After 40 days and 40 nights in the Kuwaiti desert, the First Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment crossed the line of departure into harm's way in Iraq on March 20, 2003 — the start of what would become known as Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"We had the first man killed in action in the whole war in our unit and fought what many believe is the most decisive battle in the fall of Baghdad," said Carey Cash, a Navy chaplain assigned to the regiment.
Yet in the midst of physical war, a spiritual battle for the lives of these Marines was already underway as God brought revival to the unit. In the battalion of 1,000 men, Cash said, "about one out of four had a profound spiritual awakening."
At the beginning of the deployment, Cash asked the men, "Who's thinking about baptism and would like to explore what it means to follow Christ? Join me for a 12-week study."
Six of the 12 weeks took place in the Kuwaiti desert. During those 40 days and nights, Cash conducted classes and counseled daily with Marines as they wrestled with the claims of Christ on their lives. Just before crossing into combat, 60 Marines were baptized as new Christians. Several others were baptized while in combat, including one inside Saddam Hussein's palace on Palm Sunday.
In all, more than 250 men either made professions of faith or rededicated their lives to Christ. In addition to those baptized during the deployment, many more were baptized in their churches upon returning to the U.S.
The experience served as one of many points along the way where Cash felt an affirmation of God's calling on His life. His 2003 book "A Table in the Presence" chronicles the story of these spiritual victories.
Call to ministry
However, a medical crisis nearly prevented him from serving in the military.
Cash grew up in a military family, his father a career Naval officer and fighter pilot who served as a commanding officer at the prestigious "Top Gun" flight school. Military blood always coursed through Cash's veins, but football was his passion early on.
Cash received a football scholarship as an offensive lineman to The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, but during his final season, doctors found an inoperable tumor at the base of his brain stem.
"The rug was completely ripped out from under my wife and me," Cash recalled. "I'd always identified myself physically, and the very thing where I'd always found my identity was gone. But it was during that season of incredible struggle that I began to hear God's call to ministry.
"All this is happening at the same time. I've got this issue going on with my head, this deep sense of calling to ministry that I'm feeling certain about, and out of left field comes this love for the military that's never really left me as well."
Unsure how this all fit together, Cash sought the wise counsel of his father-in-law, who served as Chaplain of the Marine Corps. As soon as his father-in-law mentioned chaplaincy, Cash said, "It was like the light bulb went on."
"It was absolutely crystal clear this is where God wanted me, but the only mitigating problem was that I had a tumor," he said. "It's hard to get a commission when you potentially have a catastrophic illness."
As expected, the Navy denied Cash's application for active duty chaplaincy due to the tumor. By this time, however, Cash had already enrolled in classes at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
Despite having symptoms related to the tumor for more than a year and a half, Cash said, "The week I entered seminary, August of 1994, the symptoms stopped forever. I've never had another symptom."
Still convinced of God's call to chaplaincy, Cash sought a medical waiver from one of the top neurosurgeons in the country. Providentially, the doctor was a Christian, and after a year of monitoring the tumor with no significant growth or changes, he signed Cash's medical waiver.
A few months later, Cash received an approval letter from the Navy.
"I still have the tumor," Cash said. "I really do believe God allowed that just so He could say, 'Let Me show you who I am and what I can do.'"
Changed by 9/11
Cash graduated from Southwestern in 1998, served a few years as a pastor and started Navy chaplain training in August 2001, one month before two planes struck the World Trade Center in New York City. As he watched the towers fall on television, he knew he would be deployed. He was eventually assigned to the First Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment and began training.
During training, Cash learned the essence of a being a good chaplain.
"The bottom line is that you don't have to be a great preacher, you don't have to be a skilled counselor," Cash said, "but if you will love the men and spend time with them, you're in."
Every Friday before the unit deployed to Iraq, Cash would go on a hike with a company even though he was not required to do so.
"There's nowhere in the world that I know of where you just have such an opportunity to carry out a ministry of presence," Cash said. "Love the men and suffer with them, and you're in. The many months of time in the states before we deployed to war was a time of preparation, building and seasoning these relationships, so when we got into combat all these things bore fruit."
Following his deployment to Iraq, Cash served on a guided missile cruiser in the Arabian Gulf and then conducted retreats and taught ethics at a base in Italy. Near the end of his assignment in Italy, his superiors encouraged him to submit an application for the chaplaincy post at Camp David, a facility that serves as the President's retreat center.
Chaplain to the President
Cash received the appointment and arrived at Camp David in December 2008, one month before President Obama was sworn into office. He served at the post for two and a half years, ministering to the needs of the Camp David staff as well as the President and visitors.
"It was an absolute privilege to serve the people that worked there and the administration," Cash said. "It's one of those rare opportunities where you feel like God's placed you there, so I wanted to be a good steward. It was a great opportunity in a very small but maybe significant way to be a voice.
"Take away all the veneer and the trappings, we are all people who need the Lord. So, in some ways, it helped humanize for me the political side of life. A lot of times, we see people on the news or CNN. Whoever they are, they're so ensconced in the political identity that we just sort of see them as an object and not as a person. Being at Camp David helped me realize that no matter who a person is, whether they occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or Bakersfield, Calif., there's a spiritual need there, there's a need for there to be a loving voice in those people's lives. It doesn't mean that the prophetic side isn't important; it is, but you walk that edge prayerfully and thoughtfully."
Following his time at Camp David, Cash was deployed to Afghanistan for nine months before receiving his current assignment as Deputy Command Chaplain of the U.S. Naval Academy (or "The Yard," as it is sometimes called), where he serves alongside and supervises other chaplains. In addition to his administrative responsibilities, Cash counsels students, faculty and staff; performs weddings and funerals; preaches regularly in the main Protestant service and the Sunday night contemporary service; teaches discipleship and seeker classes; and teaches on the academy's ethics faculty.
"What's such an honor here is that you get to preach to the soul of the Navy," Cash said. "As the military changes its culture, I think chaplains have the opportunity to be prophetic voices to the institution. Here is a great opportunity for that because if there's anywhere in the Navy that's a symbol of the institution, it's the Naval Academy. This is the training ground for our future leaders."
One of Cash's favorite times of ministry at the academy rolls around every June — Plebe Summer.
"Plebe Summer is the first six weeks for all the new freshman class. It's very tough for them — physically arduous, mentally arduous. They're 18- or 19-year-olds arriving on campus, heads are shaved, everything's taken away from you. You're basically not a person like you were in civilian life; you're a number, you're a Plebe," Cash said.
"As a chaplain, you have a very important role to play. [Most] Plebes have never met a chaplain. It's really an incredible window of opportunity over those six weeks to build relationships with them and in many ways open the door to the Gospel. There will be Plebes who come to church who have never darkened the door of a church until that summer."
During Plebe Summer, chaplains jump into the fray, arriving at the athletic fields every morning to participate in physical fitness alongside the freshmen.
"We're all wearing red shirts with 'Chaplain' on the back, so it's a great hands-on ministry," Cash said. "We're sweating with them, singing with them when they run. We do a lot of counseling with kids whose lives are being ripped out from under them because their grades are low or they've never failed before. It's a great opportunity for many to meet Jesus."
After more than a decade in the military, with many significant places of service, Cash remains optimistic about the future of military chaplaincy.
"The reason I think chaplaincy is so exciting is because we're still in that wonderful tension where we have an answer and there is a need," Cash said, adding with a smile, "God's still working in the military."