Editor’s note: As a salute to American troops past, present and future, LTW Managing Editor Rick Smith recalls a recent visit to Raleigh by a US Navy Chaplain who marched 21 days to Baghdad along with the 1st US Marine Division. Semper Fi.

RALEIGH — The orders to go to war had finally come.

“Gentlemen, this is it,” the colonel told the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Infantry Division. “Pack your vehicles. We’re heading north.”

Those words told Lt. Carey Cash, a Navy chaplain assigned to the battalion, and his many friends, new believers and many converts-to-be that war with Iraq was at hand. In the dark, cold, dry desert of northern Kuwait, the battalion was soon to serve as the tip of the spear on the 21-day march to Baghdad. But before leaving the command post, Cash received an unexpected request — not an order — from his commander.

“Chaplain, would you lead us in a word of prayer?”

The officer stood in a circle, calloused hands reaching out for each other.

“There are no atheists in foxholes,” the old saying goes. And on this day, there were none in the group as Operation Iraqi Freedom began.

“There we were, warriors in a circle, beseeching God,” Cash said to more than 400 spellbound men gathered for a prayer luncheon at the Carolina Country Club. They had been invited to hear Carey by Russ Andrews, a longtime stockbroker in Raleigh who recently launched Finding Purpose: A Ministry to Men. Carey told the crowd he could not help but think of the passage in the 23rd Psalm:

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies –”

Cash didn’t come to Raleigh to debate whether war with Iraq was a justifed part of the global war on terrorism or a search (in vain) for weapons of mass destruction. He had not political agenda. He was there instead to talk of Marines carrying out what they felt was their obligation to uphold the Marine motto: “Semper Fidelis”. Always Faifhful – to God, country, family and the Corps.

Seeing Dante’s Inferno

For the next 45 minutes, Carey shared his frightening experiences of war, of death, of fear. But he intertwined them with a message of hope and spiritual renewal. The Marines don’t have chaplains; they are assigned by the Navy. In that hard-fought slog to Baghdad through sandstorms and rain, heavy combat and ambushes, the Navy chaplain became an integral part of the so-called Fighting Fifth as Marines who upheld the honor of “a few good men” just as the “Devil Dogs”, as the Germans called their predecessors at Belleau Wood in France in World War One.

With chaplains such as Carey in their ranks, however, many men became Christians rather than devils. He led communion services from the back of his Humvee, his armed escort standing close by. (Chaplains are forbidden from carrying weapons). He journeyed from unit to unit, or went when called, to deliver services, to read scripture, and to console the men when comrades were killed in combat.

“”Forty-nine men received Christ that night before we went into combat,” said Cash, whose own life includes a miracle. He played football at the Citadel and was a minister with a wife and five children before being afflicted with a brain tumor. Once Cash recovered, he joined the Navy in order to become a chaplain.

The Marines in the unit to which he was attached had spent 40 days in the desert preparing for war — what he called “a place of spiritual preparation.” Once combat began, he described the smoke-filled sky, flames from oil field fires and the carnage of combat as “what Dante envisioned when he wrote The Inferno”.

Cash, speaking with the fervor of an evangelist, moved many of the men in his Raleigh audience to tears. Sitting nearby was his father-in-law, Dr. Larry Lewis, a retired Navy chaplain who now ministers in Pinehurst.

Palm Sunday in a Saddam Palace

On that Palm Sunday, Carey led an Easter service in one of Saddam Hussein’s many palaces. “I guarantee you that had not happened before,” said Cash. Passing by an armored personnel carrier jammed with 25 Marines, Cash recalled being motioned inside when he said, “Hey guys, how about a word of prayer?”

“The war was a time of great personal clarity,” Cash said. “Men were in need. They were seeking a God who provides.”

And God answered those prayers, he said. Although the Marines lost men to death and to wounds, many that should have died did not. Cash told of how one Marine was struck on the helmet by a rocket-propelled grenade. It didn’t explode. Bullets cut through Humvees, leaving holes where they entered and left. The Marines inside weren’t hit.

“It was as though the Lord was a shield around us,” Cash said.

The battalion was the first unit to enter Baghdad and ran into fierce resistance. “We were surrounded in the belly of the beast. We should have suffered untold dead,” he said. They did not. “It wasn’t luck. No, it was the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Cash has recounted his story in a book “A Table in the Presence”, from W Publishing Group), and Andrews purchased some 400 copies to sell at the event. Within 10 minutes of Cash’s closing prayer, every book was sold.

In an inscription to one man, Cash wrote words that captured the spirit he and the Marines demonstrated on the bloody march to Iraq’s capital: “Fight the Fight!”