The Returned Serviceman … a Stepchild?


“Mormons sometimes discriminate against other Mormons.”

This feeling was expressed in a recent rap between returned Latter-day Saint servicemen and institute students and faculty at Idaho State University. The returned servicemen were invited to talk to student and faculty leaders and tell them how they felt about the institute. The surface niceties were soon forgotten because these men were encouraged to talk frankly about their problems.

The result? A new program of help and encouragement and a resolution on the part of members of the Student Association to go out of their way to make any newcomer to the institute feel welcome.

The servicemen’s comments were accepted at face value by faculty and students alike. President Robert E. Thompson, president of the Idaho State University Stake, summed up the feelings of most when he said, “We have always felt that we were extending the hand of fellowship, that we were welcoming the returned servicemen, but when the truth came out, we found we were falling down. We didn’t realize that they needed something special, something extra. Whether we agree that their assessment of us is correct or not is not important. The important thing is, they feel they need something more and we are not providing it.”

The returned servicemen expressed their feelings of being left out, of finding no place or organization for them.

“When you have been treated like a second-class citizen for so long, you expect to get shoved off the street. I spent four years in the Navy, and the whole time was an intensive training period on catching the cold shoulder. So I’m probably more sensitive than most about recognizing it,” said Terry Van Orden.

Of course, the problem is more complex than it seems. There are many reasons returned servicemen feel as they do.

“A soldier is often in a poor environment. It is unfortunate, but the worst of mankind seems to reveal itself during war. And maybe this is the reason returned servicemen don’t feel equal to returned missionaries. Missionaries are in a situation to see the most beautiful and uplifting parts of mankind; military people see the opposite. This naturally created a state of inequity in my mind; I didn’t feel as good as if I had been serving on a mission. And, of course, I wasn’t treated the same as a returned missionary. But the most important difference to me was that difference inside of me.

“For the first while it was natural for me to be hostile and suspect that people were not sincere because this is what I had been conditioned to expect. But finally I had to get hold of myself and say, ‘Look, these people are trying to help you, and they want to be your friends.’ It took me a while to realize this, but when I did, the change started happening to me, and I began to come around,” said Warren Mallen, a Vietnam veteran.

One ex-Navy man said, “I kept my testimony all the time I was in the service, but when I came back to my home ward, I didn’t feel accepted, and so I became totally inactive. Now because of this special effort at the institute, I really feel that I am on my way back.”

Of course, adjustments back to regular religious life have not all been negative. “The first few days at the institute were a pain in the neck for me because people were unfriendly. So I decided that I had to get involved. I got involved in everything I could, and soon people seemed more friendly,” commented Craig Naylor.

“I went into the service with four of my best buddies,” added Chip Herndon, an ex-marine who was wounded several times and spent a total of sixteen months in hospitals. “One stayed in and the other three died while they were in the service. So I felt like burying myself in the Church when I got home. I had a lot of time alone in the service, and I didn’t like being by myself. I was real glad to be active in the Church, even though it is still hard for me to open up at times.”

The institute panel learned other things about returned servicemen. They learned that there are more than a hundred of them on their campus alone who do not even feel welcome or wanted enough to let others know they are Latter-day Saints, let alone set foot in an institute class.

They learned that being busy and preoccupied with your own studies and assignments can easily be misinterpreted by someone else. “I’ve tried to come here several times during the last two years,” said Terry Van Orden, “but I couldn’t get used to walking down the hall and seeing my people walk by with their chins in the air.”

Those listening to the panel realized that it is common for people to prejudge others. Just as returned missionaries are loved, ex-servicemen are looked on with suspicion. “Talk to any mother; they will all tell you they would rather have their daughters associating with a missionary than with a serviceman,” commented one person. The group feeling was unanimous: “People don’t look at you as a person first and a serviceman second. They don’t care what kind of person you are; most people won’t even give you a chance.”

They talked about specific problems that seem to keep returned servicemen from trying to get back into Church life. Some haven’t been keeping the standards, and they feel they need help from someone who can understand them. Others expressed the idea that it is only natural after feeling the spirit of true love and brotherhood from sincere people to want to reevaluate their own lives.

As a result of this session, a special seminar is held regularly at the institute. Some twenty returned servicemen are now attending, and they have been assured that they are loved and wanted. Here they discuss everything from the gospel principles to career advice to how to combat the feeling that girls are afraid of them. During the seminar they are making friends and beginning to feel at home at the institute.

Discovering how any child of God should be treated was one benefit of the returned servicemen’s session and its resulting seminar. People now understand and practice the quintessence of the gospel. Once these wonderful principles were applied, the servicemen’s seminar became a living, breathing part of the Student Association at Idaho State University. At the same time it promises to be a very important missionary tool.

Institute students and faculty learned several important lessons from this experience that could help you not only to relate better to others but also to be a better follower of the Savior.

“We should not be interested in the history of a person’s problems. If a guy is smoking, we are not going to put him down for that. We simply need to let him know that we are his brothers and sisters, that we want to help him, and that we care about him. We are not interested in what he was but in what he can become.”

“Many people are basically shy and have a hard time communicating—not the passing-the-time-of-day kind of talk, but really expressing their feelings from deep down inside. In order to do this they have to want to express their feelings and then feel comfortable about how they will be received.”

“It is easy for people who are extra sensitive to feel that they are being looked down on. In addition to the servicemen, non–Latter-day Saints on this campus feel that the Mormons are cliquish and that we look down on them because they are different.”

“Those returned servicemen who seemed to feel the best adjusted were welcomed back into their home wards with a ward party. Then they were asked to report to the bishop and the stake high council about their experiences and their conduct as ward members while they were away. This personal interest made them feel accepted and on more of a par with others in the ward who were returning from school or missions.”

“The most positive experiences these brethren had while they were in the service were when others reacted to them first as people and then as soldiers or sailors, not the reverse.”

Whether in the United States or Japan, people belonging to branches were generally more friendly than people in wards. An ex-sailor said, “One sister in a little branch in Japan kept a three-by-five-inch card for every serviceman who visited there. She and her husband would take you home, and you knew you really had a friend and a place to go if you were ever there again. This kind of experience is the gospel in action to a serviceman.”

“Many returned servicemen have experienced what they call a crash course in growing up. Even though they may be the same age chronologically as other students, they had to grow up under fire on a night patrol or crouched in a bunker with mortar rounds zeroing in on top of them, and so they have good reason for seeming a little older and a little more serious in many ways.

“Because of these kinds of memories, it is harder for them to be as light-hearted and gay as the average college student. They require more drawing out than most.

“It is natural when we see a person from a minority race at the institute to sort of go out of our way to be friendly. But we often tend to by-pass the average-looking student because there are so many of them.”

“There are many Latter-day Saint returned servicemen on this campus, but you can’t recognize them. You go to the student union building and you know that some of the people you see are returned servicemen, and yet you don’t know which ones. We have had some success in locating them by working through the registrars office and also by asking returned servicemen. Terry knew twenty Latter-day Saint returned servicemen on campus who were not affiliated with the Church in any way.”

[photo] Terry Van Orden. (Photo by Brian Kelly.)