When Brandi Benson was 24-years-old, she joined the military, without telling her mother, in hopes of jump starting her career, earning student loan relief, and seeing the world.
What she did not expect was that in a foreign country and in the middle of a war zone, a more silent enemy, a cancerous tumor, would make itself known.
Told in a series of diary entries and flashbacks, Benson’s memoir “The Enemy Inside Me” chronicles the veteran’s time in basic training, her deployment, and her diagnosis, as well as moments of her recovery.
After first discovering a lump in her thigh while in Iraq, Benson is sent to Germany for additional test. Early on, she sees this trip as a break from the less-than-desirable living conditions in Iraq, never imagining that the lump in her leg was anything more than a torn muscle.
Benson is shuttled from doctor to doctor and test to test before being diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer, usually found in children. According to St. Jude’s Research Hospital, about 200 children and young adults are found to have Ewing sarcoma each year in the United States.
The diagnosis marks a shift in the book’s focus from the physical to the mental. The last half of the book gives readers less of Benson’s medical battle and more of the secretive inner battle with depression.
As she undergoes treatment, her mother, who quit her job and became Benson’s full-time caretaker, pushes her to remain positive. Doctors, nurses and other patients remind her that optimism can go a long way. Yet, her mind often flashes back to her late grandfather, his battle with cancer and his final moments, and her spirit drifts between determination and despair.
What I found the most intriguing was Benson’s straightforward retelling of her mindset both before and after her diagnosis. Readers will see a thrill seeker and a young rebel struggling to come to terms with the fact that she might have a lot less time than she expected.
The memoir shows Benson looking for logic, a reason, any answer to the question: Why is this happening to me? At times, she is almost self-accusatory, looking back at decisions she made and wondering if karma or lack of faith played a role in her condition.
I wanted more on certain topics: For instance, there’s a moment in Iraq, when Benson ponders the military’s use of burn pits to get rid of waste. The writing seems to be suggesting that the smoke in the air could be toxic and making soldiers sick, yet the book doesn’t return to the idea. Instead, “The Enemy Inside Me” is an inspirational story about the will to overcome life’s most trying moments and the struggle to come out of those moments with the self intact.
Overall, Benson’s story is poignant and particularly inspiring considering her recent work with the cancer support program at the Livestrong Foundation, where she volunteers time to individuals diagnosed with and recovering from cancer.
She created the Brandi L. Benson fundraising campaign, which is dedicated to raising money for the Ewing Sarcoma Foundation and spreading awareness of the importance of good mental health practices. She also started a resume writing business called Resume Advantage that focuses on helping transitioning military vets. While she travels all over helping veterans, Benson lives and works in Savannah. She received her Master of Fine Arts from Savannah College of Art and Desing.
Ariel Felton received her B.F.A. in English from Valdosta State University and her M.F.A. in writing from SCAD. Her writing has been published in The Progressive, The Bitter Southerner, Scalawag, Under the Gum Tree, Savannah Magazine and more.