Jon Hays, 18, lives and works on an isolated army post in California surrounded by hundreds of square miles of windblown, sun-scoured terrain. Gnarled oaks dot the hills occasionally, and in the summer long tufts of dry, yellow grass wave across the dusty fields. During the spring rains the earth turns to a mud so thick that army tanks get stuck in the ooze. It’s hard to get them out.
Jon joined the army after high school. He’s the only known Mormon on the post out of three thousand men. When the barracks become too noisy or raucous for him, he sometimes slips outside to walk in the hills. “To be alone and think, you need to leave the barracks,” he said. “I like to walk out by the cattle and deer and to watch the hawks fly.
“I really like being in the military, but as far as the Church goes, it’s been rough. I never knew before what it is like being faced with grown-up temptations. The guys started teasing me, and I thought, well, it wouldn’t hurt to give in a little bit. And once you do that, you give in a little bit more. I want to get around Church members again. And I want to get active in the Church again,” said Jon.
Jon is not alone in facing the problems that military service often presents to Church members. Nearly every Church member on active duty with the military has collided with a bombardment of new temptations, peer pressure, exposure to pornography, and the loneliness of separation from parents, friends, and sometimes other Church members.
But serving in the military offers blessings, too—the joys of introducing the gospel to others, of meeting Church members around the world, of learning about new cultures. And there’s the pride of serving your country and the satisfaction of doing the job well.
The crucial question often becomes, how do Church members deal successfully with the challenges the military presents to them—and turn their military service to their advantage spiritually?
After talking with Church members in the military around the world, we’ve found that many of them are doing just that—not just surviving in the service, but strengthening their testimonies while there. It takes work, but as Major Stephen Biddulph of the Futenma Servicemens’ Branch, Japan Fukuoka Mission says, “We strengthen our spiritual muscles through overcoming opposition.” And a lot of LDS servicemen have some excellent ideas about how to go about it.
“The first thing I do whenever I’m transferred is check for the location of the local chapel,” said Joseph Clancy, 19, in the U.S. Army and stationed at Ford Ord, California. “I walked to every chapel on the base here looking for the Mormon chaplain, and when my feet got sore, I let my fingers do the walking and checked the phone book. The local ward directed me to Chaplain Cooper, and he had a member pick me up for church.
“I’ve also learned that trying to fit in with the gang that runs around is not my style. I’ve concentrated on being a missionary wherever I go, and I’ve just converted a friend in the barracks. I like being in the military. I guess I’m old-fashioned because I feel that patriotism and honor and duty to your country are important.”
Even for servicemen who are able to find other Church members to associate with, dealing with peer pressure is often a challenge. But there are ways of successfully dealing with it, as many Church members in the military will attest.
“When it comes to peer pressure, I guess I’m a hard-liner,” said Bryan Stack, who served a mission to Denmark and is now completing an intensive language course in Monterey, California, for the military. “I know from experience it’s only as important as you make it. I realize that I choose to do everything I do, and because I’m conscious of that, it’s easier for me to make right choices. Other people can’t make me do anything. It’s just like the people who choose to be inactive. Other people in the same environment choose to be active.”
And many other Church members in the service agree: “If you live the way you ought to, the others will know you’re LDS and you’ll stick out. And they’ll start respecting you,” said Marc Poussard, 22, a graduate of the Naval Academy and a Navy careerman. “After a while they’ll purposely buy soft drinks for you instead of beer, and they won’t swear around you or take out pornography around you. And if you ever did go against your standards, you’d have a thousand people scolding you. If you do what’s right and don’t succumb to peer pressure, things work out.”
Certain techniques for handling peer pressure can be helpful, according to Jerroll Taylor of the Norfolk Virginia Second Ward, who’s been in the military for nine years. “At each of my duty stations, peer pressure has been considerable. But I’ve found that most people or situations can be handled by using either humor or a direct, serious discussion, depending on the situation. I’ve also realized that my greatest asset has been a strong testimony I developed after boot camp when I realized the military was going to make me either sink or swim. I’ve been blessed in being able to baptize at least one person at each duty station, and that’s been a very rewarding experience.”
Many Church members in the military explain that their principles are continually being tested. “I’ve often seen LDS young people in the military subjected to what I call the ‘diabolical test of character,’” said Major Craig Bradford of the Norfolk Virginia Second Ward. “Unfortunately, in the service indecent behavior is often idealized, like the drunken sailor with a girl in every port, or the carousing fighter pilot. A young person in the service is often drawn down the path of least resistance, a seemingly adventurous trail implying no accountability. But it’s really a trap. If he gives in to immoral behavior, he has not passed the test. He has no credibility with his friends or superiors and is left without self-respect or integrity.
“But if he successfully weathers the test, he is looked up to by his peers and eagerly sought after by his superiors as having demonstrated reliability under stress, integrity, and leadership qualities. High moral principles are not obstacles to success,” added Major Craig.
A strong daily defense of prayer, scripture reading, and constructive use of free time is also an effective way of dealing with the challenges military service presents.
“I’ve found that praying as often as possible for strength and guidance has been a great help,” said Navy Petty Officer Larry Vernon of the Norfolk Virginia Second Ward. “Pray a thousand times a day if you need to, as you walk, sit, run, whatever. Whenever you feel your standards might start slipping, pray.”
“I was in the Navy for three years before was baptized and I used to go along with the crowd,” said Peter Duryea, 23, from the Norfolk Virginia Stake. “I know I get an amazingly strong amount of help from my Father in Heaven now because I pray when I feel I might weaken, read the scriptures every day, and attend Church meetings. It makes a real difference.”
Navy Petty Officer John Edward Tanner of the Waipahu Hawaii Stake agrees. “I have been able to cope with many of the problems Church members face in the military because I’ve been lucky to be stationed aboard ships that have had as many as 12 Church members. It was easy for me to surround myself with good strong friends. Now I find myself the only Church member on board, and the temptations are great. But I study my scriptures and my priesthood manual, and I even have my own family home evening and invite anyone who wants to listen or participate.”
An organized daily schedule with good use of leisure time helps, too, said Robert Hansen, M.D., a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy from the Washington D.C. Stake. “Start your own reading program, listening program, musical instrument practice. This cuts down on the pressure that your co-workers might exert on you to attend compromising activities. Also, watch your language scrupulously, and don’t be afraid of the label ‘Mormon.’ It makes avoiding undesirable activities easier.”
Taking home study courses is a constructive way to spend free time, many servicemen have found. Many universities offer these courses, and the local education officer can give more details about the military enrollment forms. Religion classes by home study are offered by Brigham Young University (among hundreds of other courses). (A brochure about home study for members of the military is available from the BYU Independent Study [Home Study] Department.) If you’re interested in a reading program, Deseret Book offers a 10 percent discount to Church members on active military duty. The discount applies to most books sold, both religious and non-religious (with the exception of sale books and scriptures).
For Church members on board ship for months at a time, or stationed at isolated military posts, loneliness is another problem, according to Chaplain John Cooper, stationed at Fort Ord, California. “One of my major concerns is that the people back home—family, bishop, quorum president, home teachers, friends—write regularly to ward members in the service. I’ve seen a lot of lonely servicemen and women who could use that support. They need to know that they’re loved, and they need encouragement. They need to know that there are people they can turn to for help if they get in trouble.
“I think it’s a good idea for parents to write to the local Church leaders where their son or daughter is stationed and let them know their concern. The parents can get the names and addresses from their own bishop.” A listing of worldwide U.S. military installations and the ward or branch, stake or mission responsible for members there is included in the Church Directory of General Authorities and Officers. Each bishop has a copy of this directory.
Missionary work is another pursuit that has enriched the lives of many Church members in the military. Although active proselyting is prohibited in the military, many Church members have had a great influence on nonmembers through example, invitations to Church meetings or activities, or simply answering questions about what Church members believe.
“In the military you meet a lot of people who are searching for the truth,” said Naval officer Marc Poussard. “You have many opportunities to share the gospel, if you stand firm and do what’s right. And you can key certain situations toward the Church. It’s not uncommon for me to return to the barracks at night when many of the others there are bored. I tell them if I’ve been to a Young Adult activity, like a dance, and tell them if we’re going hiking or doing something else fun. Someone will ask to come along. If you have a good Young Adult program, lots of people will want to come out and see what you’re doing.
“In the military we’re around many young people the missionaries can’t get to. They can’t knock on each stall in the barracks or on a ship. On an aircraft carrier we may have 4,000 people. We need the example of strong LDS people in the military. And if there’s someone who’s not real strong in the gospel, that person can draw strength from those who are.”
Many Church members in the military consider themselves to be on unofficial missions. “I’ve been able to help convert at least ten couples to the Church,” said Leon Gray, who’s served in the U.S. Army for several years. “I’ve always tried to tell people a little about the Church, wherever I’ve been. In Germany there were many interested people.”
What advice do Church members in the military have for those who are entering the service? A few pointers are almost universally expressed:
Contact the local Church group or servicemen’s group leader immediately upon arriving at your duty station. Get involved in Church activities. If you have problems locating a Church representative, check with the post chaplain, the telephone book, or if you still have problems locating other members, check with the
Military Relations Committee
50 East North Temple
Salt Lake City, Utah 84150
Establish a daily scripture study program, and be diligent in daily prayers.
Establish a clear standard of morality, and never sacrifice your moral values.
Write home frequently.
Subscribe to the Church magazines and Church News.
“In the military, you can’t compromise the least little bit,” said Chaplain Cooper. “Stay away from the line as far as you can get. And wherever the military sends you, turn it to your advantage. There may be people who think it’s the worst place in the world, but you can turn that assignment into a rich and rewarding experience. It’s important to bloom where you’re planted.
“I think being in the military is something to be proud of. The missionary opportunities are just countless. If you live your religion, you don’t have to worry too much about asking the Golden Questions because people will ask you—you’ll stand out. They’ll want to know more about you. I’ve heard story after story about young Church members who are sought out in the quiet of the night by others wanting to know what makes them different. Your opportunities to contribute to the lives of others is limitless.”
And that’s just what thousands of LDS members in the service around the world are doing.
To Church members entering the military, Robert Crawford of the Church Military Relations Committee has the following suggestions:
Make sure you attend the Preservice Church Orientation, which should be held by your stake or the mission you live in. At the orientation we help prepare prospective servicemen or women for challenges that arise for Church members in the military. We also give them a servicemen’s editions of the Book of Mormon, Principles of the Gospel, and the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price. They also receive a list of mission phone numbers outside the United States and Canada and dog tags identifying them as Latter-day Saints.
Remind your bishop to send a membership identification form to the bishop in the area where you will be stationed. That way the bishop will be expecting you.
Make sure that you’ll be receiving the Church magazines while you’re in the military.