In 2018, Capt. Carla Bender, 43rd Adjutant General Reception Battalion, Alpha Company commander, processed thousands of Soldiers assigned to basic training units at Fort Leonard Wood.
According to Sgt. 1st Class Jason Mawhinney, 3rd Platoon drill sergeant, she led through example and by listening to, understanding and trusting her Soldiers.
“She is very caring when it comes to situations the drill sergeants can’t take care of,” he said. “If a private has a family issue (or) a mental health issue, she’s very caring, very understanding — and not just in a leadership way, but in an actual ‘I relate to this person’ type of way.”
Mawhinney said trainees were not the only ones positively affected under her command.
“She directly impacted my job by giving me a great deal of authority in order to make judgement calls without having to take the time out of my day to make sure she was okay with it,” he said. “She put trust in me, in order for me to get the job done for her.”
According to Bender, who holds a Master Resilience Trainer license, her command was shaped by that mental training.
“My vision was to go with resiliency,” she said. “When you go to the training, it will change you; it will change the way you see things, it will change your perspective on life and change your perspective on people.”
“That played a key role with this particular company because I was able to utilize those skills to help (trainees),” she said. “We implemented a lot of different motivational things, videos, (and) speeches. 1st Sgt. (Timothy) Gutierrez would get up and talk; I would get up and talk, and, yes, we would (do this with) every population.”
Typical reception cycles only last three to four days, and Alpha Company has previously had to process as many as 1,000 trainees for basic training in one week.
Bender said her goal was to simultaneously reduce behavioral health issues while still encouraging these trainees.
“A lot of times I like to (ask) ‘Hey, share your story. Why did you come here?’” she said.
She was surprised to hear the conditions in which some trainees were living. Many trainees spoke of having to sleep in their cars just weeks before arriving at Fort Leonard Wood, she said.
“I wanted to have a thumbprint on each one of them, leave something positive to help them know ‘you can do it, you don’t have to stay homeless, you don’t have to stay on the street,’” Bender said. “I felt like I had a purpose in helping some of these young people get their lives together.”
She left her position May 21 as she awaits a permanent change of station to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where she will attend Command and General Staff College and await promotion.
Bender’s career relocation is nothing new to her with having been previously stationed in Germany and Japan. While in Europe, she completed her goal of visiting 30 countries before turning 30 years old.
Her experience with military customs began in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at Eisenhower Sr. High School, Lawton, Oklahoma.
Upon graduation, she was awarded a four-year, Army ROTC full-ride scholarship to Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi where she earned a bachelor’s degree.
She credited her career progression to her former JROTC instructor, retired Maj. Oliver Jenkins, who passed away from injuries sustained during his service. He, too, attended Jackson State University.
“It was an honor to carry on his legacy,” she said.
Bender encouraged those who are financially struggling but interested in secondary education to try the same path she used through JROTC.
“For these (trainees), a lot of them want to go to college,” she said. “It’s not that they don’t want to, they just don’t have the money to.”
She reflected on how this realization affected her interactions with trainees while commanding Alpha Company.
“These (trainees), they just need a little bit of encouragement if you’re willing to give them a platform and you’re willing to give them an environment and space to grow,” Bender said. “I took a different approach.”
“Everybody’s not like me, and I was okay with that,” she said.
“She would try and make the drill sergeants’ lives a little bit easier because of our long hours,” he said. “She actually cared about us.”