A Triumph of Hope: Minister hits bottom to rise as an Army Chaplain
May 4, 2011
BASRAH, Iraq - Life was good for Harold B. Bender. He had it all; a nice house, nice car, a wonderful wife and three kids, and what he considered his dream job - the youth, singles and recreation minister at a church in Colorado Springs, Colo.
An incident in high school had opened his eyes, and mind, to matters of eternal significance and set him on the path to what soon became apparent was not only his calling, but also his gift; ministry. So he pursued an undergraduate degree in church recreation at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., and then went to seminary at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, for his master's degree in religious education with an emphasis on recreation.
"My two loves were the Bible and basketball," said Bender, a native of Evansville, Ind. "I thought that church recreation was the perfect marriage of the two. I had often wondered why God would put an NBA heart in a churchly body, and I finally realized it was because he wanted me in the church league. So I viewed that as an opportunity, a perfect fit for me."
Finding a ministry in Colorado Springs was merely the icing on the cake; every kind of recreational activity from hiking in the mountains, bike riding, skiing and snowboarding was readily available, he said. In fact, it was so perfect that he recalls stopping in the middle of a lesson one time to tell his students that his wish for them was that they, too, would find a job that made them so happy.
Unfortunately, life - and all its problems - soon intruded. Bender's world was destroyed in an instant because of a divorce. The family, the house and his ministry were all taken from him, sinking him into the depths of depression.
"In the church, especially in Baptist circles, there's not a big demand for divorced ministers. In my youthful genius and naAfA-vetAfA, I had never prepared myself for anything other than ministry," Bender said. "I found myself without a job and without any skills to support myself. So I enlisted in the military."
It was the beginning of 2004 when then 33-year-old Bender headed off to Fort. Jackson, S.C. to begin his new life as an active-duty Soldier. His prior education qualified him to enlist as a specialist and his new job would train him as a satellite communications operator and repairer.
A little over a week after arriving for basic training, on a bitterly cold Sunday morning, Bender trudged through the ice with a small group of trainees on their way to the drill hall for Bible study. Although his faith had been severely damaged, the habit of going to church was still deeply ingrained, he said.
The day was February 7, a day he said he can never forget.
"It's crazy the things you can remember - like the crunching sound of the ground as we marched to the drill hall. Two days before I had arrived at Fort Jackson, they had closed the entire military post down because of an ice storm, so it was an especially cold winter," Bender said. "I can remember wishing that the drill hall were closer, that the drill sergeant would pick up the pace, because it was unbearably cold. Just when I thought I was going to get relief from the chill, the drill sergeant unexpectedly gave us the command halt, then a right face. He didn't say a word; he just kind of walked around us in silence."
As he stood there waiting for the drill sergeant to speak, Bender said his mind began to wander. He noticed the little things: the bare branches of the trees and the cold, dead, ice-covered ground. Looking up, however, his eyes were greeted with a stark contrast to the winter-laden earth.
"The sun was shining brightly and the sky was blue as any I could remember," Bender reminisced. "It was the kind of sky you would associate with spring, or a pleasant summer morning. But on the other hand, that wind was just so cold, and everywhere I looked was just the barrenness of winter. It was a stark contrast; on the one hand there was such a bright and beautiful sky, and yet all around me there was death. I'm thinking about the irony of it all when the drill sergeant tells us, 'Privates, you go in there and do whatever it is you do, feel whatever it is you feel. But when you come back out here, you're Soldiers.'"
With that, they filed into the drill hall.
"At first I was a little taken aback, because he was definitely giving us the message that what we were about to do was not soldierly. I can see his fear of us forgetting our military bearing as I walked through that door and the drill hall was completely changed," Bender said. "Because on the other side of that door was a table filled with every type of forbidden boot-camp fruit imaginable. I mean, there were doughnuts, cookies and Doritos and sodas - it was just a spread you couldn't believe. Pleasant, warm, welcoming faces of a lovely young couple greeting us with their three small kids and the sound of praise music filling the air, Veggie Tales playing on a big screen TV in there. I'm sure their intent was to boost our morale, but it only plunged me deeper into a state of depression. Because it reminded me of everything I had lost."
The music highlighted and accentuated how desperately sad he was already feeling, and the Veggie Tales cartoons reminded him of how many times he had sat on the floor with his own children, watching those very same episodes, said Bender. But the most painful part was seeing that family all together.
"I was thinking, 'That's supposed to be me. I'm supposed to be ministering to people with my family together with me. I'm supposed to be setting the example for my kids, helping them to catch a vision and a passion for the work of the kingdom. I'm supposed to be speaking words of healing and encouragement; not be the one needing those words," he added.
It was then, Bender said, that he was at rock bottom.
"I looked around at all the 17 and 18-year old kids around me, and I remember thinking; I had been to college, I had been to seminary, I had gotten married, had a beautiful home in Colorado Springs, I was independent - and all that had been taken away from me. And now, after all that hard work, here I was no further along in life than these 17 and 18-year olds around me," he said. "As a matter of fact, I was worse off than they were because I was saddled with debt and my car had been repossessed. I was lonely, sad and just defeated. It's the only word I have for that feeling at that moment in time."
While sitting in the drill hall with his eyes lifted to heaven, crying out silently "God, how could it have come to this' How could you allow me to reach this point'" his eyes lit upon the Soldier's Creed written on the wall.
"As you know, the creed starts with the Warrior's Ethos: I will always place the mission first," Bender said. "As my eyes came across that, I couldn't even tell you what was being talked about that morning. It wasn't even associated. It was one of those unique moments when God really got my attention and put the thought in my mind of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: he was in that garden, pouring out his heart to his father, crying, sweating great drops of blood, with anguish in his soul over what he was about to face. And there, for the first time, I saw a connection between Jesus and I that I had never felt before. I felt that I could identify with him."
Jesus prayed the same prayer Bender did that morning. God, can you get me out of this' God, is there any way you can let this cup pass from me' But then Jesus said, "Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done."
"It was then that I realized, Jesus always places the mission first. At that moment, in that garden, he set aside his desires and he placed that mission of our salvation first," Bender said. "That was a turning point for me, because God began to whisper in my ear; 'That mission of salvation I began in you, I'll be faithful until completed. I'm never going to quit you, I'm never going to accept defeat for you, and I'm never going to leave you in your fallen condition.' Seeing Jesus in that light, how he lived the Warrior Ethos for us is really what made the difference, not in my circumstances, but in my spirit. It gave me a new perspective; kind of renewed my faith and restored my joy. That was the beginning of the healing process for me."
It was during advanced individual training for his new military occupational skill at Fort Gordon, Ga., that Bender's life took on a new direction. He got to know the chaplain, Capt. Michael Zell, quite well during his customary attendance to Sunday chapel service. When Zell learned of Bender's story, he asked a question that would alter Bender's military career.
"Have you ever thought of becoming a chaplain'"
"He really took an interest in me and helped me put together a package," Bender recalls. "He said, 'You should consider, or at least pursue, this opportunity and see what doors, if any, God opens for you.' He walked me through the packet process, and while I was in AIT I submitted it and went before a board."
The board accepted Bender, but the commission was in the Army Reserve instead of active duty. On Sept. 30, 2004, he graduated from AIT with the rank of specialist. The very next day he stood outside his company's barracks and received his reserve commission as a first lieutenant in the Chaplain Corps.
"It was kind of a big deal I guess, because it's not very often that an enlisted Soldier gets commissioned at AIT," Bender says with a laugh. "Those senior enlisted who were re-classing with us got a big kick out of the fact that I was an (enlisted grade 4) promotable to (officer grade 2)!"
Bender attended the Chaplain Officer Basic Course the following September. There he met a fellow student who was a Texas Army National Guardsman stationed with the 449th Aviation Support Battalion out of San Antonio. The guardsman had put in a packet to transfer over to active duty, but his unit was preparing for deployment to Iraq and needed a chaplain. So he put Bender in touch with the Texas Guard.
"I graduated from Chaplain Officer Basic Coarse in December of 2005," Bender said. "In February of 2006 I was at Fort Hood, Texas, training for my first deployment to Bilad, Iraq. I've been in the Texas Army National Guard ever since."
Bender said he is proud to call Texas home and is now a resident of Dallas. He currently holds the rank of captain, and is serving his second tour in Iraq as the deputy division chaplain for the 36th Infantry Division at Contingency Operating Base Basra, where the division has taken command and control of U.S. Division-South.
It was a long and difficult road, but God eventually led him back to doing what he loves most - ministering.
"There's nothing I feel more pressure in doing than preparing and delivering sermons, but there is nothing more satisfying than when you know you've been used by God to speak truth to people and they are touched, moved and encouraged by it. That makes it all worthwhile," he said. "It's hard to imagine that I can be enjoying what I do so much because it was never in my agenda, never in my dreams or plans, to be in the military."
"But I love Soldiers and I love the military; I love the camaraderie. I love (Soldiers') hearts and their honor. It's such a privilege to serve such fine people. They are by far my favorite congregation in the world. The best part of being a military chaplain is the opportunity to touch people's lives through counseling and preaching, my favorite thing to do. I even like that better than basketball now."