NINEMILE--In the name of God, Steve Moser walks burning ground along the eastern flank of the Ninemile fire.

With a camouflage-covered New Testament and shovel, the Army chaplain tends the fires within his men--today, 18 soldiers--and the flaming trees around them.

"I love my job. Wherever the troops are--that's where I am," Moser said Thursday as he and Company Thunder performed mop-up duties deep in the charred timber.

They are just one sliver of 500-plus soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas, who answered the call to battle Montana's wildfires.

Wielding a shovel alongside the soldiers as they attack smoldering duff and swirling ash, Moser, who is Protestant, practices what he calls "ministry of presence." He asks soldiers if they've called home yet and gently prods them with a paternal, "I'd bet they'd like to hear from you, and a call from the fire line is pretty cool."

To another soldier, he asks how the new firefighting boots are fitting, and, by the way, "How's your marriage going?"

Then, in the midst of the hot and sweaty work, he delivers a serving of motivation. "Thought for the day, gentleman: The secret of success is to do common things uncommonly well," he said, turning to throw dirt on a hotspot with several soldiers. They, in turn, respond by digging a little deeper and moving faster. "You're the man!" barked Sgt. Donnie Harris.

"No, I'm the chaplain. I'm close to the Man," Moser quipped.

Despite their assigned grunt work and the ashtray-like work environment, these members of the Army's "Task Force Lumberjack" are downright thrilled with the Montana assignment.

"This is one of these real-world missions," Moser said. "When you come here and help people--that's so rewarding."

The soldiers, who are mostly cooks, engineers and mechanics, have an air of enthusiasm so obvious that it captures the attention of even the most seasoned civilian firefighters. Every morning, in the trek from their sleeping tents to the buses that haul them to the fire, each 20-person company marches in formation to a cadence shouted out by its first sergeant.

"I don't know why I left," shouted Company Thunder's Chris Howard.

"But I left on my own," the soldiers returned.

"And it won't be long," Howard snapped back.

"Until I get on back home. One. Two. Three. Four," they said in unison.

On this morning, contract sawyers, wildland fire crews, and fire supervisors stop to watch the uncommon sight, as they slug down coffee and study maps near the mobile kitchen. For the civilians, the scene mostly raises eyebrows and smiles.

"Their willingness is there, for sure," said Joe Griener, a wildland firefighter and adviser to the military. "What they lack in experience, they make up in energy." But for the soldiers themselves, the rhythmic marching acts as the sounding bell: It's the official opening for a grand mission.

"This is what keeps them motivated," Moser said. "It boosts their morale. And this job? It's the best thing you could do for them--give them a good job. It's really everything they signed on to do: to defend their country."

Although the soldiers will carry whatever they need--guns or water hoses--to accomplish the challenge before them, the chaplain will carry only a Bible.

"A shovel," Moser said, grinning, "is the only weapon I'll ever carry, and that's only in the battle of firefighting."

His main mission, he said, is to defend the spirit and the mind of the soldiers.

"If a soldier is struggling and frustrated, I'll pull them aside and talk, and pray if appropriate," Moser said. "But even though I'm a chaplain, I still do the same work as they do, and do it right next to them.

"I do it because it builds bridges, and to me, that's big money. It builds rapport and credibility, and frankly those are the bridges for the gospel. When those bridges are built, I can do ministry."

For the soldiers, the religious and the not-so-religious, Moser's presence is a welcome addition to their ranks.

"The chaplain is the glue to the whole thing," Howard said. "For people who are homesick, who have family problems, he brings them back to focus. And he does the same thing for us spiritually."

"He helps out a lot," said Sgt. Donnie Harris. "There might be a problem, or you have a personal problem, and you go to him. What you say to him stays with him. If it's a bigger problem, he can approach the higher-ups.... No one's going to mess with a man of the Lord."

To reach Betsy Cohen, you can email her at BCohen@Missoulian.com.

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