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Holidays made sweeter by soldier's reunion with Pa. family

December 29, 2003|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - For Pfc. Stephenie Bender, Scud missile attacks on Kuwait were the focus of her attention when the war to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein began in March.

"Those were my major concerns because they can be equipped with nuclear, biological or chemical elements," said the 20-year-old, who is assigned to a U.S. Army chemical operations company. "That's when I learned the most about my job," she said.

"That's when I'd be running for cover," said her grandmother, Lee Bender.

Home is where almost everyone longs to be for the holidays, a longing magnified for those thousands of miles from their loved ones in a foreign and hostile land. Stephenie Bender returned to Waynesboro on Dec. 24 for her first Christmas at home since 2001, flying in from Iraq to be with grandparents, Gerry and Lee Bender, both of whom know about the separations that are part of military life.

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"I had tears in my eyes," Gerry Bender said of her homecoming.

"And he never cries," Stephenie said.

Stephenie Bender entered the Army just weeks after graduating from Waynesboro Area Senior High School in 2002 and has been in the Middle East for 10 months. She'll return to Iraq early next month, but there is much to do in the meantime - seeing friends and family, shopping and, on New Year's Eve, a trip to Times Square in New York City.

"Coming back from Iraq, I need something like that," she said.

"You've got to make an appointment to see her," joked her 92-year-old great-grandfather, David Bender who, as a civilian machinist, helped salvage the wreckage of the battleship Oklahoma days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"We protect, detect and decontaminate," she said of her job with Charlie Co. of the 82nd Chemical Battalion. Her unit is assigned to support a signal corps unit now stationed near Baghdad International Airport.

"The first six months were the hardest," Stephenie Bender said of her experience overseas. "When we first got there, we had no bathrooms, no showers."

"It was a struggle to get water. We only got to eat two MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) a day. Some days only one," she said. One aspect of modern warfare, however, allowed her to stay in touch with her family.

"I'm lucky to be with a signals unit, because that's what they do, supply communications," she said. "I'd e-mail and tell them I was OK if something major happened," she said.

For Stephenie, the Benders are as much parents as grandparents. Her father died of cancer when she was a freshman and she does not know the whereabouts of her mother.

Gerry Bender, a Vietnam veteran who spent more than 20 years in the Air Force, said he looks for "her little face" in television news reports. Lee Bender, who was a civilian Defense Department employee, said she worries "particularly when I hear she goes out on a supply run."

In the aftermath of major fighting, most U.S. and coalition casualties have been from roadside ambushes and land mines. Stephenie lost a friend on Dec. 5 to what have become known as improvised explosive devices.

"He was the best chemical specialist in our unit," she said of Spc. Arron Clark, who also was 20. "I was looking forward to working with him back in Germany."

Morale varies from day to day, but Stephenie Bender said visits from dignitaries and entertainers help. Among those she met were Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, Kid Rock, professional wrestling impresario Vince McMahon and pro wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Care packages from family and organizations such as the Gettysburg (Pa.) American Legion also helped morale, she said.

Stephenie Bender also met her fianc, Spc. Kit Estrada, in the Army and plans to move to Texas once her three-year tour is up.

Stephenie expects her unit will pack up for Germany shortly after her return, but her family still worries, even though Gerry and David Bender both said they believe conditions are improving in Iraq.

"I wouldn't mind if she were going back to Germany, but for her to go back to Iraq ...," Lee said.

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