About 15 years ago I wrote a short piece for a Sunstone Symposium panel on the topic of Mormons in the Military. It was focused on my personal experiences as a Latter-day Saint dealing with the armed forces rules on religion and the chaplains specifically. A number of things have developed since then, so it seems worthwhile to revisit the topic and elicit readers’ own experiences.
Mormons are odd birds in the military chapel system, since we don’t depend on having a professional clergyman to lead our worship. Any group of Mormons in the military, if meeting for the first time, can put together a Sacrament Meeting, a Sunday School, and a Priesthood Meeting on the spot. Any settled location with Mormons will have at least a servicemembers’ group (such as a ship at sea), if not a formal branch or even ward. There are a lot of wards that look ordinary on paper, but most of the LDS in that location are military families. That’s the case, for example, in Bellevue, Nebraska, where the majority of ward members live in military housing for Offutt Air force Base and work at Strategic Command for the Air Force and Navy. At Yokota Air Base outside Tokyo, we had a large branch that met in one of the base chapels, so we had no building expenses. In fact, because the Air Force chaplain service bases the number of chaplains assigned to a base and the budget for chapel activities on the attendance, and Mormons have so many meetings and higher levels of participation, we were actually contributing half the justification for the manning of Yokota with (non0Mormon) chaplains.
Chaplains are assigned on a random basis, based mostly on rank and experience rather than any correlation with the number of soldiers of that faith in a given location, which changes anyway. The number of chaplains each denomination can have is based on that denomination’s population in the US. As the LDS population has grown, the number of chaplain slots has expanded.
What does an LDS chaplain do? They are generally classified with the Christians and specifically Protestants. they get in rotation to conduct the generic Protestant services on base or in the field. They also perform the counseling function of any chaplain, the kind of help soldiers can have a lot more need for than civilians. They are commissioned officers and compete with other chaplains for promotions in rank. They get the same pay as other officers (though Catholic priests can have their salaries donated consistent with a vow of poverty).
The other chaplains can be standoffish toward Mormons and Mormon chaplains. LDS Chaplains have to get a master’s degree in some related field, like counseling or biblical studies, but they don’t necessarily have the conventional education that many professional clergy get, so there are examples of the other chaplains intentionally trying to talk over the head of the LDS chaplains.
When we met in the base chapel at Yokota Air Base, even though we had more people attending church, the head chaplain casually insisted we get leftover time in the building, and causally bumped us without coordination for special programs, like a guest speaker. My understanding is that it did not happen like that when the base commander was LDS.
When I was a missionary in Japan, Chitose Air Base was closing, so we went out to pick up some materials from the branch president. While we were in the chapel picking up the supplies, one of the chaplains walked in and was introduced to us by the branch president, a master sergeant. Rather than walk up and shake our hands, the guy backed ut of the chapel, saying “Well, I know this has been a lay ministry for a long time so I am glad to see your ministers finally taking an interest.” When he was gone we broke out laughing. The branch president was far more experienced than we were at church leadership and preaching the gospel, having served his own mission in Alabama.
One of the tings I found in the Air Force was that I kept running into the same LDS people, even as we were all shuffled around the world. There is a limited universe of LDS wards and branches near Air Force bases, even more true now, as dozens of bases have been closed.
I have known LDS people in all the services, including a law school classmate on law review at Utah who was being sponsored by the Marines the same way I was sponsored by the Air Force. One neighbor in California was captain of a Coast Guard cutter. There is obviously a concentration of LDS in the National Guard and Reserve units for the Air Force and Army in Utah, especially in the linguist battalion that relies on the language skills of returned missionaries. Mormons like to get assigned to Hill Air Force Base.
Another large military LDS community is in Colorado Springs, with Air Force Space Command, thousands of Army at Fort Carson, and the Air Force Academy. Some years ago, the Academy noted that it had a lot of LDS cadets who resigned their appointments (you have to have competitive grades and sponsorship by a member of Congress) in order to serve LDS misisons. Then they succeeded in getting readmitted in the same competition so they could complete their degrees and be commissioned officers. The Academy found that these former missionaries were more mature and often the leaders among the cadets (as well as conversant in foreign languages). So they adopted a policy to let any cadet in good standing take one or two years off for voluntary or educational experiences, such as the Peace Corps, or missionary service. The Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, has adopted the same policy. About a year ago, the cadet corps commanders at both academies were returned missionaries. Between programs like that and then huge Air Force ROTC program at BYU, Mormons are pretty well accepted in the Air Force. We have even had a few general officers (such as Elder Oaks of the Seventy).
As is pointed out whenever Air force plays BYU, they are the two most cleancut, well behaved teams in the conference. While some military folks indulge with alcohol in the usual way, in general the Air Force (I can’t speak for the other services) is pretty strict about alcohol abuse. Some twenty years ago, the Air Force decided to ban all smoking in buildings, which makes being a Mormon less obvious. Military members are subjec to criminal penalties for things that would merely get you a slap on the wrist in a civilian job, so it can be a very compatible environment for the LDS lifestyle. I was hugely popular as a guest at dinner parties because I never drank my share of the booze and was alwasy available to serve as designated driver.
A fair number of people have joined the church through the example and teaching of their LDS associates. as any missionary can tell you, when people are facing serious danger, and have been displaced from their usual enviornment, they are more open to listening to the gospel. One of my experiences in Colorado Springs was helping to teach a black Army paratrooper who had promised God, in the seconds as he headed toward the ground with two dead parachutes, that he would look for a church to attend if he lived. He told us that, after getting out of the hospital, he had gone to a lot of different churches in the city, but that it was the Mormons who really welcomed him. And that was in 1974.
Historically, LDS service members have been a vanguard for the church in many nations. It was former servicemen like my Dad who reopened the mission to Japan, which had been closed in 1924 as relations worsened between the US and Japan. LDS servicemen were instrumental in opening Korea to the gospel. The commander of my AFROTC unit at the University of Utah, Colonel Nixon, was a Spanish language specialist who earned a PhD at Seville and then served as liaison to the Spanish air Force. As that nation’s government was liberalized, he was able to help secure recognition for the Church, and later was called as one of teh first mission presidents in Madrid. The tithing of LDS service members stationed overseas has gone to help fund operation of church activities, including building chapels, in the host nations. It is going to be a while before normal LDS missionaries are able to proselyte in Yemen and Iraq, but the LDS service members stationed in the Middle East are laying a foundation for a future when the gospel can be taught even in those nations.
The LDS emphasis on education can be fulfilled in the armed forces, which are willing to provide training in all sorts of skills (including piloting jets), and subisidze education, not only through various versions of the GI Bill, but also through tuition payments and even full time assignment to graduate schools (I spent 3 years on my JD and 1 year on an LLM, tuition and books paid,while receiving full pay, and not incurring any debt).
The armed forces’ emphais on youth means on the flip side that you can retire after as few as 20 years service. Retired military members and their wives can then be well positioned to serve as missionaries.
Being separated from home for months or a year at a time is a great trial, and LDS members depend on the support they get from each other in their servicemen’s groups in forward bases.
I think one advantage that LDS soldiers have is that, in the Book of Mormon, we have an explicit example of Christians who were also great warriors. We can of course draw on the stories of the Old Testament, and some of the figurative speech in the New Testament, but a lot of people are not sure how to reconcile what seems to be the warlie message of the Old with the peaceful message of the New. The fact that Mormon and Moroni, the editors, were warriors themselves helped them select lessons for us from the lives of Captain Moroni and Helaman and the example of the Ammonite warriors whose fathers and older brothers had promised God they would never again take up weapons. The propriety of war in defense of our families, religion and country is made clear, as well as the need for restraint and the willingness to agree to peace with an enemy. They also emphasize the need for the warriors and the nation they defend to live righteously.
And of course, there is the fact that the Book of Mormon emphasizes the special responsibility of nations in the Americas to live righteously. Whatever the judgment on a particular war or campaign, the LDS members in the military see themselves as defending not just their own nation but also the freedom of religion that it ensures for the Church. America has been instrumental in defeating the Axis tyrannies of World War II, and then the Soviet Union, leading to the opening of an opportunity for hundreds of millions to hear the gospel. LDS service members see America’s work in supporting freedom and peace as also supporting the fulfillment of the responsibility of the church to roll forward and “fill the earth.”