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Chaplain lifts up families of military members who died by suicide with custom benches

Chaplain lifts up families of military members who committed suicide with custom benches
Chaplain lifts up families of military members who committed suicide with custom benches 03:44

DISCOVERY BAY (CBS SF) – Every day, 22 American military veterans die by suicide, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates. This week's Jefferson Award winner brings comfort to their families through furniture.

Jefferson Award winner Ed McClelland
Jefferson Award winner Ed McClelland. CBS

Ed McClelland began his life of service sending tens of thousands of care packages to US military serving overseas.

"When I was recovering from alcoholism, I needed something to do. This is positive. Men and women are protecting our freedom, the least I could do," he said.

In 2008, McClelland founded his nonprofit Operation Creekside in Discovery Bay. Then he expanded its mission from boxes to benches for the brokenhearted.

He custom-orders memorial benches, a ministry to families of American military veterans who have taken their own lives.

"Mom will sit on the bench and go like that," he motioned, running his hands on the seat of a promotional bench at Napa Auto Parts, one of his volunteer partners. "It means something to her."

Each bench is personalized, with information about the veteran who passed away. The cost for each custom bench is about $2,000, but for the families, it's a free gift.

McClelland, a chaplain, collected donations to fund and drive 16 custom-made benches to families across the nation in the last five years.

He delivered a bench to Marie Hammer, in Klamath Falls, Oregon to honor her son, Specialist Brady Hammer, who served in Iraq and suffered from PTSD.

"I'm crying because it means a lot," Hammer said.

She said McClelland is like family. He even built a fence around her memorial garden and helped with other building projects.

"I went up there by myself during COVID and worked in the backyard, because I care about their loss," he said.

His kindness makes her feel like her family and her son are not forgotten.

"If Ed comes to town and I'm not here, he sends me a message to see if he can come visit the bench and garden and pay respects to Brady," Hammer said. "He has a big heart, and I really appreciate it."

McClelland says the veterans he's honored travel with him.

He's stuck their photos to the side of his truck. Their stories fill his heart. In one case, specialist Francis "Stoney" Graves' combat boots cover his feet. They're a gift from the late veteran's father.

"He goes, 'My son would want you to have these boots.' Only on special occasions, on every bench delivery, I wear Stoney's boots," said McClelland.

With each journey thousands of miles away, McClelland, who now lives in Tuolomne, finds fulfillment in giving.   

So for honoring active military, veterans and the families they leave behind, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Ed McClelland.

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