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On April 10th, 2003, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, faced with the task of seizing the presidential palace in downtown Baghdad, ran headlong into what Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North called, "the worst day of fighting for U.S. Marines." Hiding in buildings and mosques, wearing civilian clothes, and spread out for over a mile, Saddam Hussein's militants rained down bullets and rocket propelled grenades on the 1st Battalion. But when the smoke of the eight-hour battle cleared, only one Marine had lost his life. Some said the 1st Battalion was incredibly lucky. But in the hearts and minds of the Marines who were there, there was no question. God had brought them miraculously through that battle.
As the 1st Battalion's chaplain, Lieutenant Carey Cash had the unique privilege of seeing firsthand, from the beginning of the war to the end, how God miraculously delivered, and even transformed, the lives of the men of the 1st Battalion. Their regiment, the most highly decorated regiment in the history of the Marines, was the first ground force to cross the border into Iraq, the first to see one of their own killed in battle, and they were the unit to fight what most believe to have been the decisive battle of the war-April 10th in downtown Baghdad. Through it all, Carey Cash says, the presence of God was undeniable. Cash even had the privilege of baptizing fifty-seven new Christians-Marines and Sailors-during the war in Iraq.
The men of the 1st Battalion came to discover what King David had discovered long ago--that God's presence could be richly experienced even in the presence of enemies. Here is the amazing story of their experience.
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Lt. Carey H. Cash is a battalion chaplain to infantry Marines in the United States Navy. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, his unit was the first ground combat element to cross the border into Iraq. He is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and was commissioned as a chaplain in 1999. Cash and his wife, Charity have five children, and live near Norfolk, Virginia.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
An Unexpected Feast
As the lights to our squad tent flickered to life, I struggled to wipe the sand and grit out of my eyes and to sit up in the sleeping bag that for the last six weeks had been home. I only needed to take one look at the face of my executive officer, Major Cal Worth, to realize what was happening. His eyes were like steel; his face, expressionless. My heart raced.
“You have five hours to get your gear packed and yourselves into your vehicles. We’re moving north!”
You could have heard a pin drop in the tent. It was an announcement we had been expecting for weeks, yet his words hit us like a train.
“Any questions? No? Good! Then be advised there will be a mandatory staff meeting in thirty minutes. You’ll get more info then. Get moving!” With that he turned and walked out.
For the next few moments, no one moved a muscle. We sat on the tops of our sleeping bags in shock, wrestling with the magnitude of what we’d just heard. We looked at one another, but no one said a thing. We didn’t have to. The words still lingered in the stale air of the tent. Then finally, as if we were responding to a choreographed script, every one of us jumped up and started packing our gear.
Within minutes, I could tell that the message was permeating the entire camp. Senior Marines were barking out orders. Trucks, tanks, and High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs or Humvees) were being moved into place. More than one thousand infantrymen, living in a space no bigger than a parking lot, started packing their personal supplies, filling their canteens, double-checking the status of their ammunition, writing last-minute letters, and saying prayers.
A young officer grabbed my arm. “Hey Chaplain, if something should happen to me, will you give this letter to my girl?”
Hey, wait a minute, I thought. That’s just for the movies.
The man who handed me the letter was a decorated combat veteran. He had been among the first to land deep in enemy territory in Afghanistan. He’d been through this before, and his face was quite serious. I took the letter.
“It’s going to be okay,” I reassured him.
Was I sure about that? I tucked his letter deep within my pack, quietly hoping that I would never have to pull it out.
Meanwhile, the frenzy of activity intensified. I could see the camps next to ours springing to life as well. Flashlights from every tent shot beams across the clear desert sky. Engines rumbled to life. The sound of men’s voices, some laughing and joking, some urgent and tense, were echoing from camp to camp. This was it! We were all heading out. Would we ever see this place again?
It was the evening of March 17, 2003. We had already been in the desert for forty days. Tired and restless, we were quite honestly wondering if the war was ever going to get kicked off. Two or three weeks were all that we’d expected to wait before the official word came to invade Iraq, yet there we were, approaching a month and a half. By now the days were growing longer, and the sun was getting ever hotter. The hope of a hot shower had all but evaporated, and shaving was merciless. The cold water had dulled the last of our razors, producing a wide variety of facial grimaces each morning as we pulled and tugged on our beards.
And then there were the sandstorms. Before arriving in Kuwait, we had all been told about the intense desert winds. But there was no way we could ever have anticipated how vio- lent the storms would get. The weather pattern that brought them about was no mystery. When the wind blew in from the north, we enjoyed clear skies. But when the wind shifted directions and started blowing from the south, the sky would turn a deep dark blue, then brown; and then, like a thundering horde rolling indiscriminately over man and beast, the stinging sand would consume us. There was no escaping its relentless barrage. At times it would beat its implacable drum against our tents for hours. Our romantic notions were fading fast as every new sandstorm further eroded the grandeur of “going off to war.”
During those forty days, when we weren’t rehearsing our attack, we spent much of our time laboring to piece together any fragments of news we could get our hands on. What was happening in the White House? In Baghdad? Had diplomacy run its course? What of the inspectors searching for weapons of mass destruction? How were Americans viewing the war? How were they viewing us? How real was the threat of chemical weapons? Would the enemy surrender quickly? Or would he fight to the death?
We were all asking the same questions. We were all looking for something, anything, to cling to; any precious bit of news that might provide us with some sense of certainty either way. In the end we would have to settle for outdated newspapers and garbled radio transmissions that relayed as much static as commentary. Phone calls were precious but rare; the mail was slow. After forty days in a vast and often unforgiving desert, urgency had faded into monotony.
Marines and soldiers, however, have solutions for deal- ing with monotony. In fact, every Marine who is qualified enough to rise to the rank of corporal is expected by his command to be able to accurately diagnose the morale of his men and to come up with some clever antidote for the ailment, like a doctor who writes out prescriptions for sick patients. Of course the antidotes are as diverse as the men who think them up—a forced march, a grueling run. Or, if the men are lucky and their leader happens to be in particularly amiable spirits, the prescription might be a Humvee pull, a tire-throw, or a tug-of-war match.
On that particular Tuesday night in mid-March, it was obvious that no half-measures would do. The frustration of waiting had finally worked itself, like a thorn, into the skin of most of us. Faces were growing long. Arguments were becoming a daily ritual. Friendships were strained. Something had to be done, so the decision was unanimous. The antidote to our desert malaise would be a talent show.
As word leaked out about the night’s main event, I could sense growing excitement. At least I know I was looking forward to it. For six weeks, everything had been business: chemical weapons drills, battalion hikes, live-fire ranges, late-night staff meetings, intelligence updates. We knew we were there on a mission, and from day one, we did nothing but prepare ourselves for it. So when the decision was made to host a battalion-wide talent show, it was as if a breath of fresh air blew throughout the entire camp, enlivening even the most dispirited man.
I had just finished off the last of my broiled chicken and rice and was enjoying the sweet taste of my warm soda when I first began to hear laughter. It wasn’t the roaring kind of laughter you might expect to come from the lungs of grown men or warriors. This was more like snickering and giggling, the kind of laughter you’d hear behind a child’s door at a slumber party. I was amused but also intrigued. The sound of the voices began to lighten my spirit, and like a magnet, it pulled me outside into the cool desert night to investigate. As I walked from tent to tent, I could see groups of Marines and sailors huddled together, feverishly planning out their appearances for the night’s coming festivities. They were rehearsing every type of act imaginable: singing, skits, stand-up comedy, classical guitar, and just as I expected, those always-feared, never-avoided impersonations.
Young infantrymen—also known as “grunts”—can’t get away with much when it comes to challenging authority; and few ever try. However, impersonations are different. Impersonating a senior-ranking Marine is, to my knowledge, the one and only time a grunt can take a stab at his superiors and still come out alive. It’s almost sacrosanct; an understood realm of asylum, of immunity from reprisal. Overhearing some of the skits and impersonations that a few brave men were planning that night, I knew that some of them were sure to get a rise from the crowd that was already beginning to gather around the seven-ton truck that now doubled as our stage.
By 8:00 p.m., the judges were in place, the performers were ready, and the audience was stirring. Under dim flickering lights, and armed with a substandard sound system, the men of First Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment hosted what must have been the finest talent show the northern Kuwaiti desert had ever witnessed.
Of course I had seen grown men laugh hysterically before. Having attended a military college where I played varsity football, I’d known my own share of rowdy evenings out with the guys. But this was altogether different. More than a good time, this was a release. This was six weeks of pent-up tension and anxiety erupting into the night sky in the form of laughter and cheering. There was no doubt that every person out there needed that night to chase away the stress and frustration of the last six weeks of waiting. We needed it to drive away the feelings of loneliness that grew stronger with every passing night. We needed it to deal with our fear.
Yet therapeutic as the evening was, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was about to happen. There we were in a hostile land, only miles from a border where enemy soldiers patrolled continuously. We all knew that an order might come down at any moment, leading us into mortal combat. Shadowing our exuberance and elation was the very real and imminent prospect of danger and death. One thousand of us were laughing, singing, and cheering; yet we were also poised to enter a different world, where such festivi- ties would be impossible. Was this, quite literally, the last hoorah?
I didn’t share my uneasiness with anyone else, but I am certain others felt the same way. Nevertheless, inebriated by laughter and camaraderie, all one thousand of us went to sleep that night in peace about 11:00 p.m. Three hours later, we learned that our lives were about to change forever.
In those silent seconds following Major Worth’s middle-of-the-night announcement, my thoughts turned toward my fellow chaplains. The four of us had ministered together for six weeks in the desert. We each represented different Christian faith groups: Chaplain Frank Holley, a Methodist; Chaplain Erik Lee, a Nazarene; Chaplain Mark Tanis, a Lutheran; and I, a Baptist. In the course of those weeks, we had all become close friends, even brothers. We conducted services together, assisted each other in baptisms and counseling, and offered one another a listening ear when we needed to vent. When would I ever see them again?
My mind snapped to at the sound of a familiar voice.
“Sir, do you need any help loading your supplies?”
It was a voice I recognized well, even in the dark. Second Class Petty Officer Redor Rufo was my personal assistant—a religious program specialist (RP), who assists me in the administrative tasks required to conduct ministry. That is not, however, his only job. In war, the RP is a chaplain’s bodyguard. Geneva Convention and navy regulations do not permit chaplains to serve as combatants. In fact, a chaplain is the only member of the entire military who is not permitted to brandish a weapon. Chaplains sometimes speculate about what they would do if their men were overrun, if they had the choice to defend themselves with a rifle or pistol. It’s a tough call, but I always thought that if the life of a fellow Marine or sailor was at stake, I’d use the weapon.
Nevertheless, I knew Rufo would not hesitate to use his rifle if we ever found ourselves in real danger. He had the heart of a giant and the tenacity of a street fighter. A 5'4" Filipino-American with a stout build and cackling laugh, Redor Rufo had come to the States when he was in high school, following in the footsteps of two older brothers who had joined the navy before him. Always the generous peacemaker, Rufo overwhelmingly won the affection of the senior men in the battalion just two days after he arrived. He managed to do this by cooking up some of his famous panzet and lumpia, and serving them out of our office space.
Rufo’s spirited generosity was no passing fancy. He’s the only man I’ve ever heard kidding about having his own island one day; he would call his island Rufo Island, and he would be its benevolent dictator. The truth is, although farfetched, anyone who knew Rufo could easily see him doing just that: granting favors, pardons, gifts, and loving every minute of it. Still, kind and peaceable as he was, Rufo knew how to scrap. It didn’t take me long to learn that despite his small frame, he could hold his own with anybody.
The two of us had served together since April 2002, when he joined the battalion. Every day had been an opportunity for us to grow in our mutual trust and respect for one another. Everywhere I went, Rufo was with me. If it meant walking the line together for hours on end, talking to young warriors in fighting holes, he walked beside me. If it meant setting up and taking down for eight worship services in one day, he was there, never flagging in zeal, always an encouragement to the other men in the battalion.
As the two of us loaded supplies into our Humvee, I sensed a note of pain in his voice. “I got to talk to my wife last night, sir. I waited in line for the phone for hours, but I finally got through. I’m so glad I did.”
Calling home from Kuwait was definitely a rarity. There was only one phone for more than a thousand men, and more often than not, the phone wasn’t working. When the phone actually functioned, you had to be prepared to speak to your loved one through a three-second delay.
“Hello . . . can you hear me?”
Three to four seconds would pass, and then the voice on the other end would inevitably answer, “Yes . . . I can hear you . . .”
On and on this would go, until “good-bye.”
Calls home had the effect of producing both joy and pain. We were elated anytime we had the opportunity to call our wives or parents. Yet with each phone call came the quiet realization that this call might be the last one before we went into battle. Every word spoken was precious; every moment, dear. As good as it felt to hear your loved one’s voice, many of our men said that it caused more pain than anything else. I know it did for me. It reminded me of home. And there were more than a few in our battalion who deliberately chose not to call. I could understand why. It just hurt too much.
Clearly, Rufo was glad he’d been able to talk to his wife. But I could tell there was an ache in his heart. There was one in mine too.
It had been more than a month since I had spoken to my wife, Charity, and that conversation had lasted only a few minutes. When the phone rang in our Southern California home, it was 4:00 in the morning.
Charity’s voice, suddenly stirred out of sleep, quietly answered, “Hello.”
Overjoyed to hear her voice, it was all I could do not to shout to her, “It’s me—Carey!”
Immediately, I could tell that she had begun to cry. We both started crying as a flood of emotions swept over us.
“I don’t know when I’ll be able to talk to you again, but just know that I am doing well. God is taking care of me.”
For security purposes, I was not able to tell her exactly where I was, when we thought we might be moving north, or how long our stay might be. But that didn’t matter. More than anything else, I wanted her to know that I was okay, that the men were doing well, that we were relying on the Lord, that her prayers for us were being answered daily in our lives, and, most of all, that I loved her and the children. Every minute of the conversation was filled wi...
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