KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
Before Maj. Bitrus Cobongs became the new 403rd Wing Chaplain, he was a young student from Nigeria attending the Dallas Theological Seminary. His ambition had been to return to Africa to teach, but the events of Sept.11, 2001 led him to join the U.S. military.
“That’s how the chaplaincy came to me,” Cobongs said. “I knew violence in Nigeria including Boko Haram terrorist attacks, but I was awestruck by 9-11.”
His own family’s religious background had taken a sharp turn when Cobongs’ father converted from Islam to Christianity as a young man in Nigeria. According to the CIA World Fact Book’s field listing of religions by countries, 51% of Nigeria’s population practices Islam, while almost 47% are Christians. This reality shaped his religious understanding.
“I grew up in an environment where there are constant religious conflicts,” he said. “I learned to balance between my faith values while respecting and befriending others from different faiths as a young religious student and leader in Nigeria.”
Cobongs’ faith based education continued when his parents recommended Bible-college to him. His family paid for his bachelor’s degree in Nigeria, as well as his Master of Divinity degree that he earned in Kenya.
It was there that Cobongs experienced another terrorist event.
“I was studying in Kenya when the U.S. embassy there was bombed in 1998,” he said. A few years later, when a scholarship allowed him to study at the Dallas Theological Seminary, he had no idea he would see terrorism in the U.S.
Cobongs witnessed the Sept.11, 2001 attacks on television as a theology student in Texas. His seminary soon received requests for speakers to talk to Christian congregations about Islam.
Considering his previous experiences in and around Islam, Cobongs had valuable insight to offer during. He accepted a speaker invitation from a church in Missouri which unexpectedly changed his life.
That speaking engagement was where Cobongs’ met a young woman, the church’s youth director, who would have a major impact on his life. In addition to meeting the woman who would become his wife, he was also considering the possibility of becoming a chaplain in the wake of 9-11.
Those career considerations caused him to reflect on the reasons the U.S. military projected strength throughout the world. Cobongs had learned about the U.S. military’s roles in World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam from history.
Cobongs had also followed the news of the Gulf War back in 1990 when the U.S. military freed Kuwait from Iraqi forces. What he took from historical accounts was a personal revelation about the U.S. military’s role involving freedom.
“The United States is the only country that fought itself in a civil war to free slaves,” he said. “I was also surprised by the willingness of the U.S. military to sacrifice on behalf of other nations’ freedoms,” he said. Cobongs began steering his studies toward his goal of being a military chaplain, while first becoming a naturalized citizen.
His admiration of American ideals included the people’s right to freely exercise their religion as stated in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. He swore to support and defend the very same U.S. Constitution when he joined the U.S. Air Force.
His first assignment in 2009 was with the 37th Training Group at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Cobongs then served more than five years at the Air Force Academy, Colorado, from 2013 to 2019.
He saw the 403rd as the best place for him to grow as a person and a chaplain. “I had three other options as a wing chaplain but I chose to come here. It’s the ‘Wing of Choice’ right,” referencing the 403rd Wing slogan.
Cobongs arrived at the 403rd Wing in September 2019, 18 years after 9-11. Much had changed for the young seminary student from Nigeria. Although he gave up his intention to return to Africa to teach, he now teaches his four children and ministers to the entire 403rd Wing family.