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Interview with Laura Jane Bender, August 12, 2003 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Laura Jane Bender, August 12, 2003
August 12, 2003
Interview with Lieutenant Laura Bender
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Bender, Laura Jane Interviewer: Paul Zarbock Date of Interview: 8/12/2003 Series: Military Chaplains Length

Zarbock: Good morning. My name is Paul Zarbock, a staff member with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s Randall Library. We’re at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and today’s date is the 12th of August in the year 2003. I’m interviewing today Lieutenant Laura Jane Bender, a Navy chaplain assigned to the Marine Corps and stationed at Camp Lejeune.

Zarbock: Good morning Lieutenant, how are you?

Bender: Good morning.

Zarbock: Chaplain, could you tell me please what event or series of events led you into the ministry and what event or series of events, individuals, led you into the Chaplain Corps?

Bender: Well I ended up in the ministry fairly young. When I was a child I was very active in my local United Methodist church in Lake Ronkonkona, New York. I was very active in the church as a young person. My mother was the church secretary and so when I would finish school each day, I would go to the office and fold bulletins or whatever other tasks she had.

Eventually the pastor came up with tasks I could do around the building and I got to know the people really well. Then they found things for me to do with the people. Even as a young person, I was doing home visits to cancer patients and doing work with the youth, directing a children’s choir and teaching Sunday school. I just kept getting more and more involved. It just seemed the right path that I continue in that work.

Zarbock: Was your father a minister?

Bender: No, no, active with the men’s softball team, really good at bowling. He was on the men’s league at church, attended bible study, but no, he’s not a pastor. Sometimes people talk about the voice of God calling you like a voice in the night. For me it was a voice that came from very familiar places, from very familiar tones. It was the voice of people that I saw every day at church who encouraged me in that direction by saying, you know, you’d be good at this.

The more they encouraged me and the more I enjoyed working around the church and knowing the people, the more it seemed like it was the direction God was calling me to.

Zarbock: Did you ever have a moment or have you had any moments when you’ve pondered the wisdom of the selection of professions?

Bender: Oh, many times (laughter), absolutely. You know at first I started off by saying to God, “Obviously you didn't call me, what were you doing?”. There are times when I’ve been really frustrated and said, “Obviously you meant somebody else”. There have actually been times when I said, “If you wanted me to be a pastor, why didn't you make me a man, it would have been a lot easier on me”.

We’ve had kind of a love/hate relationship. In the last few years, I’ve gotten to the place of whether it’s easy for me or not easy for me, it’s the place that God has called me to and I’m making the journey. I can’t do anything else. That is what God has called me to.

Zarbock: Well let me return. So you were really socialized in the church through these experiences that were on a voluntary basis I assume. You got out of high school and there’s that great big world out in front of you. What did you do?

Bender: Went to college in West Virginia of all places. I was born in Brooklyn. I grew up on Long Island. I didn't know anything about West Virginia and they certainly didn't know anything about me especially the way I spoke because I had a very heavy Long Island accent. Half the time I didn't know what they were saying either.

Zarbock: Where did you go to college?

Bender: West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, West Virginia. It’s the United Methodist School, has a good pre-ministerial program.

Zarbock: What was the student population?

Bender: Oh I think there were about 3000 or so students, very small.

Zarbock: But that’s a comfortable size for a small college. So the tree that grew in Brooklyn has now moved to West Virginia.

Bender: Yes, my tree grew in Brooklyn because most of the folks of my extended family never crossed the bridge, but I did and I ended up in all kinds of places, West Virginia being the first one.

Zarbock: And you graduated from Wesleyan?

Bender: Yes.

Zarbock: With a degree in?

Bender: Religion and philosophy and a minor in German.

Zarbock: You do paint with a broad brush don’t you?

Bender: (Laughter) My mother used to say, she’d take the newspaper and say, “Philosophers, philosophers, I don’t see any job openings for philosophers”.

Zarbock: That’s right. You can always get something for two men and a truck, but what about philosophers? So you graduated from college. You had a degree and what happened to you then?

Bender: Well then I went off to seminary. I started at Perkins School of Theology which is at SMU in Dallas, Texas. I did two semesters there. Then I wasn’t really sure if this was the direction I wanted to go, so I took a year off and just sort of explored other things. You know God has a way of letting me go so far and no further.

So I ended up back in seminary and this time I went to Wesley which is part of the American University in Washington, D.C. I finished my seminary training there. While I was there I did an internship year that actually turned into two years at a church called Sydenstricker. It was named after Pearl Buck’s family and it’s a word that means silk sewers. It was mostly military families.

Zarbock: And located where?

Bender: Springfield, Virginia just right outside the Beltway.

Zarbock: And were you a student or ordained at that time?

Bender: I was still a student and I was their first assistant pastor and while I was there, the church grew enough so that they had their first associate pastor when I left, also a female and actually the wife of a pastor. She was a student with me at the seminary and he was wonderful.

Zarbock: What were some of your assignments?

Bender: Well I worked primarily with youth. I had a list of about 200 kids maybe, 50 to 60 at a meeting and I ran all kinds of youth activities for them. I liked working with teenagers. Not everyone likes that and I’m one who actually did. I enjoyed it very much. I had to try some of the other ministerial tasks as part of my internship there so I would preach once about every six weeks and did home and hospital visitations as well.

Zarbock: And after this internship you were credentialized?

Bender: Yes. United Methodist Church at that time had a two step ordination and Deacon’s Orders and a few years later followed by Elder’s Orders and it’s called Membership in Full Connection in your annual conference, technical Methodist jargon, but it’s a period of sort of an internship and then kind of like a tenure when you’re ordained an Elder.

Zarbock: And now you’re ready to go. Where did you go?

Bender: Well my first assignment was in Hyde Park, New York. I was the Associate Pastor in a fairly well established church. It was wonderful work. I worked again primarily with the youth in a very active youth program. Had a puppet and drama ministry and we had an outreach ministry and a drop-in program every week for the kids. They were very active.

In fact something that has impressed me recently, I worked with those young people from 1986 until 1990, the beginning of ’90, and recently I was sent to Kuwait and Iraq for the Operation Iraqi Freedom and I heard from mostly all the kids who were really active in that church in letter form and packages of stuff to give away to the troops.

Those teenagers somehow found out that I was there and they wrote to me and it was just so wonderful, you know, that back in 1986 that somebody who was active in the youth group then had formed in their minds the idea that outreach is a good thing and that all these years later they found me and they sent packages of cookies and all sorts of things for me to distribute to my company. I think that was very nice.

Zarbock: Let me lead you back again, why did you go into the military?

Bender: Well I worked 13 years in churches around the New York City area. I served as the Associate in Hyde Park and then I was the pastor for almost five years in Wappingers Falls which is not very far from there, in the Hudson Valley. Then I worked two years at Great Hill which was a church in Connecticut. Then three years in Bayville, Long Island which is on the north shore of Nassau County, not very far from New York City.

At some point I guess while I was still in Connecticut there was a chaplain recruiter who sent out generic letters to all the churches in the area hoping to…he was fishing and he was hoping to catch a few people who might be interested in the military chaplaincy. I got my letter. I remember it too. I looked at it and I laughed and I called up a female colleague and I said, “Imagine, having a congregation of nothing but handsome young men in uniform. Wouldn’t that be great”. And we laughed and we tossed out our letters.

Well, my mother who was still the church secretary at my home church, got a letter and the pastor there was far too old to consider it and, as a joke, she sent the reply card in with my name on it. A very nice chaplain recruiter started to call me all the time expressing to me how happy he was that I was so interested in military chaplaincy (laughter). You know I really didn't have the heart to say it was a joke so I listened some.

He asked me to take a little two day tour of chaplain facilities and some of the chapels and see what the job actually entailed. Since I couldn’t talk him out of it, I participated. I was amazed. There were some things about chaplaincy that were very intriguing. I’ve always had interest in working with young people and the military is, you know, a youth group two or three years older than the high school youth I was used to working with. I really enjoyed working with people in the formative stage when they’re old enough to start asking the questions of who am I going to be and how am I going to live my life and trying to find some direction.

Also at that point I was working as kind of a solo pastor and I was attracted by the collegiality of the other chaplains of having people around to work with. I also had a sense of adventure. You know they always say, “Join the Navy, see the world”. Well so far I’ve seen Cuba, Kuwait and Iraq (laughter). So I don’t know about that. So it seemed attractive.

Since it wasn’t something I had thought about, I eventually said, “ no thank you,” and I took another church. I was at that church for three years, thought about it and thought “Yeah, why couldn’t I have an adventure?” The initial commitment is three years and the Methodist are so used to moving around at the whim of the bishop, what’s three years. I could do anything for that long so why not try it?

Zarbock: But the decision was not preceded by trumpet blasts or lightning bolts or hooded figures that appeared at your bedside or anything like that?

Bender: Absolutely not.

Zarbock: You wanted a little adventure!

Bender: And I’m getting it (laughter)!

Zarbock: Which I guess one of the questions right now is how long have you been in the military?

Bender: I completed four years and I’m in my fifth.

Zarbock: Is this a career for you?

Bender: No, I don’t think I’m going to stay for a career. I came into the military at one month short of 40 and I just can’t imagine trying to keep up with the physical requirements and the deployments and such through age 60, but it certainly has been an adventure so far.

Zarbock: Give me some sort of whiff of the adventure so far. What do some of the adventures look like?

Bender: Well I’ve only been in four years, but my first assignment was Guantanamo Bay and that is an isolated duty station. It’s a place where most people don’t ever get to visit. Not too many Americans can go to Cuba and live. So that in and of itself is kind of adventure. Although it’s isolated and very small, so many things occured there. It was really fascinating. We have a Cuban exile population living there. It is the only military base that actually had a geriatric program because the exiles are people who had to have been working on the base before the gate closed and they have chosen to take up residency there and they are a special population and they can remain on the base until they die.

Zarbock: Who funds it?

Bender: Well the U.S. government provides for them to stay there and they have health care and housing and income, but they’ve also completed a full career working on the base. There were also Cuban commuters, people who had started working on the base and continued to live in Cuba and because they were grandfathered in, and they came through the gate every morning.

The Cuban army would march them up to the gate. The U.S. Marines would pick them up in a van and take them to work and some of them were in their 80’s and still working. When I left I believe there were still 17 of them left.

We also had migrants, Cubans that were seeking asylum. They would come to us either being interdicted at sea by the Coast Guard or swimming around the fence or coming through the mine fields which is dangerous. Oftentimes you would hear a mine go off and, you know, I would just say a prayer because oftentimes when they go off, it’s a person that’s stepped on a mine. It’s one of the realities you get used to living there on the base because it’s small and you can hear a lot of things happening.

Zarbock: Isn’t there a sense of isolation and sort of a bunker mentality?

Bender: Actually it was for most of the time I was there it was a very small town atmosphere. Everybody knew each other. We only had one store, one gas station, one movie theater, two or three restaurants. The only McDonald’s in all of Cuba was there and a bowling alley and a couple of beaches and that’s all there was to entertain us. On average I think I was on the base without leaving the base at all for about nine months at a time.

Zarbock: I was going to ask how often were the troops rotated in and out?

Bender: I was there 31 months, so a long time.

Zarbock: By choice or by order?

Bender: Those were my orders to stay there. Actually it was 30 months by order, 31 by practicalityl.

Zarbock: What was your duty assignment?

Bender: I was the chaplain for the Protestant chapel. There were only two chaplains on the base so I took care of all the Protestants. That also meant coordinating all the Lay Leaders because there are a variety of Protestant denominations. We had nine Lay Leaders and they would lead programs for worship services, bible studies, that sort of thing. They would lead these for people on the base who were of denominations that wouldn’t attend the Protestant service.

What I led was kind of a generic Protestant service. So we had some language based services. We had an Inglesia ni Cristo. They led their services in Tagalog. We had United Jamaican Fellowship and that was more of culturally based. We had some Spanish speaking services. We had Latter Day Saints and various groups that led their own programs. So I would lead the Protestant services and coordinate the Lay Leaders for the others. I also coordinated the Jewish population as well.

Zarbock: Was a rabbi available or episodically?

Bender: We had a rabbi visit for a week only once the whole time I was there.

Zarbock: Was it good duty? Do you look back on it with a sense of warmth?

Bender: Oh, I liked it, yes. While I was there I also opened a coffee house up on Chapel Hill and that was a great opportunity because we didn't have any place…first of all there was no place there to get good coffee and every nine months for a good cup of coffee is just not enough.

So we opened a coffee house staffed by volunteers. We didn't have a budget. What we did was got donations of coffee and people all over the base made home baked goods and just dropped them off every time we were open. It gave everybody a kind of taste of home away from home. It gave people a place to gather where there wasn’t any alcohol served which was also a help for the base.

Zarbock: Was the consumption of alcohol a problem on the base?

Bender: Well I probably could have lessened my counseling load if we didn't have alcohol on the base. A lot of issues, you could trace them back to an alcohol related issue somewhere.

Zarbock: Were some of the military personnel married? Were there dependents on the base?

Bender: Oh yes, there was an elementary school and a high school. We had a youth program, we had Sunday school. It was a regular hometown. In fact, I even worked with the Girl Scouts there.

Zarbock: What sort of counseling, just the categories, what sort of counseling difficulties would you identify?

Bender: Well let’s see, in isolated duty there are always issues of loneliness, feeling isolated from family and friends back home. For people who were there accompanied, you know, good marriages got better, bad marriages got worse, primarily because extended family often can help a bad marriage get better, and there was no connection there.

I often thought if we had a Home Depot or someplace like that and a crafts store, the women could go walk around the crafts store and the men could walk around the Home Depot and they could blow off some steam. But there was no place to go, so couples had no opportunity to get away from each other. It’s hard duty for families.

Zarbock: Your description of Guantanamo as a small town suddenly presents a picture in my mind of all of the strength of a small town, everybody knows everybody and yet there’s a numbing predictability, it might be called dull. There aren’t that many things to do.

Bender: No, there are not that many things to do, but we were very creative. We would have a Christmas parade and decorate the Humvee’s and take the .50-cal’s off and have Santa sit on the top and have a Christmas boat parade, Easter egg tosses and things related to the holidays. Something that I started when I got there because I had always done this in my churches as well was to have a Thanksgiving dinner together.

So we started out the first year having about 300 people having dinner together. The second year there were about 600 and the third year about 700. We made sure everybody on duty got a homemade meal. Folks would bring whatever their favorite dish was for Thanksgiving dinner and we’d set them all out and everybody would eat their fill. We’d set up a projector to project the football game life-size on the wall. It was a good time.

Zarbock: What sort of facility did you have that would be able to serve a meal serving 600-800 people?

Bender: Oh well, Guantanamo Bay is in the Caribbean so it was an outdoor community. We had a courtyard, the chapel was on one side of the parking lot and on the other side there was a quadrangle that had an opening in the center that was green. When most of the Bay was brown most of the time from the heat, we were allowed to water in there so it was kind of a little tropical area, very pretty. That’s where we hosted the meal.

Zarbock: Would you and your Catholic colleague have some religious activity at the time of the Thanksgiving dinner?

Bender: Well we certainly would bless the barbecue (laughter). It was not really a religious event. It was just a community fellowship event and we welcomed everyone. What was so wonderful was that we had the Cuban community there so they brought all the Cuban food and the contract workers on the base were mostly from the Philippines so there was a large Filipino population really. So they would bring lumpia and pancit and all the really good Filipino food.

The military members were from all over the country. I had my very first deep fried turkey ever and it’s wonderful.

Zarbock: It certainly is. Sounds like a productive assignment.

Bender: I had a very good time there. You know at first I thought,” what will I do without Wal-Mart? What will I do without being able to go to the bookstore? This will be awful!” When I got there I found that people and relationships were a better replacement for shopping and things and all of that. So I made some good relationships there and have continued to maintain them.

Zarbock: Did you request a transfer or did suddenly the apparatus of Navy assignments say,” time for you to get up and get out of there?”

Bender: Well I was assigned there for 2-1/2 years, stayed 31 months, just one month more. Then it was time to go. What happened in my last four months there was I think very interesting because it was a real time of transition for the community. I left there in April of 2002 and of course everybody knows what happened in September 2001. As soon as that happened, the atmosphere on the base began to change because Guantanamo Bay was the place that they were saying maybe we’ll send the Taliban and Al Qaida detainees.

So from September until January a lot of my work centered around helping the community get prepared for that change because, we went from a small town to almost a prison colony in a very short period of time. There was a lot of apprehension from the residents especially families with children. They just didn't know. The unknown was so very frightening to them. The thought of what terrorists could do and who might come in and try to rescue these people and what could happen and we’re in an isolated place where we know we can’t leave if somebody comes in after us? So it was very frightening.

We did some critical incidents stress management style programs as a preventative for families that were debating whether they should leave the military member there and go back to the States and wait for them to return.

Zarbock: Tell me a little about that. Could you expand on that please?

Bender: I worked with the social worker and we put together a little program to have people basically sit in small groups and listen to one another talk about their apprehensions and fears. Oftentimes things seem larger than they ever will be, but when something is as traumatic as September 11 was, the mind goes crazy. The reality is that it is a very small base and so when the detainees were actually brought into Camp X-ray, they were housed about a quarter mile from family housing.

I could stand in my driveway and look across at the lights from Camp X-ray. People two blocks over on the second floor of their house could look right into Camp X-ray. Their children could go to bed at night by looking out the window and seeing the detainees in their orange uniforms.

So that was a big transition for a place where it was such a safe small town that you could put your 8-year-old on the base bus and say, “Go to the pool, go the beach, have a nice time, see you later”. If they got into trouble, the news got home before they did, but they were perfectly safe. They probably still continue to be safe, but that fear of what was coming in was difficult for a lot of the families.

Zarbock: Did you have any role whatsoever or any activity or any contact with the prisoners?

Bender: Oh yes. My last four months there, I was assigned to the Fleet Hospital. My relief in the chapel came in early and so instead of having both of us try to share an assignment and because there was a need at the Fleet Hospital, she took over my chapel duties and then I went to work at the Fleet Hospital where they were taking care of the detainees.

Also the whole time that I worked in Guantanamo Bay, my additional duty was to the Naval Hospital as well. So I worked with patients there so I was kind of used to the hospital atmosphere. But the Fleet Hospital was something totally different. It was amazing to see what level of care could be provided in such a primitive atmosphere. The hospital sprang up seemingly overnight right on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean. It was beautiful there. The detainees were brought in shortly after the hospital was erected.

Zarbock: Now this is tent city, is that right?

Bender: Yes, it was all in tents, but it’s quite an elaborate facility. It was interesting, the day before the hospital opened, the C.O. of the hospital asked me to provide a service for anybody there who wanted to attend who was on the staff. He said, “Please have the topic be’ How to Love Your Enemy,’ because we have to provide quality healthcare for the Al Qaida and the Taliban and we have to do it no matter how we feel”.

Zarbock: This is a Navy physician?

Bender: Yes.

Zarbock: And you did?

Bender: And I did. I think that was helpful to the staff. People mentioned that along the way it was not easy to look these people in the eye everyday and know that if they were not restrained, they would probably want to harm or even kill the person who was providing the care. Many had professed to do so if they ever had the opportunity and yet we gave them care equal to what the Marines and sailors were receiving on the base.

I know because I worked also in the Naval Hospital. I saw what care they got there and what was provided to the detainees and it was equal.

Zarbock: Were these detainees shackled in any way?

Bender: Yes they were, they were restrained. They were on litters and all four limbs were restrained. There was a belt around the waist and chains that came from there to both arms so they could move their arms, but not free enough to cause any harm. There was also a chain and a manacle to either end of the cot so they couldn’t get up without taking the cot with them.

The protocol was to provide an unarmed Marine to stand next to any care provider including myself when we got within arm’s reach of any of these people. There were a few occasions when I was asked to actually interact with the detainees. Primarily I was there to work with the staff. You know they not only faced the issues of isolation and such that one faces under deployment, but also dealing with patients who were hostile. There were times when I also had to work with the detainees themselves.

Zarbock: My primitive understanding of that culture is that women are held in a very subsidiary position, almost a servile one. How did the detainees treat you as a woman and as a minister of a faith that they do not hold? It sounds like you’re the arch enemy.

Bender: (Laughter) You know God has such a good sense of humor. Easter Sunday the staff asked me to provide a worship service for them and they could not leave the ward where the detainees were being held and cared for so the service had to occur in the ward.

I thought you know it was almost an evil thought, I thought I must be their worst nightmare, their punishment because here I am, a female, a pastor, from New York, by the way, with an attitude and I’m leading this congregation of their caregivers and singing, “Christ, the Lord has risen today” and they have no choice but to listen. I will never forget that Easter (laughter).

Zarbock: There is a sense of humor involved in that, in the casting of that plot.

Bender: That’s right, I may be a noncombatant, but you know maybe I don’t need a weapon.

Zarbock: Were there any remarks from the detainees about the service?

Bender: One I remember in particular. I heard this as translated by the International Red Cross translator. He said that the detainee he had been speaking with had said that if someone came in to try to rescue him from that hospital, if he were free to go anywhere he wanted, he would go right back to that bed because it was the best care he ever received in his life.

Now I’m sure that not all the detainees felt that way, but one did. And for the most part, they were good participants in their own healthcare. Although I didn't speak Arabic, a few of them did speak English. I read their faces and they seemed quite content to be receiving the level of care they were getting. I imagine for many of them it was the best they’d ever received. They were probably surprised that we were providing for them.

Zarbock: So you did have translator interpreters?

Bender: Yes, we did and some of them also spoke English. There were a few times when I was asked to talk directly with the detainees primarily because they were feeling depressed.

Zarbock: What conditions had they had that would put them into a hospital? Was it illness or wounds or a combination?

Bender: A combination. Third World healthcare, you know, a lot of them had issues that probably had been from birth or from disease that was untreated. Some had sustained wounds. At that point, it was cold in Afghanistan and so some had frostbite wounds.

We had one young man, I remember having very mixed emotions about him. He was in his early 20’s and I remember seeing him one day sitting on his cot and he had his foot up and he was caressing his foot. I asked the interpreter why he was doing that? He said that his foot was gangrenous and tomorrow it would be amputated, he was saying goodbye to his foot.

You know I really felt for this young man because here he was in his early 20’s, had gotten caught up in an ideology and he was going to sustain a wound he’d have for his whole life because of it. On the other hand, you know if he had a weapon he would have killed the 18-19-year-old Marine next to him. So I guess all’s fair when you’re playing the game.

Then on the other hand I heard how his foot became gangrenous and it was because he had taken an 8-inch blade, put it at the bottom of his heel, ran it up his foot and thought he would fly to Gitmo that way and that way before he died he could kill an American. So you know it was just sad.

Zarbock: You must have been having stressful times in the 31 months you were there. You were isolated too and had your own life to live. Who pastored you?

Bender: (Laughter) Who re-assures the re-assurer, right? Well I had some good friends there. I spent a lot of time with the Social Worker and the Army Veterinarian and some of the folks from the chapel community, and with one of the Cuban exiles who was nearly 80 and was teaching me to cook which was a hopeless activity! I had some good friends there.

Spent time with the Oral Surgeon and his wife, I continue to be friends with them. I actually heard from the Social Worker this morning. She’s in Diego Garcia on the other side of the world, she called me this morning. So we still remain supportive of one another.

Zarbock: I’ve always been very mistrustful of people who say they can make it on their own.

Bender: (Laughter) They’re not making it, they’re lying.

Zarbock: Well were you sorry to leave?

Bender: Yes, yes I was. I enjoyed the community. There was kind of a ritual on the base that occurred every Wednesday and every Saturday. That’s the day when the ferry leaves and the people who are PCS’ing, that is making change of station, that’s when they depart so we would go…you know anybody that was close friends with the person departing would go down to Ferry Landing.

The tradition was the very best friend and the person who’s replacing them in their job would leap off the end of the pier into the water waving the whole time as the ferry departed in a way of saying, “Please take me next” (laughter) and everybody else would stand and wave. I remember that as being a very sad day because you make a life in a community and one day it’s gone and everyone that you knew there will scatter and you’ll never all be together again.

Zarbock: But you would have this experience from previous congregations whom you had served.

Bender: Of course, of course. This was different because if today I went back to visit at one of those congregations,.unless someone had moved away or died, the majority of the community would be there. Gitmo was a transient community. We would be there for a time together and when our time was up and you’d go back a year later and probably half the population that you knew was already gone.

Zarbock: There must be a tremendous influence, subtle though it may be, of a siege mentality. There is a wall and we’re inside, entirely different from Poughkeepsie, New York for example.

Bender: Yes, I used to do visits out on the fence line, a 17 mile fence line and guard posts. I would go out on a Sunday afternoon with cookies or Rice Krispies treats or homemade brownies or something. No, I didn't make them because I liked the Marines! They wouldn’t want to eat what I could make so I always found someone else who would make it and then I would ferry across on the little utility boat and they’d take me on the humvee and I’d ride along the fence line and go up in the towers and visit the Marines. I had a pretty good rapport with them.

I loved doing that on Sunday afternoons, visiting and bringing them some treats and hearing about their family. Most of them were really young so mostly I heard about girlfriends and it was fun work.

Zarbock: It gives a new depth to the phrase pastoral call, show up in a humvee and climb a tower.

Bender: I was out there once when there was some shooting on the Cuban side and they came over the radio and said, “Get the chaplain to the rear” (laughter). I don’t know why, but I heard later that the Cubans were shooting one of their own who was trying to escape across the fence line to the minefield.

Then you know there were funny things that happened on the fence line. We had the Washington Redskin cheerleaders visit the base and of course the young Marines were just all over that, but there were some poor fellows that had to work that day so the cheerleaders went out to the fence line and went up in all the towers and visited the young Marines.

I wasn’t out there at the time, but what I heard was that the Cuban Army came out en masse and were running up their towers rushing to look in the big eye telescopes to see exactly what was happening over there. What I was told by our Commanding Officer was that he had monthly fence line meetings with the Cuban General and after that event, he had a photo signed by the cheerleaders. At his next meeting he gave it to the Cuban General so he could see what we were doing on the American side.

Zarbock: Yeah, unusual experiences would be a modest characterization of your life. So it was sayonara Guantanamo and what was your next assignment?

Bender: Actually I went to CREST, between Gitmo and here, CREST is actually Camp Johnson not very far from here. It stands for Chaplains and Religious Program Specialists Expeditionary Skills Training. It was combat training for chaplains and their chaplain assistants or RP’s. That was a few weeks with some very interesting activity.

Zarbock: Did you fire any weapons?

Bender: Chaplains are noncombatants so no, we didn't fire any weapons, but we had to do everything else. We had field exercise. We had to go out on humps carrying packs. We did combat water survival. You put on your pack and all your full gear and boots and helmet and flak jacket and canteens and everything and get up on a platform and leap into the pool. Then make a flotation device out of your pack and float across. That was an adventure!

Then we did something else called a litter obstacle course which is taking a stretcher with a 150 pounds of sand bags on them and four people take them through the mud obstacles. I literally was in mud up to here and it was the most fun. When I was in the church, if I had behaved that way, getting in mud up to here, the parishioners would have had a fit. But this was part of my job, kind of an amazing part. It was the dirtiest I had ever been, including Iraq, which was a different kind of dirty.

Zarbock: How deep was this pool you jumped into?

Bender: It wasn’t a pool, it was a mud hole. Oh, the pool with the pack? It was a regular 12’ swimming pool, a training pool.

Zarbock: You couldn’t walk across underneath?

Bender: No and since I didn't take walking on water in seminary, I couldn’t do that either. Actually I should have taken feeding of 5,000, of course I’m not really good at cooking.

Zarbock: Well maybe I could help you with the walking on water later. It was required as a distinguished faculty member of the University of Tennessee. .

Bender: In chaplain’s school we had the opportunity to dangle from a non-landing helicopter. Now that was a lot of fun. The helicopter would come overhead, drop a line and we weren’t attached to it in any way. It was just kind of a lasso. You put it under your arms, hold on to it, give them the thumbs up and they pulled you up in the air however many hundred feet they are and as soon as you get into the helicopter, they say, “Are you in?”, “Yes, I’m in!”, “Now you’re out !”, and back down to the ground you would go.

Zarbock: So it’s an elevator ride.

Bender: Pretty much. The call it a holy helo. It’s a kosher copter if you’re a rabbi.

Zarbock: But you’ve never fired a weapon?

Bender: Not on the base, not in an official military capacity.

Zarbock: Have you ever heard of chaplains carrying weapons?

Bender: No. I know some chaplains who have said that in the heat of battle, “ I might.” I know when we were in Iraq, that was one of the questions that was asked of me. Would I compromise my noncombatant role because the Geneva Convention and the Marine Corps forbid that? I know the answer I gave to the people who asked me. They said if we were being attacked, would I put rounds down range and I said, “Absolutely not, that’s your job, that’s what you’re trained for.” I’d be ducking for cover because that’s my job.

They asked, “ Would there ever be an occasion when I would shoot?” I said, “ Actually quite frankly, yes!” “If someone were to be aiming at you and I had a weapon that could prevent them from killing you, I would hope not to kill the person, but I just could not go home and look your widow in the eyes and say I’m sorry about the death of your husband. I couldn’t compromise my noncombatant status. And whatever would result from that in the way of punishment, you’d be alive anyway”.

Zarbock: Okay you’ve left Guantanamo, you’ve come through Camp Lejeune. You were involved …. ?

Bender: CREST, Chaplains and RP’s Expeditionary Skills Training.

Zarbock: And you were jumping in mud puddles.

Bender: It was fun, it was fun. In fact when we came out of all that mud, they had us roll one way and the other way in the sand so we looked like sugar cookies. It was a great day.

Zarbock: Off camera, you said you had just returned recently from Kuwait and Iraq. Could you pick up the story? How was it arranged that you were sent, why were you sent to Kuwait and Iraq, why you ,rather than somebody else?

Bender: Because God has a great sense of humor of course. After I finished CREST, I was assigned to the 2nd FSSG Medical Battalion as their chaplain, the Force Service Support Group. I worked there for about six months or so in garrison, mostly doing counseling, helping young people figure out what they were going to do with their lives and figure their way out of messes they may have found their way into and doing a lot of listening and teaching and things like that.

We did some field exercises, but it was fairly tame in garrison. Then we got the word that our battalion needed to send two surgical companies to ,I guess at that time, it was Operation Enduring Freedom and became Operation Iraqi Freedom while we were in Kuwait.

Zarbock: What month, what year was this.

Bender: That was this year 2003. We left on the 15th of February and we flew to Kuwait. We were there until April Fool’s Day when we went into Iraq.

Zarbock: Now you were telling me you had to carry your own baggage, is that correct?

Bender: Oh yes, well you know what we trained for was carrying about 35 pounds. You know we’d do these humps periodically. We’d go 10-12 or so miles with the bags.

Zarbock: A hump is a march, is that correct?

Bender: Yes, it is. It’s a forced march, you go rather quickly very early in the morning and that’s good because it’s not hot. You go a pretty good distance and I was always thrilled that I could at 40 something be able to carry that pack with the 19-year-olds. But when I left for Kuwait before I got on the plane they had us stand on a freight scale and I was carrying 94 pounds more than my body weight.

Zarbock: Were you carrying your foot locker and your wall locker at the same time? Seriously, what had you packed that would weigh 90 pounds?

Bender: (Laughter) Well, I have a friend who would say, “You know you’re not supposed to bring craft supplies and a lawn chair to a war.” But we had a long list of required things. We had helmet, flak jacket, full canteens and boots. We had to carry two sets of the nuclear biological chemical suits and those things weigh a lot and we had to have six MRE’s with us, all our toiletries plus I had all the religious supplies, communion supplies, my laptop computer.

Zarbock: When you say religious supplies, what are you talking about, hymnals?

Bender: Song sheets, I actually had a small guitar (laughter). I looked like a vagabond. It was hilarious. Every part of me had something else attached to it. Every time we moved camp, I put on all of that stuff and could barely move, kind of like you know a 3-year-old in a snowsuit.

Zarbock: Somehow the image of the Pillsbury dough boy comes to mind, round and standing.

Bender: Yes definitely that or the Michelin man or something like that.

Zarbock: Well okay, so you are packed onto an aircraft. Marine aircraft or Navy?

Bender: Oh no, civilian aircraft. Oh yes, they were going to tease us before we lived in abject poverty. We had these wonderful business class seats with the recliner and a person who comes by once in a while and says, “Oh, what would you like in your coffee?” and then you get off the plane and they say there is the dirt, go lie down in it so it was an adventure for a middle aged woman going off to war with a bunch of teenage boys (laughter).

Zarbock: When you landed where were you?

Bender: In Kuwait. We landed in the middle of the night. You know they were trying to keep us safe, I guess, from anyone using a surface to air missile against our plane. They had us close all the window shades on the plane and I’m thinking we’re in this jumbo 747, a two story thing, and people aren’t going to notice this thing landing? Why bother to turn the lights out?

Then they put us on buses and pulled down the shades on the buses so nobody could look in and see that we were there, but chances were pretty good the locals had a clue.

Zarbock: Were there hostiles around you? Did hostiles exist?

Bender: Well, there were reports of some of the vehicles being ambushed so there was some concern that we weren’t exactly safe. We were at high alert condition there and I think it was warranted. So they took us on buses to a camp. We sat outside on the sand until they got us on other buses and took us to yet another camp and we found out that was going to be home for about seven weeks.

Zarbock: And this is tent city?

Bender: Oh yes, Bedouin tents. They were about 30 feet wide and 125 feet long and they made quite a kite when the windstorm kicked up. We lost a bunch of tents that way including the one I was living in.

Zarbock: How many people in a tent?

Bender: Maybe 28, I think there were 28 in mine.

Zarbock: Were these co-ed tents?

Bender: No, it was intended that they be single gender tents, but there were a few occasions where we all had to sort of lump into one place because a tent would blow down in the middle of the night and we’d just seek shelter anyplace.

Zarbock: Were you sleeping on cots?

Bender: The floor and then they got us some cots and shortly after they got the cots, they saw the need to take them away so you know, I actually preferred the floor. It’s much more comfortable than those cots.

Zarbock: This is a wooden floor?

Bender: Yes, oh I can sleep soundly on the floor, I’ve learned.

Zarbock: What about food?

Bender: Well in Kuwait, there was a food service and the food was pretty good, interesting some of it. Unidentifiable, mystery meats, things like that, but you know you get through college, you can probably survive anything. In Iraq, it was not exactly like that. Food was more scarce actually.

Zarbock: Process me out of Kuwait into Iraq. Why did you leave Kuwait, when did you leave Kuwait, where did you go when you left?

Bender: Well we were in Kuwait, the country that I think is spelled with one extra letter. You don’t need the K because it’s mostly the You-wait country. We were waiting there to go to Iraq, waiting there to come back to the States, but we left Kuwait on April Fool’s Day, God really has a good sense of humor. It took us actually about 36 hours to get flights.

You know when you’re taking a flight here, you drive to the airport and you go sit for an hour or so and you think that’s an excessive wait before you get on the plane. When you travel with the military, you get whatever kind of transportation including foot to wherever it is that your plane might come to and you sit on the runway in the hot sun for 12 hours, 24 hours, 36 hours, nobody cares. You sit on the runway and you hope not to get run over when the thing finally lands.

So we had one of those ways of transport to get into Iraq. In fact when we flew in our C-130 was accompanied by four Cobras that were fully armed because we were concerned about surface to air missiles.

Zarbock: A Cobra is a helicopter?

Bender: Right and we landed on a highway in Iraq. We were actually a bit ahead of the Marine Division so we had to convoy back through the active fighting area. I did not have a weapon. Instead I had a camera so I took some interesting pictures along the way.

Zarbock: When you say convoy, you mean vehicles were sent out through the lines to pick you up from this aircraft?

Bender: Well you know transportation is not that certain I have found with the military. Once we landed they had us sitting in this ditch waiting and waiting and waiting. They said, “ It’s not safe to convoy to where we were going so we’ll be taking helicopters.” When they couldn’t get the helicopters, they said, “Well it’s safe to convoy if you take a large convoy.”

When I finally left in the convoy there were four vehicles. The first was a humvee, the second two had Iraqi EPW’s and the last one had a bunch of doctors, an RP and the chaplain. There were more Iraqis in our convoy than there were us. We made it to our destination.

The first place we went was Camp Anderson. I’m still not exactly sure where that was. We were there for about five days and that was during the very active fighting period. We took care of 106 trauma patients in the first two days that we were there. Many of them Iraqi, some children, civilians, but also Ba'ath Party and Saddam Fedayeen and the Republican Guard. We took care of them right alongside the Marines and gave them exactly the same care.

Zarbock: But they weren’t in the same wards were they? Were the hospital facilities segregated by our forces and theirs?

Bender: This was a very primitive field hospital and there were some tarps and tents that were erected for a triage ward, operating room, we didn't have enough facility to keep them very much separated. We had Marines on one side of the tent and EPW’s on the other side. We would try to keep them from disturbing one another.

Zarbock: Did you say EPW?

Bender: Yes, enemy prisoner of war. You know they would receive the care in the same place. We didn't have berthing tents so the physicians and nurses and corpsmen who were taking care of these people would literally when it was time to sleep walk outside the tent, lie down on the ground and sleep until they heard helo’s coming again with the next patient. So they didn't have cots, they didn't have tents. They would just lie on the ground outside the tent where they were treating people.

We were under light restriction, so at night we couldn’t shine any lights so whoever worked in that area needed to sleep next to it so they could be easily found and awakened.

Zarbock: And that includes you?

Bender: Yes.

Zarbock: Now this seems to be a very small matter in combat zones, but I thought there were dietary restrictions for Muslims.

Bender: Well we had vegetarian MRE’s that they could eat, but our ability to have food in that camp was limited. We had to literally put a guard around the food and water because we didn't have enough MRE’s for everyone to eat and we were rationing and trying to make due. That was a bit of a difficulty.

Everybody was really doing their best to maintain because at that time of year it was about 110 degrees and we were wearing our chemical biological suits which don’t breathe. They’re very, very hot! We were not permitted to remove them. We had to have to wear our helmets and our flak jackets because there could be snipers.

We had no bathing facilities and we were lying in the dirt. So the fact that we didn't have much food or water was just part of the journey. Besides I was on the Sadaam diet plan. I lost 16 pounds while I was there so there’s good in everything.

Zarbock: Was there ever any explanation offered as to why the shortage of food and water?

Bender: I think just logistics. When we went to the next camp, we understood why we were short MRE’s. The convoy we were in was following a convoy that was directly in front of us and that convoy was attacked. We could see the fire fight on the road in front of us and I’m not sure what it was that hit the vehicle that held our MRE’s, but it burned. If we had had something else to eat, nobody would have cried over losing a vehicle full of MRE’s, but under the circumstances…ordinarily I’d just say that was a good aim (laughter). But yes, food and water were at a premium.

Zarbock: How long did you serve in Iraq?

Bender: We were there 40 days. I kind of likened it to Jesus being in the wilderness or the Hebrew people wandering in the wilderness. It was our wilderness experience and in fact it was mostly coinciding with Lent so it was a pretty good observation of Lent that year.

Zarbock: Why were you pulled out?

Bender: Well we moved from Camp Anderson to Camp Chesty and that was near An Nu’maniyah and we took care of patients there. By the time we left there we had seen close to 500 or so patients, and we moved from there to Camp Geiger which was in Al Kut, that’s along the Tigress River. We finished 667 patients there and the patient load had dwindled down. They didn't need as many surgical companies as they had, so we were sent back to Kuwait.

It was kind of funny. When we were getting close to closing up our hospital and we were at patient 665 some of the corpsmen came to me and said “Chaplain, how are you feeling”, “Fine, why?”, “We were just wondering, do you have any problems you could be seen in the hospital for”, “No, why?”, and they said, “Because we thought it would be great if the chaplain was patient 666” (laughter). I should have come up with a toenail problem or something just for the humor of it.

Zarbock: What would your denomination say about that yet alone your mother?

Bender: My denomination is so laid back they have to dig to find us, so most people would just laugh. There always is my mother. She’d probably laugh too.

Zarbock: And you say you lost 16 pounds. Wearing that uniform that does not permit perspiration.

Bender: We were actually fortunate that we had a field shower set up for us eventually, not that we got to use it often, but because we were hospital, we needed a little bit of cleanliness. Some of the patients that came to us, the Marines would come in with wounds and we’d have to announce in the ward, “We’re taking their boots off now”, you know everybody hold your nose because it would have been two months and they hadn’t actually changed their socks or washed or anything.

I look at my photographs and think it’s good it’s not smell avision because it was pretty bad. The bathroom facilities were an interesting thing in and of itself.

Zarbock: The latrine?

Bender: Yes.

Zarbock: Slit trench?

Bender: Yes, slit trench. At first people were almost dehydrating themselves, refusing to use it, trying to find all these creative ways to put a poncho over their head so nobody could actually see who was using it. Then we started to receive patients and reality kicked in and that wasn’t a big deal. You’d just go use the trench and come back to work. You get a few body bags in and you realize using the trench is nothing. There are more important issues at hand.

Zarbock: Anyone injured or wounded irrespective of where they came from, enemy prisoner of war or our forces or anybody else, if they were in need of medical care, they got medical care.

Bender: Same as everybody else. Everybody was treated equally. I think the patients that were the most difficult for the staff were children. My role often was to stand in the triage area when the patients would come in and I was there not only to pray for the patients and try to calm them, but to keep the staff going because often they’d be doing just fine and then something would trigger them – a patient that reminded them of home, a child about the age of their own children.

You could just see them, their eyes start to glaze over and they’d find some reason to step outside for a minute or so. Then I’d follow them out and kind of encourage them and send them back in. We needed them to go back in. Sometimes we were one or two deep in a specialty and they had to keep working.

Zarbock: And you had some deaths.

Bender: Yes, very few of our patients who came to us alive died. We did receive some that came in body bags or in their divvy covers …

Zarbock: I’m sorry, in their what?

Bender: It’s part of their sleeping bag system. They would bring us bodies in whatever they could. My RPN (Religious Program Specialist) would open the bag and search around for the dog tags. Dog tags indicate their religious faith and then, according to their faith, I would provide whatever prayer was appropriate for them and we’d note that on their forms so their family would know we had given them religious respect before they were sent home.

Zarbock: Chaplain, what have you learned from all of this, all of your life experiences including the military and the non-military? How do you put it all together?

Bender: Well I’m a preacher so sometimes I’ll answer a question with a story. The story is told about a woman who wanted to run a 10K race and she was not accustomed to running so it took a while to get herself trained and prepared for this. On the day of the race she showed up at the start line and there were two races to be run in that area that day. One was the 10K and the other was a marathon and they were both starting from the same place.

The race began and she started running and she kept running and running and running. After a while she thought I must have done 10K by now. I don’t see the end of the race. She asked one of the other runners, you know, are we almost to the end and the runner said, “The end, why you’re running the marathon”. So she kept running and when she got to the end and successfully completed the marathon, someone asked her why didn't you stop when you found out where you were. She said, “Well this wasn’t the race that I trained for. It wasn’t the race that I entered. But by God, it was the race that I was in and of course I’d complete it”.

You know when I think back about all the events in my life and my ministry so far, there are a lot of things I had no idea I was getting myself into. Some of them have been very difficult. Some have been really joyous. Some have been filled with all kinds of excitement and surprise. Some have been hard. It’s not necessarily the race that I trained for or entered, but it is the race that I’m in. I picture it as the race that God set me on and God gives me the strength to continue.

I picture God on the sideline cheering all the way, keep going, keep going and I picture it as a race when I finally get to the end, God will be there with open arms and will say, “Welcome home”. The race belongs to God. All I have to do is keep running. I’m trying to do that every day. It’s a great life. I guess what I’ve learned is it’s important not to give up and it’s really important to enjoy the whole journey. That’s why we’re here.

Zarbock: It is a genuine pleasure to meet you. May the Lord be with you.

Bender: And also with you.

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