Missionary Service a Tradition at West Point Military Academy
Contributed By Colonel Kevin Riedler, LDS.org Church News contributor
- LDS cadets are not only welcome at West Point, they now are encouraged to go on missions because of the growth and maturity they experience.
Lying 50 miles north of New York City on the west bank of the Hudson River, the United States Military Academy at West Point is a photographer’s dream. Along with the University of Washington and Brigham Young University, West Point’s Michie Stadium is rated in the top three most picturesque football stadiums in the nation.
Academy graduates include two U.S. presidents; 70 Rhodes Scholars; 18 astronauts, hundreds of congressmen, governors, ambassadors, and cabinet members; two directors of the CIA; and three Heisman Trophy winners. Other academy graduates currently serve as the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange and as CEOs of Forbes 500 companies like Johnson & Johnson, 7-Eleven, and Foot Locker.
West Point has been ranked in the top 10 of Forbes magazine’s lists of best colleges for several years running and has grabbed the number one spot numerous times. Often referred to as the top producer of leaders in the world, it was the nation’s first engineering school.
In another, lesser known first, West Point was the first of the nation’s military academies to establish the tradition of having returned Latter-day Saint missionaries graduate from its ranks.
In 1976, after completing his second year at West Point, a young convert received a call from President Spencer W. Kimball to serve in the Portugal Lisbon Mission. Douglas Liening resigned his appointment to the academy with the specific intent to return two years later, the first of hundreds to do so from West Point, and then the Naval and Air Force Academies. Since Liening completed his mission, every cadet—without exception—who left West Point in good standing to serve a mission has been offered readmission to the academy when he reapplied.
When cadets first started departing on missions in the 1970s, opinions varied on whether leaving to serve a mission was appropriate for future military officers. A few junior officers resisted, although senior leaders saw the growth potential. But with the returned missionaries’ consistent return to academy life, LDS cadets began to make their mark, including being selected as West Point’s First Captain, the most senior cadet in the Corps.
In March of each year, West Point alumni around the world gather for Founders Day, celebrating the Academy’s 1802 origins. One favorite location in the western U.S. is Monterey, California. In 2008, the featured speaker was Lt. Gen; Franklin Hagenbeck, then serving as West Point’s 57th superintendent. Prior to the dinner, he walked through the crowd asking various officers when they graduated.
One exchange reflected just how much of an impression today’s Saints have made at West Point.
Colonel Kevin Riedler, the second cadet to resign, serve a mission, and return to graduate, was then commanding a 167,000-acre training center south of Monterey. When General Hagenbeck asked Riedler when he graduated, the colonel responded, “79/81, sir.”
The general immediately turned back and said, “You’re Mormon, aren’t you!
“I can’t tell you how great your church’s missionary program is. Cadets go out and usually learn a foreign language. They understand how to work in very foreign cultures. They grow during their two years away, both in maturity and leadership. They are exactly what we want in future officers. And they do it on their own dime! We’re paying for cadets to go out and get experiences like that in other countries. I wish we could get other churches to do what yours is doing!”
The message has definitely set in. LDS cadets are not only welcome at West Point, they now are encouraged to go on missions.
This past summer, six cadets returned to West Point after their missions to various parts of the world. Twenty-two more are currently serving and will return in the summers of 2015 and 2016. Another class of cadets will depart next summer. All are following in the footsteps of those who started the tradition of serving both God and country nearly four decades ago.
As for those first returned missionary cadets, Colonel (and Bishop) Liening retired as an army doctor after 25 years, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now practices in Chattanooga. Colonel Riedler, who labored in the Denmark Copenhagen Mission, retired after 30 years, lives in Bountiful, Utah, and now serves as the volunteer coordinator for West Point recruiting in Utah, where he also advises students who are contemplating serving a mission and attending the academy.
Along with those six returned missionaries this past summer, only three new cadets joined the “long gray line” from Utah, none of whom were Latter-day Saints. In other words, a number of Utah appointments for scholarships valued at $250,000 each went unawarded. When several qualified high school students were asked why they had not applied, they replied that they didn’t think they would be able to serve missions and attend the academy.
In today’s ever-changing world, the need is greater than ever for leaders well-founded in beliefs that permit them to guide others as aided by the Spirit. From the ranks of these returned missionaries may come a future Captain Moroni or an army general, governor, CEO, or even president. But for now, the challenge remains to ensure potential candidates are aware of the incredible opportunity that awaits those who are qualified, to serve both the Lord and their nation, while earning a degree from the world’s top leadership school.