ARLINGTON COUNTY, Va. (DC News Now)—A local U.S. Navy Chaplain was awarded a Purple Heart after surviving an IED blast during his service in Iraq.
It’s not too often, you meet a military chaplain who has seen so much combat. Captain Bennett Sandford, who works at the Pentagon, spoke with DC News Now for Veterans Voices about how faith connects him to his Marines.
Walking through the sacred chapel where the plane hit the Pentagon on 9/11, Chaplain Sandford explains the weight he bares on his chest.
“I’ve got two Combat action ribbons—one from Iraq, one from Afghanistan,” says Sandford.
It’s not very often you meet a man of the cloth who has seen so much combat.
“I have a Bronze Star that the Colonel in Afghanistan gave me because in his words ‘Chaps, you were with the Marines nine times when they were attacked and he said I think you earned it,” says Chaplain Sandford.
For Chaplain Sandford, he always felt called to serve his Marines outside the wire including in some of the most dangerous places: Iraq.
“This was my first time into a combat zone,” says Chaplain Sandford.
In Fallujah in 2007, Chaplain Sandford was ministering to the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.
“It was April 18th, 2007,” says Chaplain Sandford. “I think it was the 6th official day of our deployment in Iraq, so I was very fresh. I was still turning over with the previous chaplain but he assured me that he’d been out in the city many times—nothing’s ever happened.”
He loaded up with the commanding officer in a convoy to visit Marines and search for electricity in the heart of the city, when they passed a mosque.
“And I turned to the right just as a large flash blinded my goggles and I felt the heat and heard the blast and the next thing I know I’m coming back to,” says Chaplain Sandford. “Our gunner had fallen down into the truck. There was blood everywhere.”
He helped bandage up his gunner to stop the bleeding. Chaplain Sandford miraculously survived.
“My bell got my bell rung pretty good that night,” says Chaplain Sandford. “I didn’t quite realize how badly but I had a pretty massive headache for the next several days.”
His commanding officer was shocked to see him still alive.
“He looked at me and said ‘Chaps, did you look at the truck?’ and I said ‘No, sir’ and he said ‘Well, let’s just say somebody upstairs was watching out for you tonight,’” says Chaplain Sandford.
At first, Sandford felt relief that the enemy took their best shot yet he remained standing.
“That went away real quick about a week later when my first two Marines were killed in an IED attack,” says Chaplain Sandford. “That wrecked their truck. Killed one of them instantly. The other one made it to Fallujah Surgical where I actually got to pray over him while the doctors worked on him. He gave into his injuries and died…so that got my attention,” says Sandford.
Back home, Chaplain Sandford worked to heal from wounds you couldn’t see.
“The typical kinds of things irritability, sleeplessness, that lasted for quite a while,” says Chaplain Sandford. “You do tend to tuck things away. So the rest of the deployment. I just sort of bottled it up…it all came back to me when we got back home.”
But surviving the blast, only intensified his mission to minister to more Marines in yet another war zone.
“In all honesty, Afghanistan more dangerous than Iraq was,” says Chaplain Sandford.
His experience in Iraq served as a constant reminder about what he felt called to do.
“That’s been an overwhelming feeling since that deployment,” says Chaplain Sandford. “Just gratitude. Thankful that I survived that night. Thankful that I was able to continue to provide ministry to my Marines.”
Now, when Marines look at his chest, they see a Chaplain who’s been through the trauma of war and may help them heal.
“They have somebody to talk to,” says Chaplain Sandford. “Somebody they can trust.”
He says that’s what keeps him going.
“The ones that are still here,” says Chaplain Sandford. “We always stop and we pause and acknowledge the loss of our comrades. But then we have to get back to the business at hand and those Marines and soldiers that are still there on the battlefield need me to be there.”