For Paralyzed Veterans of America National Service Officer (NSO) Charlie Tocci, the job of securing benefits for disabled veterans comes naturally, in part because he is one himself.
Charlie Tocci, Paralyzed Veterans of America National Service Officer, Syracuse
A native of Syracuse, N.Y., Charlie enlisted in the Army in 2001, working in tech support and satellite communications in Korea, Germany and Afghanistan. In 2007, one year after departing from the Army, Charlie suffered a spinal cord injury (SCI) from a motorcycle accident in Arizona.
After undergoing treatment through his independent insurance in Phoenix, Charlie returned home to Syracuse, and after getting involved with a group of Operation Enduring Freedom veterans, he learned not only that he qualified to be a member of Paralyzed Veterans of America but that the organization could help him secure service-connected benefits through the VA.
“There were some service connections I didn’t know that I qualified for,” Charlie says, noting that his experiences with Paralyzed Veterans NSOs helped him realize the impact he could have if given the chance to serve in that capacity.
In spring 2013, Charlie learned of an open NSO position in the Syracuse VA office, and after working with Paralyzed Veterans of America’s vocational rehabilitation program, Operation PAVE, he interviewed for the position. Charlie started October 1, 2013, shortly after the Syracuse VA opened in its new SCI hub.
Now, Charlie is working to help secure benefits in the same way his fellow NSOs once helped him. While no longer in a wheelchair, he believes his experience with spinal cord injury puts him in a unique position as an NSO – to help show newly paralyzed and disabled veterans that quality of life is possible following an injury.
“When I was newly injured, there was no one really to relate to,” Charlie says. “Many of our newly injured are very nervous, but then they see me, a guy who was in a hospital bed for so long, and now I can stand up and walk out of a room.”
It goes further than just inspiring other veterans with his story, however, and Charlie says it is equally as rewarding to hear the personal stories of every veteran he serves. “The job itself comes natural,” he says. “I’m a social butterfly, so it’s nice to push them and let them know there’s a ceiling they can reach and that they should always have hope even in light of the traumatic injuries some of them have.”
It’s also rewarding to serve the unique mission of Paralyzed Veterans of America and be surrounded by what really is a Paralyzed Veterans of America family, Charlie says.
“For me, it’s been a great journey from being injured to becoming involved in Paralyzed Veterans and realizing the work they do and then getting the opportunity to work with them,” he says. “In the Army, it was a job, a lifestyle, but here at Paralyzed Veterans, it’s a family.”
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Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.