policy requires both donor and recipient remain anonymous to each other for a year.

Although Benjamin looks forward to the chance to meet the man whose life he saved, his Marine leaders say he's already refocusing his efforts for the challenges he'll face in Iraq.

"I helped reschedule some of the training that he missed, so he won't be losing anything he'll need for his mission. But there's going to be some discomfort for him physically," said Vigelanni. "I'll help him as much as I can, but he doesn't want any special treatment. He said that straight out. He wants to train with his Marines, just like he would if he hadn't donated his bone marrow."

According to The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society more than 44,000 Americans are diagnosed with leukemia each year, and more than 20,000 will die of the disease.

The DoD Bone Marrow Donor Program is available at more than a dozen locations around the world, including here at Camp Lejeune's Naval Hospital, Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Joining the list of potential donors requires just a few simple cheek swabs. Those interested in becoming a donor are encouraged to call 910-450-3458 for more information.

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