The end of his second year-long deployment to Afghanistan was only a couple weeks away when U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Benjamin Parker got a life-altering diagnosis.
The double vision he’d recently experienced wasn’t a delayed reaction to a nearby bomb blast, as the explosive ordnance disposal technician had anticipated. It was the onset of multiple sclerosis, a chronic and irreversible neurological disorder that would immediately end his nine-year military career and force him to reorient his future.
“I really didn’t know anything about MS at the time, and the more I looked into it, the more terrified I got,” said Parker, 28, who had planned to make the Army his career. “I loved what I did in the military and found it totally fulfilling because my job was saving American lives, and I was good at it. But MS disqualified me from serving, and even though I tried, there was no way around it.”
Parker had grown up in southern Ohio, and his dad took him to airshows throughout the region. He signed up for a private pilot ground school course when he returned to the United States.
When he took the FAA medical exam in 2011, however, Parker was asked whether he had ever been treated for a neurological disorder. Parker listed MS and was quickly and predictably rejected—but he didn’t give up. He contacted AOPA’s medical experts and started building a case for why he should be allowed to fly.
At the same time, he relocated to Daytona Beach, Florida, and enrolled in Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s aviation maintenance program.
“If I couldn’t fly,” he said, “I wanted to work on airplanes, and that could help people stay safe in a similar way to the work I had done in the military.”
Parker is upbeat and animated by nature. But even though he was getting perfect grades at college, he struggled emotionally. His marriage had ended, and being around airplanes without being allowed to learn to fly them took a toll. (The Light Sport aircraft category was out of reach, too, because he had been denied an FAA medical.)
Parker felt fine physically, his MS was in remission, and he hadn’t had a recurrence of double vision since returning home. His application for a special issuance medical was complete in 2013—and the FAA asked Parker whether there was anything else he’d like to add to his paperwork.
Parker, who had personally disarmed several hundred bombs as a soldier, was awarded two Bronze Stars for bravery in combat, and had provided security for presidents Bush and Obama overseas, typed out a heartfelt two-page letter.
“The most important fact I want to relay is that I will never place anyone or myself in an unsafe situation,” he wrote. “If I were to be granted medical clearance and felt an MS event approaching I would immediately ground myself and notify medical personnel. We have but one life to live and I will live my life to the fullest, and never place my desires over the well-being of others.”
Two months later, the FAA gave Parker the news he had hoped for. The agency granted a special issuance for a first class medical.
Parker was elated.
“That letter couldn’t have come at a better time,” he said. “It was just what I was needed. I started flight training the day it came in the mail.”
Parker quickly earned his private pilot certificate and instrument rating. He even added a single-engine seaplane rating in an amphibious de Havilland DHC–2 Beaver at Flagler County Airport. (See “Beaver Checkout,” June 2013 AOPA Pilot.)
He’s now logged more than 200 total flight hours, has an A&P certificate, and is considering buying into a Cessna 182 partnership. He’s also remarried, has a step-daughter, and moved back to southern Ohio.
“There have been lots of highs and lows along the way,” he said, “but I consider myself extremely lucky. I’ve survived so many situations that could have gone either way when others—some of them standing right next to me—weren’t as fortunate.
“MS is tough, and even though it’s in remission, chances are it will come back,” he said. “I don’t have any control over if or when that happens. All I can do is keep living life, and keep pursuing my goals. And right now that means flying as much—and as well—as I can.”