Chaplains Report on Latter-day Saints in the Service


Seventeen Latter-day Saint chaplains met recently with the Ensign staff to discuss their experiences of working and counseling with servicemen throughout the world. Their candid answers to questions asked at this interview reveal some deep and recurring problems that our servicemen face in their daily routine in the service. However, they also stressed several positive and helpful ways in which families, friends, and loved ones can encourage and support their servicemen brethren even while separated by great distances.

Q. How are Latter-day Saint men in the service holding up physically and spiritually?

A. Having just come from Vietnam, I was very impressed with the brethren I found there who were active. They are very spiritual and they are growing in the gospel even though the situations in which they find themselves in Vietnam have elements of corruption. Unfortunately, we are losing some of our men over there simply because we can’t find them. While many put forth an effort to find the Church, some of them just don’t. If someone from the Church seeks them out, they’ll often respond; but we do have a problem in trying to find some of them.

A. It is very difficult to keep track of a man in a battle area, and very difficult to reactivate him once he has gone into some of the places where Church standards are not observed. It is especially difficult to get him active again if he loses himself in terms of chastity. The first few days after his arrival in a war zone are a critical period for any serviceman.

A. A home teaching approach with a lot of these men has been very effective. We’ve been able to reactivate more brethren than I might have anticipated simply by going to them in their squadron and saying, “Hi, how are you?” Some men are amazed to see somebody from the Church, and they come back into activity. This is a story that is often repeated.

A. If they are nineteen years of age or older, we try to find out if they are prospective elders. Then we see to it that they are ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood as they prove themselves worthy. This advancement engenders a great spirit of enthusiasm that carries many of our men through a trying period.

Q. Are there chronic problems with regard to attitudes and behavior of those in the service?

A. There is an attitude among many servicemen—and Latter-day Saints are subjected to this attitude—that when they get into a war zone situation, the bars are down and they have complete freedom to behave as they choose. No longer is there a wife or other family members to keep a check on them.

Our young men who are going into the service need to be told that when they enter a rather free and morally loose situation, like the war zone, there’s not going to be much there to help them or to strengthen them morally except personal prayer and the strength of their own convictions as to what is right.

A. Some of our Latter-day Saint men seem to be naive about sin. The idea of avoiding even the appearance of sin would be a good thing to emphasize early at home with these young men.

A. The first night of their periodic rest leave, many servicemen would say, “C’mon, let’s go to town.” To them this meant a bar alley with hundreds of prostitutes plying their trade. And a few of our Latter-day Saint servicemen, lonely and in a foreign country, not knowing where to go for diversion, would go along a time or two. Perhaps it would be just to get acquainted with their fellow servicemen. But if they weren’t careful, they would get into a pattern of going. Then perhaps they would take a cigarette, maybe a drink or two, and one thing would lead to another, until they might become involved in immoral actions. Then it was really heartrending to see what happened to them.

A. I have noticed that many of the men in the service feel that because they have been drafted and because they didn’t choose to be in the service, it is not their fault what they become. “The service is making me what I am,” some say. “I’ll look back on my life when I’m older, and I’ll be happy about everything I’ve done except for the time I was in the army; I’ll feel that that really wasn’t a part of my life. Since it was just something I was obliged to do, it’s not really my fault what happened to me then.”

A. One of the greatest problems for a few is that the only moral instruction they receive is blurted out in embarrassment fifteen minutes before they leave home.

There is a desolate loneliness in Vietnam that’s really hard to describe until you’ve been there. Preparation for making right decisions should have started years before with moral guidance from parents who have discussed with their sons in a wholesome atmosphere the importance of moral integrity.

A. I found that in Europe, as well as in Vietnam, one of the things that helped a lot of the men with whom I worked was regular contact with home during their period of service. Even though it may have involved some expense—a stamp or a tape every day—those who received some communication from their girl friend, wife, parents, or other family members seemed to have the least number of problems when they were under pressure.

One man who was just back from the battle zone after several weeks was very depressed. His buddies were going to go to town to forget the agony of battle, and they had nearly convinced him he should go with them. But because a letter from his girl friend was waiting for him at his base and because the tone of the letter gave him encouragement, he felt at peace and told his friends to go on without him.

A. Somebody has said, “A guy lives and dies at the mailbox each day.” My wife wrote me a letter every day for two years when I was in Vietnam. Sometimes it was just a short paragraph, but I appreciated that much more than a ten-page letter once a week. I knew that she thought of me every day, and I didn’t want to wait a week to get a letter.

I wrote to her every day also, even though sometimes I’d be in a truck and could only write, “I’m on my way—the truck is jumping up and down. I’ll mail this at the next place. Love. …”

A. Letters from servicemen overseas have also helped keep a lot of families together at home. Many children whose fathers are away in the service have gotten into deep trouble because their fathers haven’t taken the time to write to them. I know of several instances when satellite telephone calls have been used to get families together again.

A. Some parents write to their sons, “We know you hate it and it’s terrible, but it’s only two or three years.” Now that’s an unfortunate attitude for parents to express, because then the son feels that anything that happens to him isn’t his fault—the service should be blamed for all of his insufficiencies.

When parents say “only two or three years,” they don’t have any idea how long that can be for someone stationed in a war zone or thousands of miles from home. Many servicemen say, “It’s been the longest period of my life.”

Q. Do you recall some examples of real brotherhood where testimonies were strengthened?

A. We had a small group of men in Korea who met for church every Sunday, and on all the other nights of the week they had meetings where they read scriptures, held socials, or bore their testimonies. I’ve never seen a spiritual group like that anywhere in the Church.

A. Some of our Latter-day Saint men have tremendous missionary zeal, and they are deeply involved in teaching the gospel to their fellow servicemen. At our base we give between thirty and sixty missionary discussions every Sunday, and in just six months we’ve baptized sixty-three people. One man has baptized five members of his company.

A. At one of our district conferences a serviceman, in bearing his testimony, held up a copy of his orders to go to Vietnam; then he held up a copy of his mission call. He said, “I don’t think there is much difference between these two documents, except for the signatures at the bottom.” He felt that he had really been called to Vietnam for a purpose, and he did a terrific missionary job, too.

To see the results of that kind of missionary spirit is truly inspiring; and to see young men who aren’t even members of the Church stand and bear their testimonies is a real privilege.

A. In our area a brother who had just come in from the battlefield bore his testimony about how the men had kidded him and called him “reverend” and “preacher.” Later he was their squad leader on a search-and-destroy mission, and as they landed, one of their helicopters was hit. The pilot, under pressure, didn’t want to fly any more rescue missions, so the men were stuck there—just six of them in a small perimeter, lying in the dark so close that they could touch each other. As the young squad leader went around to check on his men, nearly every one wanted to talk about the gospel. They wanted to know why he was so cool and unafraid.

That night every one of those men received the first missionary discussion from that fine brother; and the next day, after they had returned to their base, to show their sincere gratitude for the doctrine they had received, they came to conference with him.

A. My nonmember colleagues are envious of the way our family home evening works. They are astonished to drive by my home near the base on Sunday nights to find only one-lane traffic in front of my house. They ask me, “What are you doing?” and I reply, “We’re having a family home evening.” Then I tell them that I just provide the home and the airmen and the WAFs carry the load.

The family home evening program has been a most significant experience in the lives of many people. Marginal members have become activated, passive personalities have become enthusiastic and missionary oriented, nonmembers have become members, and marital problems have been solved.

A. No other church, to my knowledge, has anything to compare with the pre-service seminar and all of the other programs made available to members of our church. The Lord has really blessed us and inspired our leaders to provide the greatest programs possible in the world today.

A. During one of the first weeks of my tour of duty, I was assigned to lead a religious program, and I passed out some Latter-day Saint literature. Prior to the meeting, one of the other chaplains saw a pamphlet and asked, “Is this Mormon? If it is, it’s got to be good.” That’s all he said. They seem to respect what we are doing.

A. It was amazing how we would learn that a General Authority was coming to visit our little chapel in Bien Hoa. One man would call somebody he knew from another unit, who would in turn call another, and before we knew it, nearly all the men would know about it. There was no way to reach the men in time by mail—just by word of mouth.

There is no place in the world and no other church in the world where a colonel will call a PFC, who will call a major, who will get in touch with a sergeant, to inform them of a church meeting. This is brotherhood of the highest order.

Q. What are some practical ways that parents can help their sons in the service?

A. Write a lot of letters.

A. Listen closely and with some depth of understanding when their sons talk to them. I hear many parents giving advice, yet I rarely hear of their listening to their sons and talking with them about things that are really important to the son.

A. I’ve encountered some parents who are afraid of the possible implications if their children discover that they, the parents, are human, too. They won’t bend and give of themselves, won’t admit their own imperfections and join with their child in a mutual desire to solve problems.

A. It seems inevitable that many young men are going to be involved in military service in some capacity, yet few men who come to me have any idea of what the services have to offer. They have usually been told some inaccurate stories by a recruiter, and they end up in a field of training in which they have little interest or aptitude for success. Young men, with the guidance of their parents, should look seriously at what the various services have to offer, to provide them with foreknowledge so they are prepared when it is time for them to choose.

A. A father needs to sit down frequently with his son and talk to him about the Latter-day Saint teachings on the facts of life. I can’t think of any single thing that is more important to the young Latter-day Saint entering the service.

A. A man coming into the service needs to have his father put his hands on his head and bless him so that he can feel the strength of his father’s priesthood and so that he feels the family ties. He needs to know that he isn’t isolated in the world without parents and family who love him.

A. If parents write, “My back is acting up again, and your father is in the hospital, and your sister has dropped out of school,” they might as well not write, because such a letter does more harm than good. Especially is this true in boot camp. Show our servicemen that you are trying to understand their challenges. Tell them, “We love you and are thinking of you and praying for you. We know you will do a good job.”

A. Parents should make sure that their son has current and properly addressed subscriptions to the Church magazines and the Church News. Bishops, home teachers, and quorum leaders should also have current addresses for their men in the service, and they should correspond with them regularly. Corresponding regularly and frequently with servicemen seems to be the most effective method of filling in the chinks in their armor against the influences of evil. This high frequency of communication with home and family does much to reassure the serviceman that he still has a vital place in the minds and hearts of those he loves and misses. It also eases the adjustment of his returning again to civilian life. I can’t think of anything that would do more good for more servicemen than to receive frequent mail from those back home.