KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Jeremiah 29:11
For Chaplain (Maj.) Bitrus (“like ‘citrus’” he often jokes) Cobongs, head chaplain of the Air Force Reserve’s 403rd Wing, his life’s journey from a small tribe in West Africa to serving in the United States military serves as a testament to the above adage.
Cobongs grew up in the northern region of Nigeria in the state of Gombe as a member of the Tangale tribe, a majority Christian group of about 300,000, surrounded by significantly larger Muslim tribes like the Hausa and the Fulani.
In a mostly poor, agrarian society, Cobongs’ father did relatively well financially with his business repairing watches, clocks, radios and other devices, and they even owned several properties. That was--until his faith led him to give up the business life and devote his time to becoming a pastor.
The Cobongs family of eight at that time went from having a lot to living in a one-bedroom mud house in a time where electricity and running water were not commonplace and even basic infrastructure like roads was scarce.
His father’s new profession required a lot of moving around while resulting in minimal, sometimes if any, salary.
“When my dad became a pastor we would move around a lot and that made it hard to make friends,” said Cobongs. “I can even remember one time where we left one village and the school in the next village had different color uniforms, and we couldn’t afford new ones, so I had to walk to the other village for school, and in another village we went to school under a tree and just moved with the shade as the sun moved across the sky.”
Despite all of the moving around and five different schools in six years, Cobongs completed primary school and tested for high school. The way it worked there was the students would take the Universal Primary Examination and a passing score would grant them eligibility to attend high school. A higher test score along with a favorable interview would allow a student to attend a boarding school where housing, meals, transportation, even uniforms were provided.
Cobongs scored well enough, completed the required interview and was accepted into boarding school, which was a blessing for his family considering that at this point his parents had seven mouths to feed, not including their own.
“While I was away with my parents in another village, my result had come out,” he said, “and by the time we got back, they had sold my name to another family whose son didn’t pass the exam.”
His father’s reaction was passive, suggesting that perhaps this was not the door God wanted to open for him, but his mother had other ideas and sent him to the school anyway in hopes that he could clear the situation up and be admitted. The attempt was futile, though, as the principal said there was nothing that could be done.
Usually when someone takes a gap year from education, it’s between high school and university, but Cobongs, at the age of 12, had no choice but to wait the school year out and take the test again.
“At this point I was in another region, so there was no boarding school, and I had to go to a day school 150 kilometers away,” he explained. “I had to learn to cook. I had to find a place to live. All of this, and I was just 13.”
Into his third year of the day school, Cobongs said his parents had been observing him and noticed his lack of enthusiasm for school. While home on holiday, he said his parents proposed the idea of going to a Bible College to him. This meant his parents would have to pay for his schooling, a far cry from the offerings of the boarding school he was originally supposed to attend, but they said they were willing to try, a sacrifice he acknowledges and appreciates.
“Even though the school year had already started I packed my sleeping material, my camping stove, and clothes and walked the four miles to catch public transportation to the Bible College,” said Cobongs. “But since the school was in the mountains, when I got dropped off there were another five miles to go. I didn’t know what to do, so I sat under a tree by the road and hoped someone would drive by and after a while, sure enough, a teacher drove by going back to the school,”
When he finally made it, he had to test again and do another interview to get in. After doing well with both, the school’s registrar said he’d have to go home and come back in January when the next semester started.
Exasperated after having traveled so far, Cobongs, with much determination, explained that he had brought all of his belongings and already had them in the dormitory and he was ready to go to class, so they allowed him to start.
Bible College served as both high school and undergraduate studies for Cobongs, and he finished highly ranked among the others despite being one of the youngest in the school.
At this point in his life he had no intentions or really even thoughts of the possibility of one day going to America. He had aspirations to be a youth minister among his tribe, so his next step was a master of divinity degree.
For this he traveled to Kenya to attend the International School of Theology where he said he often had to skip meals in order to afford living there.
Upon completing his masters of divinity, Cobongs wanted to continue his education, but he’d have to go to America or Europe to pursue anything higher, so he applied to seminaries in Chicago and Dallas.
“I was accepted into the Dallas Theological Seminary, and I couldn’t believe it! They were giving me a scholarship to go to school in America,” he said.
But eerily, like when he was accepted to boarding school, Cobongs faced a serious road block.
“When I went to my VISA interview, they denied me,” he said. “The guy was so mean! He just looked at me and said, ‘Denied,’ and made a comment about my application saying that I was going to America for a master’s degree when I already had one master’s degree. It was like he didn’t trust me even though I had the letter of admission.”
He could have easily just given up, but like the time he trekked to the boarding school to try and gain admission, he went again to try and obtain his VISA, and this time he had a favorable outcome.
“Once I had been granted my VISA, people from the local churches raised money for me because I didn’t even have enough for a ticket to America,” he said. “I landed in Dallas with $20.”
It was during his time in Dallas that the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened. Following the attacks there were a lot of misconceptions and tension surrounding the Islamic faith, so there was a need for educating Americans.
Having grown up where he did, he had plenty of knowledge and experience with people of Islam. Considering this, Cobongs was called upon to speak to a congregation in Missouri about the differences between Islam and the extremist iteration displayed in the terrorist attacks and organizations like Al Qaeda.
The circumstances leading up to his being there in Missouri were unfortunate to say the least, but it was there that Cobongs met the woman he would marry and share four children with.
At this point in his life he was still very much determined to be a youth minister back in Nigeria once he was finished with his education, and his wife was on board with the idea of uprooting herself from her home and going back with him, but there was an opportunity he felt compelled to take.
Many people, whether they admit it or not, join the military for a reason, in addition to serving, that benefits themselves whether it’s education or healthcare or travel opportunities, etc, but Cobongs joined out of gratitude.
“I had a friend who was a Chaplain in the Army and that’s what got me interested, and then someone else, who was a loadmaster in the Air Force, said I should go Air Force,” he said. “America had given me so much, and I just felt like becoming a Chaplain was the least I could do.”
He and his wife still held onto the hope of going back to his home and sharing their faith with people whose access to Christianity is more limited, so he looked into joining the Air Force Reserve. Those he spoke to assured him it was possible for him to split his time between Africa and his military obligations, but because of his wife’s nationality, they would have to do that as missionaries.
“After talking to a few people, I joined the Reserve and we started looking into missionary organizations in Africa,” he said, “but each one said the same thing: that because I was associated with the U.S. military I was a risk, and they couldn’t accept our applications.”
While the United States military was nowhere near part of his original plan, life had its own way of making it up to him. Out of all of the assignments he could have been sent to, Cobongs had the opportunity to minister to the youth of the Air Force with two active duty tours at Basic Military Training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and the Air Force Academy in Colorado.
Whether one believes it’s God, fate, the cosmos or whatever, life has not gone according to plan for Cobongs, but nobody would know it when talking to him in his current positions as head chaplain here and a leadership instructor at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.
Tech. Sgt. Amanda Cernicek knows firsthand about Cobongs’ surprisingly enduring positive and hopeful attitude having worked with him as a religious affairs specialist for a year and a half.
“His faith is very important to him,” she said, “but he makes sure to approach people with the understanding that we’re all spiritual beings, and we’re all just trying to express that in the best way that we individually see fit. Whatever way that is that someone does that, as long as it’s not hurting themselves or someone else, he wants people to be able to do that.”
She said he has taught her so much in the short time she’s known him, but it’s his story alone that really puts things into perspective.
“He has experienced so much and to think of where he came from and things he went through, it really makes me think twice when I start to complain about something in my life,” she said.
That’s not to say someone else’s stressors or problems are not valid, she suggested. His story and trials are just a way to help someone see the bigger picture and that there’s always a way through whatever someone is going through.
Cobongs, plans to stay in the military as long as he can, using his experience and knowledge to help guide Airmen and promote the acceptance of people from all walks of life.
“I’ve seen in so many ways that having diverse voices and ideas and cultures does help us to be better, he said. “When you’re able to listen and share stories and ideas, it makes us a better Air Force.”