INFANTA, Philippines — More than a decade ago, Navy Chaplain Lt. Cerino O. Bargola was a priest in the southern Philippines. Like many of his counterparts, he opposed illegal logging.

The bishop of his diocese helped to intensify their opposition by transforming the local priests into law-enforcement agents empowered to stop the loggers.

“We were deputized as forest guards,” Bargola said. “We had police powers to apprehend illegal loggers.”

Bargola rallied his parish, and its members found and arrested illegal loggers in their community. It marked a success for environmental protection and the start of a new chapter in his life — a chapter that would lead to his exile, and his return a decade later.

“After that I was in trouble,” he said. “They wanted me dead.”

Bargola said he received death threats from illegal loggers and had to have a bodyguard. When the priest from a neighboring parish was assassinated, the bishop decided Bargola had to leave.

He was sent to Diego Garcia as a contract priest and lived there for seven years, until his career’s next twist.

In 2001, at age 42, he joined the Navy, aided by the Navy chaplains at Diego Garcia he befriended over the years.

He needed three special waivers from the Navy, he said: one for his age, one because he wasn’t a U.S. citizen and one for an eye condition.

Newly added to the Navy ranks, he moved to Okinawa and began the first of two tours serving with the Marine Corps.

This week, Bargola returned to the Philippines as part of a joint task force conducting humanitarian relief. He saw the devastation he believes was caused by something he so passionately opposed 13 years ago.

Weeks ago — after a succession of storms hit the coast of Luzon south of Manila — hundreds of illegally-cut logs began to flow in a mud slide created in part by deforestation, according to the Philippine government.

The mud slide carried away homes and families, and logs killed people trying to swim to safety, residents of one town said.

In the small town of Infanta, the local priest died helping to rescue people from the flowing debris. The community church was filled with mud. Families began burying their loved ones, but no religious services were performed to lay them to rest.

When Marines arrived in the town to deliver supplies this week, Bargola saw a special opportunity.

On the steps of the remains of a building near the Red Cross tent, he held Mass for the townspeople, giving them, he said, the chance to start to heal. It was the first service they’d had since the storms.

Several hundred people stood solemnly in muddy rubber boots or bare feet to listen to Bargola speak. Scratched on a wall behind him was the sentence “Pls [please] do overcome our hunger.”

Holding bags of Red Cross rice, people joined Bargola in songs of hope.

“It’s important to these people,” he said. “People here are traumatized. I gave them hope; I told them to be strong.”

It was a pivotal day in his life, he said, and one he will never forget.

“I was really touched.”

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