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The vertical commute of a naval chaplain

by Linda Bloom
November 10, 2009

The Rev. Laura Bender has a vertical commute to her church.

Her living quarters aboard the USS New York, where she is the ship’s chaplain, are seven decks above the chapel. That means traveling between the two locations via six ladder wells, two hatches and a scuttle.

After walking the decks of the New York myself last Thursday, both vertically and horizontally, as she led a private tour, I can attest that Lieutenant Commander Bender must stay in pretty good shape since she makes that commute at least several times a day.

I also can attest to the affection she feels for the 360-member permanent crew, the ship itself, and the symbol of healing that it represents as a positive outgrowth of the 9/11 attacks, carrying the very steel of the fallen Twin Towers within its bow.

At 50, Laura Bender is eight years older than Commanding Officer Curt Jones, another United Methodist. She is both counselor and mother to the crewmembers, who tease her about tucking them in at night with a “Good night, New York” signoff from the bridge after evening prayers.

This is her first shipboard assignment, but in her 10 years as a military chaplain, she has spent time in places like Guantanamo Bay and Iraq. As part of a medical unit during the 2003 Iraq invasion, she helped tend to the dead and dying – both American and Iraqi alike – and lived under primitive conditions. It was a “rough period,” she says.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that she actually knows how to eat fire. It’s a skill she doesn’t demonstrate on a regular basis, but she admits the U.S. Marines like to see her do it.

On the USS New York, Bender is assisted by another United Methodist, Religious Program Specialist Edmond Garrett of Mississippi. He also is her bodyguard because chaplains do not carry weapons and are protected by others in conflict situations.

She compares him to a church secretary, but asks me to imagine a church secretary “being fully qualified with weapons.”

The USS New York was commissioned on Nov. 7 on a dock next to the Intrepid Museum in Manhattan and there was much fanfare in the week leading up to the event. As the ship’s commissioning coordinator, Bender worked tirelessly to both promote the ship and respond to requests from the public and 9/11 families.

She worked so hard that her husband, Kenneth Anderson, who was in New York with her, was concerned that she was not getting enough sleep and not eating enough. However, she seemed to be enjoying it. After all, how often does one get to eat breakfast at Tiffany’s?

Her most important task, it seems, has been to provide a sympathetic ear – listening to the stories of loss, survival and healing by those touched by 9/11 who are now touched by the mission of the USS New York.

And that makes her a special Navy chaplain.