“Saints in the Military: Conversion and Reconversion,” Ensign, Feb. 1982, 25
As a “veteran” military wife of over twenty-five years, I have lived and traveled in many countries of the world. As a professional family therapist, I have also conducted dozens of family seminars on countless military bases. And everywhere I go, I meet choice young Latter-day Saint women and men in uniform who are striving to stay close to the Lord. Many are outstanding examples of Mormonism.
Even a few years ago, the idea of LDS women in the military was virtually unheard of. But these are different days and some of our young sisters have chosen the uniform as a means to education, travel, or career opportunities. Sadly, some fall into inactivity in the Church. But others, confronted by a society whose values are often at variance with their own, find the impetus for developing a stronger commitment to the gospel. Some who are inactive when they enter the military become active, and nonmember conversions are common.
We women are, after all, sisters—and many of us will respond to the hand of fellowship when it is offered. Not long ago I had an experience that impressed this fact deeply upon my mind and heart.
At the invitation of the Army, I traveled to a major military post to present a series of lectures and family seminars. Stepping aside from normal routine, the general at this post requested that I address all women soldiers under his command. So the word came down; it was a mandatory attendance. And I might add that it’s a very unpopular thing to be required to attend anything by order of the commander!
So on this Friday, I was very apprehensive. In they marched, wearing fatigues and combat boots. Great numbers of them were smoking; many had beer cans in their hands. But most devastating was that they came with such obvious animosity. I could see it in their posture, in the way they moved, in the way they looked at me.
I could certainly understand their feelings. Here I was, a gray-haired grandmother, a colonel’s wife for nearly a quarter of a century, and once an advisor to two commanders-in-chief for the United States Army in Europe. My whole socio-economic orientation was something apart from theirs. And these were young women—some were young enough to be my daughters. I could literally feel their hostility.
As the general introduced me, I pleaded with my Heavenly Father that I would be guided by the Spirit to say those things that would be meaningful and uplifting for these women. Looking into their faces, I knew that I must communicate to them a sense of the binding power of sisterhood. I prayed that I would be able to share with them a sense of their own value—of the contribution they were making in a difficult job under trying circumstances, and with little appreciation. I wanted them to know that they were doing a good job and that they need not be apologetic about it.
I spoke for about twenty-two minutes. And as I spoke, the Spirit did move them. Quietly they started putting out their cigarettes, putting down their beer cans, leaning forward to listen. Here was somebody who didn’t place a value judgment on them.
There was a young woman, perhaps in her early twenties, sitting toward the front of that audience. It was evident that she had been in a terrible fight; her eye was black and blue, her lip cut and swollen, a tooth missing. She looked at me from the depths of sadness. My eyes were drawn to her again and again, and my heart reached out to her in compassion.
At the conclusion of my address, the women jumped to their feet in applause—something the general could not have commanded them to do! They came rushing toward me, almost as one, to touch my hand, to say a word, to get closer. I looked for the young woman with the battered face; she wasn’t to be seen. But a few minutes later, she came toward me holding a single rose. There was a florist’s shop next to the officers’ club, and she had hurried out to buy for me this expression of her feeling. Few gestures have touched me so deeply.
The following Sunday I addressed the Protestant religious service, which was a very formal affair for families on the post.
When I finished my presentation and sat down, there was a commotion at the door and we all turned around. At least fifty women in dress uniforms—women who had been at the Friday meeting—were marching down the center of that chapel, right to the podium.
I knew what the startled chaplain was thinking—that these women were protesting my appearance. I was, after all, a Mormon; this was a chapel that represented the Christian concept, and many people think that Mormons are not Christians.
But heading that group was the young woman with the battered face. As they positioned themselves in front of the podium, she moved to the piano and played the first strains of “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” Those women, between Friday and Sunday, had gotten together and learned this song. As they sang, my tears flowed; and I saw deep emotion in their eyes as well. When they came to the very last verse—“And should we die before our journey’s through”—the entire congregation stood in tribute to these women.
Now, these sisters were not Latter-day Saints. But they had responded to me as a woman who appreciated what they were doing, who verbalized my appreciation and gave them some praise and a few thoughts about how they should appreciate themselves. And this was their thanks. I’ll never forget that experience.
I share this incident because it has prompted me to reflect deeply upon the Latter-day Saint influence in the military. Men and women and families in uniform are keenly aware of the Church, and they are delighted that we are true to the basic principles of human decency and goodness. The evil abounding in military life gets most of the publicity; but the majority of families in uniform are good, decent, law-abiding people who want to raise their children righteously and who wear the uniform of their nation with pride. There are many Latter-day Saint families among them, and these Saints are making significant contributions because of their righteous influence.
I have met with some of our sisters in uniform who daily struggle to live in the world and not be of the world. I find that their greatest solace—even their ability to survive in this environment—comes from LDS families on the base or post who open their homes and their hearts to them. How hungry these young people are to come into a home, to have the rough-and-tumble fun of children around them, to have the sense of security that being part of a family brings. Frequently, such a family association means the difference between reactivation and inactivity for these young people.
Let’s suppose that a daughter of mine decides to join the military. She goes through basic training and sees a side of the world that she had never even imagined existed. Then she is assigned to an overseas post, and suddenly she finds herself in a foreign culture. She must associate, too, with many people whose moral standards are not her own. Small wonder she feels alienated! What a frightening experience!
Then one day her eyes fall on the words “LDS Services” in a corner of the weekly military base or post publication.
On Sunday, she comes timidly to a meeting. Someone says, “Oh, dear sister, what’s your name? I’m Sister so-and-so.” Then someone else puts an arm around her. I have seen many of these sisters weep with joy for the first half hour of the services. It’s like coming home. It is a coming home. They are invited home to dinner or to a family home evening. You can be sure that such young women won’t soon be lost, because the Church then becomes a focal point in their lives. They are encouraged and fortified to live their religion, to know that they can live in the world but need not be of the world.
It’s a small step from the revitalization of faith to sharing the gospel—and the military can serve as an effective vehicle for doing just that. A young woman or man in uniform might say to a barracks friend, “What are you doing on Sunday? Why don’t you come with me?” Thence to a lovely LDS chapel, followed by dinner with a ward family. Can you see how this fellowshipping process might be extremely effective in a military setting? Indeed, LDS families can be some of the most powerful influences for good in the military.
Missionary work can—and should—be done, of course, at all levels of military life. I learned very early in my career as an officer’s wife that we LDS women can influence others only if we are loving, gracious, nurturing individuals. When I spoke to a group of LDS chaplains’ wives recently, I said to them, “Please, dear sisters, when your home duties permit, go to the coffees, the parties, the receptions. Don’t stay in your quarters thinking, ‘I’ll just stay away from these people whose life-styles are so offensive to me.’ We will never make a convert to the Church until we have made a friend—and the way you make friends is to be your most personable, most attractive self. You can go to the colonel’s party, and when offered coffee say (kindly), ‘You know, I don’t drink coffee. But I’d love some orange juice.’ They are happy to provide orange juice, and it gives you the opportunity to talk about the Church.”
While much conversion and reconversion takes place in the military, support from friends, relatives, and Church members at home must never be undervalued. We freely pledge our moral and financial support to missionaries who preach the gospel full time. But young women and men on military “missions” need their full share of encouragement, too. Even if their time away from home results in only one conversion—their own—it is well worth the price of letters, cards, and other remembrances from those who love them and know their worth.
Truly, we are all children of our Heavenly Father. We must never forget, as he has counseled, to love one another. Like those beautiful young women who touched my heart with their stirring tribute of “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” we have within us a God-given capacity to love, to reach out to others, to appreciate the goodness of life. May we share those gifts abundantly with our brothers and sisters who serve in the military.