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Returning chaplain: Iraq ‘white unto harvest’

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (BP)–He’s 25 pounds lighter after two bouts with dysentery, he’s worn a chemical suit and dodged bullets behind his Humvee. He’s marched with the troops of Operation Iraqi Freedom through the powdery sands of Kuwait and Iraq, where temperatures topped 100 degrees on a daily basis.

He never fired a single weapon, however, or launched a solitary missile.

Navy Chaplain Lieutenant Commander Travis Moger’s “sword” is as close as the pocket of the chemical suit he wore on the road to Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division based at Camp Pendleton near San Diego.

Moger’s reserve battalion was the only Marine Corps reserve infantry battalion to fight alongside active duty units in the war. Because chaplains are non-combatants, his job was to stay out of the line of fire, to pray with and to give spiritual counsel to the troops.

Never far from the Word during his 100-day deployment, 35-year-old Moger, now stateside, told the Florida Baptist Witness about an encounter with a Marine who had left the Catholic faith and was on a search for meaning.

“I want my life to be right with God,” Moger said the young man told him. “Can you tell me what to do?”

Pulling out a small New Testament, Moger said he kneeled in the sand at the side of an Iraqi highway to show the soldier God’s ultimate roadmap — the way to salvation.

The experience Moger described took place the day before his unit engaged in their first firefight. Two days later, taking cover behind his Humvee to avoid small arms fire coming from a tree line 300 meters away, Moger said the same Marine approached him in order to tell him how “at peace” he was and how he “wasn’t scared” in spite of the chaos of war.

“I thank God that He was able to use me to lead men to Christ,” Moger said. A Navy chaplain since 1994, Moger previously served as pastor of First Baptist Church in Citra, Fla.

Moger reported leading about three dozen Marines and sailors to Christ while being deployed to the Middle East, and he took part in a baptism service reported by the Associated Press.

The AP reported that Moger baptized seven new believers in a pool made of sandbags at Camp Inchon in Kuwait, only days before those believers and their fellow Marines liberated the Iraqi town of Safwan, just north of the Kuwaiti border.

Water and time were a bit scarcer after that, so others who had requested baptism had to wait.

“One of the hardest times was after the war was over, waiting for our turn to return to the States,” Moger said. “We left Baghdad the day after Easter and it took over a month for us to return to Kuwait to wait for a flight out.”

At home in Southern California, Moger’s family also waited patiently for his return. A “Navy brat turned Navy wife,” Amelia, was head of the household for their four children — Natalie, Nadine, Maddy and Mark — during her husband’s deployment.

And it was while Moger was waiting to return home that he said he learned an important lesson about God’s timing. Camping in a “filthy, run-down old Iraqi military compound with lots of bugs and mud,” Moger said the temperature was over 100 degrees every day and many, including him, were sickened with dysentery.

In addition, unlike many other units deployed there, Moger’s battalion did not have access to e-mail and only after the war did the 1,000-man battalion get a satellite phone to use an average of once a week for a five-minute phone call home.

“I was able to put the whole situation in perspective,” Moger said, “because I personally saw four Marines and sailors come to faith in Christ while we were there.

“In retrospect, I believe there was a divine reason we were delayed in our return. God was working on the hearts of these men,” Moger said. “A soul being saved is worth … the inconvenience of a month in a disease-infested camp.”

Moger said not all of his experiences were “spiritual victories,” however.

“There were times when I neglected to witness when I should have,” he said. “One time, when we were ‘dug in’ near Al Fajir, Iraq, I spent the day walking the lines of one of our rifle companies. I spent about 30-45 minutes talking with a platoon sergeant, but I never asked him about his relationship with God.

“That night he was killed in combat,” Moger said.

Death was no stranger to Moger by the time he left Iraq. Saddened by the civilian casualties, he said it was one of the toughest things he faced.

“It was hard seeing the damage we caused innocent civilians, especially the children,” Moger said. “[But] our troops were generally very good about limiting civilian casualties.”

Despite the casualties, Moger said the Iraqis wanted the Americans there and looked to them as a liberating force.

“Anyone who thinks we shouldn’t have fought in Iraq needs to go there. Everywhere U.S. forces went, Iraqis lined the roads to cheer and wave,” Moger recounted. “Some of them came up to us and asked, ‘What took you so long?'”

Moger said he believes it’s only a matter of time until weapons of mass destruction are found. Citing an abundance of underground military sites, he said the Army discovered a large one in a compound his battalion occupied.

“We didn’t even know it was there,” said Moger, who also reported the battalion’s discovery of a terrorist training camp. “Isn’t that enough proof that Iraq’s former regime was sponsoring terrorism and needed to go?

“The people we were fighting against were evil,” Moger said. “They had little regard for human life. They used women and children as shields, knowing they would be killed or wounded.”

More important than the military conflict in Iraq is what Moger called the “spiritual warfare” taking place.

“I believe there is a battle for the souls of the Iraqi people. We have a great opportunity now to bring the Gospel to the people of Iraq,” he said.

Drawing on a metaphor to explain the spiritual condition, Moger said there are unharvested crops rotting in the fields throughout the country of Iraq and if they are allowed to spoil there will be a lot of starving people and social unrest.

“The fields there are ‘white unto harvest,'” Moger said. “The question is, ‘Will God’s people be faithful to answer the call?'”

Summing up his wartime feelings, Moger said he’s learned that God provides.

“It’s not that I doubted God before,” he said. “It’s just that my faith has been strengthened through my experience overseas.”

And standing on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, as if he hadn’t had enough sand to last a lifetime, Moger, cell phone in hand, is gearing up for his newest calling — planting a church in Santa Barbara in 2004.

“Before going to Iraq, I had a lot of fear of failure,” Moger said. “Now I know with God all things are possible.”
Reprinted from the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com. Used with permission.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: TRAVIS MOGER.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan