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Chaplain Comforts Wounded Warriors: Chaplain Laura Bender


United Methodist military chaplain Laura Bender counsels men and women who bear the physical and emotional injuries of war. Bender cheers on military athletes at the annual Warrior Games volleyball tournament at The Pentagon.

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(The Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia)

Voice of Chaplain Laura Bender: "I would define a wounded warrior as anyone who has gone to war because war changes everyone."

Military athletes from all branches of service have come to The Pentagon for a seated volleyball tournament.

Coach to team: "All right. Let's do this. Air Force on three: one, two, three." Team: "Air Force."

They're known as "wounded warriors" but many have injuries you can't see.

Voice of Chaplain Laura Bender: "About thirty percent of those we care for are actually combat- wounded."

Some suffer from traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, or depression.

Dylan Kelly to team: "We got this. We got this whole tournament."

Marine Dylan Kelly is among those who find some comfort in competitive sports.

Dylan Kelly, USMC Wounded Warrior: "It's very motivating, especially to see, you know, double amputees, other people, you know, fighting cancer, just coming out here and giving it their all, you know, putting their whole heart and soul into the game. You know, just everybody comes away winners all the time."

United Methodist Chaplain Laura Bender is one of those cheering from the sidelines. Bender provides pastoral care to soldiers half her age and admits that keeping up is sometimes challenging.

Chaplain Laura Bender: "When they say that, you know, PT this week is going to be football, I start to worry about that. I'm 53 years old. And football's not really on my list any longer."

Bender says it is important for chaplains to be present as much as they are able. She remembers a bike ride where a soldier revealed what Bender calls a "soul wound."

Chaplain Laura Bender: "As we rode along he waited until it was just the two of us on the road together. And he looked over at me and he said, you know, chaplain, I killed a child."

With wounds this deep, chaplains can't do it alone. Bender says local churches need to know the guilt and hurt many veterans carry so they can connect with vets in meaningful ways.

Chaplain Laura Bender: "Those are the kinds of issues that would make a person come to the door of a church and say, "Am I really welcome here? I know these people have called me a hero, but am I really? If they knew the experiences I've had, if they knew what has happened, what I did, what I couldn't prevent, would they still want me? Does God still hear my prayers?'"

Marine Nestor Cruz says there are plenty of opportunities for local churches to support veterans in their own communities.

Nestor Cruz, USMC Wounded Warrior: "I'm an ill Marine. I have cancer. I believe in the power of prayer. And that's what got me through a lot of things. The church is our first line of defense for anybody. At least that's what I believe. And so, yes, I do think they should be involved in it."

Chaplain Bender says churches need to design ministries that recognize veterans are people, not service projects. The best ministries connect churches and soldiers one-on-one.

Soldier to volunteer: "I love those boxes we get. They're great."

Dylan Kelly: "Just something even as simple as just coming up and saying, 'Thank you for serving,' I mean, that...that alone means a lot to anybody that's served. Just recognition. It means a lot to us."

Events like the Warrior Games also mean a lot. Program manager Jenny Sullivan helps injured Marines stay in the game.

Jenny Sullivan, USMC Warrior Athlete Reconditioning Program: "I think when some of these guys come back their whole life has changed. They have always been the caretaker. To need to be taken care of,'s heartbreaking for some of them. They'll take this event and they'll be on an emotional and spiritual high for the next few weeks. Maybe they can't go out and play regular volleyball anymore. But they can play this and it's amazing."


Learn more about how The United Methodist Church is in ministry with those who serve by visiting the feature Ministry with Those Who Serve.

And for more information on the work of United Methodist Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors, visit the General Board of Higher Education in Ministry.

This story was first published on December 19, 2012