His motto in the Army was "Be All That You Can Be." Now it's his motto as a man living with HIV.
One of the things Benny -- a videographer/computer designer/dancer/model living in the Bronx -- has learned from being HIV-positive is: You can run, but you can't hide.
After receiving his bachelor of science degree in computer science, he went into the Reserve Officers' Training Corps. But he wasn't dodging bullets. Benny had the feeling that he was HIV-positive, and he dodged physicals that required drawing blood.
"What I used to do was I'd always go to my doctor," Benny says. "I had a very good feeling I was positive. I already knew inside that I was. Something was telling me, 'Just go to the doctor.' When he called me and told me to see him, I knew I was positive. But I knew how to handle it very well. At a very young age" -- he tested positive at age 24 -- "I was able to kind of put it past me and say, 'Well, it's a challenge that's been put in front of me. I guess I'm just going to go ahead and overcome this obstacle.' Which I did. And I'm still overcoming this obstacle every day."
The military finding out about his status seemed inevitable, though. "I did tell my commander," he continues, "and when my name came up every year to test for HIV, I would usually leave and go somewhere and not show up that day. Finally, they said I needed to test, and I was like, 'No,' so I got out of the National Guard. Then, about three years ago, in 1995, they called me, and I went to Panama for a month. I was working on a Warrior 2002 mission. So once I got to Panama and they had finally tested me in the United States, I really didn't care. As long as I was in Panama."
While he was serving in Panama, however, the military discovered his status and pulled him out of the assignment. "They kind of discriminated a little bit," he says matter-of-factly, "but I didn't look at it that way. I looked at it in a way that, now was the time for me to get my military compensation and military leave."
In 1996, with his T-cells down to 90 and a viral load of 150,000, Benny was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. In 1997, he went on disability. "So I applied for everything. I applied for the disability ID. I applied for the special handicap ID. I applied for public assistance. I applied for Social Security. I got my ID for GMHC.
"I started the protease inhibitors in February 1997," Benny says. It was two weeks before his 32nd birthday. "My doctor said, 'If you don't take these protease inhibitors, we can't do anything else to you,' and I said, 'Well, I'll try to take it for these two weeks.'
"I made a little bet with him," Benny continues. "I said, 'I will take the medicine for two weeks. If nothing happens, then I will stop them.' And they worked. I took the medicine for two weeks, took the blood tests, and got my results. My T-cells went up slightly, but my viral load was undetectable, from 150,000, which I didn't understand. It was that fast!"
That wasn't the end of the line, though. Benny admits, "Then I started slacking off with the medicine, and it got a little resistance, so my doctor needed to change me. Every time he has changed [my regimen] my viral load has gone to undetectable. I've been on Fortovase, Epivir, and Zerit for more than a year now. They work."
He is back working again and looking after his health. "At the age of 34, I'm more settled. I'm more at ease. I take better care of myself. I take my eight hours sleep. I don't try to hang out too long. I care about my body now more than anything else." His career as a videographer has been progressing nicely. "I tape a lot of drag queen shows," he says. "I had bought a camcorder and brought it to one of the shows, and now I'm a little bit known around the gay population. I graduated from Bronxnet in 1998. People asked me to be in one of the shows, and [recently] I was on stage for the first time, dancing, almost naked at a college. It was called The Night of the Twelve Gowns."
Benny has this advice for the newly infected, who may be going through what he went through a decade ago: "It's something challenging for everyone. And everyone has the right to be scared. But give the drugs a chance. They'll work. And if it doesn't work for you, then keep trying. Try something else.
"I think when the day for you comes to leave this world, it will come for you," he adds. "I don't think you can predict when you're going to die. It's all determined by God. Now, if you think you are going to die, then your mind will make you sick, and you will die faster. Your mind is very powerful drug."
Mark McGarry is assistant news editor of Soap Opera Weekly and copy edits Body Positive.
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.