Carroll County Times
Carroll County

Wounded Texas soldier becomes minister

DALLAS - Lt. Travis Moen returned to his Humvee to get candy for the Iraqi kids who waited at the edge of the perimeter.

His platoon had come into a neighborhood west of Baghdad to provide security for an explosive ordnance disposal team, which had just finished dismantling a roadside bomb.

As Moen reached into the front seat for his candy, a soldier placed one of the disassembled bomb parts into another truck parked nearby.

An explosion blasted Moen backward.

When he regained his senses, he saw a soldier on the ground, badly burned, her arms severed at the elbow. The bomb fragment had detonated as she had placed it in her truck a few feet from him.

Moen had already lost two close friends in Iraq. Now he'd nearly been killed himself, and a soldier he'd been assigned to protect had been badly maimed.

Not every soldier finds meaning in the horrors of combat.

But what Moen felt that day in November 2007 - and what he experienced in his 15 months in combat - would strengthen his spiritual resolve.

He would move from the battlefield to the pulpit, from platoon leader with a Purple Heart to a minister intimately aware of the fragility of life.

"Just realizing [my friends] had died and that I had not taken full advantage of the opportunity to share my faith with them," said Moen, who now lives in Plano. "I realized I needed to make my faith a more essential part of my life's work."

Moen received his officer's commission after graduating from Texas A&M in 2004, where he was a member of the Corps of Cadets. As an undergraduate, he thought about the ministry and considered entering the Army's chaplaincy program. By the time he finished ROTC, however, he was ready to serve on active duty.

He was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, serving with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment. He became friends with two young officers, Gwilym Newman and Andrew Bacevich Jr.

They all deployed to Iraq about the same time, overlapping with the surge of troops ordered by President George W. Bush in 2007.

Newman was killed by a sniper on April 12, 2007, while on patrol in Tarmiyah, Iraq. Married with a baby son, he was only two weeks shy of turning 25.

A month later, on May 13, Bacevich was killed in Iraq by an improvised explosive device near Samarra, about 75 miles north of Baghdad. Bacevich, 27, was the namesake of a retired Army officer and Boston University professor, who was also a prominent war critic.

Moen mourned. He was also troubled that he had never fully opened up to them.

"I built friendships with them based on being an officer and being one of the guys. I really did not try to make my faith a big part of our friendship," he said. "That's when I felt a calling to the ministry."

Moen was promoted to captain by the time he left active duty in the summer of 2008. That fall, he entered the Dallas Theological Seminary. He joined the Army's chaplain candidate program and began serving at the Army Reserve 807th Medical Command (Deployment Support) in Seagoville.

As a chaplain candidate, "I had similar responsibilities to a chaplain - counseling soldiers and putting together a service on Sunday," he said.

But the window of opportunity to become an Army chaplain closed. The Army discovered it had more than enough evangelical Christian chaplains - Moen's choice. Still, he continued to pursue his degree in pastoral ministry and his chaplain duties with the 807th in Seagoville.

It was with the help of that unit that Moen received his Purple Heart, five years after the explosion that almost killed him.

Moen recalls the events of that morning in November 2007.

"It took a minute for us to figure out what happened," he said. "We didn't know if it was an RPG (rocket propelled grenade), or what."

He saw his medic kneel down next to the wounded soldier with a couple of tourniquets in his hand.

"I need help!" the medic told Moen.

Moen grabbed a tourniquet and applied it to the woman's left arm while the medic put the other one on the right. The soldier survived.

"The last thing I'd heard from her was that she was trying to stay in the Army, trying to work with her prosthetics," Moen said. "She's easily one of my heroes, just to be able to survive that."

After the soldier was evacuated by a medical helicopter, Moen sat down in his truck. He had a pounding headache and felt so sick that he vomited.

When he returned to Camp Liberty, his forward operating base, he saw a doctor.

"There's not a whole lot they can do in that situation," he said. He was given some medicine for his headache and nausea, and confined to the base for a few days until he felt better. The migraines persisted.

At the time, Moen's battalion did not recommend him for a Purple Heart medal.

In the fall of 2008, after he enrolled at the Dallas Theological Seminary, Moen got plugged into the Dallas VA Medical Center. Shortly after that, he was found to have a traumatic brain injury.

But it wasn't until 2011 that the Pentagon clarified the conditions for awarding a Purple Heart for a traumatic brain injury. The new guidelines expanded the number of troops eligible to receive the medal for combat-related traumatic brain injuries.

Moen recalls reading the new criteria and thinking: "This is exactly what I went through."

In April, he and his wife, Kim, a fellow A&M grad he married in 2004, became first-time parents with the birth of their daughter, Julie.

On Sunday, May 6, Moen finally received his Purple Heart during a ceremony at the 807th in Seagoville.

For him, it's a tangible symbol and reminder of the sacrifices that he and other wounded service members made for their country.

"I'm incredibly honored by it, and I'm also incredibly humbled," Moen said. "This is an award that is given to people who have sustained horrible, horrible injuries. It's an award given posthumously to people who have died. Just to be considered among that group of soldiers who have received that recognition, it's incredibly humbling."

Since the new guidelines went into effect a year ago, the Army has received 970 Purple Heart applications for the medal based on the new brain injury criteria and approved 456 of those, said Ray Gall, a spokesman for the Army Human Resources Command.

Last Sunday, Moen was awarded his degree in pastoral ministry from Dallas Theological Seminary.

He and his family will be moving from Plano to Dighton, Kan., a town of about 1,000 people.

"A Bible church there has asked me to be their pastor," Moen said.

He'll carry his military experience with him. Recently, preaching to his classmates at the seminary, he compared soldiers' many sacrifices with the lives of seminary students "having to make personal sacrifices to go and do a mission that God has called them to do."

No one knows the intersection of those two missions better.