CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

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The 2002 CESNUR International Conference

Minority Religions, Social Change, and Freedom of Conscience

Salt Lake City and Provo (Utah), June 20-23, 2002

A Latter-day Saint Servicemen’s Response to Their Church Leaders’ Counsel During the Vietnam War

by Mary Jane Woodger, Ed. D.
Assistant Professor of Church History and Doctrine - Brigham Young University
A paper presented at CESNUR 2002, Salt Lake City and Provo. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

            For thousands of Latter-day Saints (LDS)[i] who either served in Vietnam or waited for loved ones to come home, the conflict was an experience characterized by “apprehension, danger, temptation, and brotherhood.”[ii] Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints[iii] involved in the Vietnam War did not necessarily follow or embrace the cultural trends of the rest of the soldiers. LDS servicemen often looked to Church authorities to give them a standard line of thought, and leaders of the Church were consistent in their comments and counsel. This article discusses the experience of some LDS servicemen in response to their Church leaders’ counsel during the Vietnam War. This study can only represent a much larger population of LDS men who served during the war.

            To interview every possible LDS Vietnam veteran would be an impossible task. By May 1960, 12,000 LDS were on active duty.[iv] In September 1968, one of every 15,000 Church members was in military service,[v] with 30,000 LDS serving in the military.[vi] During the twelve-year involvement of the American military in Vietnam, over 100,000 LDS served in the US Armed Forces.[vii] As these soldiers came home, the number of LDS veterans swelled. For instance, in October 1974, there were 33,800 Vietnam veterans in Utah, of whom 23,600 were members of the Church.[viii] Overall, representation of Church members in the service was fairly proportionate to the representation of the population of the United States as a whole, of which 1.2 percent of the total population served in the Armed Forces.[ix]

            This paper summarizes a systematic study of a sample of members of this religious organization during the Vietnam conflict. Participants perceived that Church members who served in the Armed Forces had a different experience during the Vietnam War than their non-LDS American counterparts, a difference attributable to these veterans’ recollections of following counsel they received from the leaders of the Church. This study investigates the extent to which membership in the Church may have impacted the experience of a select number of servicemen in Vietnam. It only tells the story of the war as seen through the eyes of these Church members, and the effect the GIs felt their Church membership had on their individual lives while they served in the military in Vietnam.

Church Leaders’ Counsel on Member Involvement During the Vietnam War

            During the American military involvement in Vietnam, Church leaders condemned war and at the same time gave instruction pertaining to the conduct of LDS involved in the conflict. On May 12, 1969, the First Presidency[x] sent a clear message regarding their position on the US government and its position in the war, “in order that there be no misunderstanding.” They clarified:

            We make no statement on how this country can or should try to disengage itself from the present regrettable war in Vietnam; that is a problem . . . which must be solved by our governmental officials in whom we have complete confidence. We believe our young men should hold themselves in readiness to respond to the call of their government to serve in the armed forces when called upon. . . we believe in honoring, sustaining, and upholding the law.[xi]

            Many LDS veterans we interviewed said they followed Church leader’s counsel and even repeated views expressed above. Most interviewees felt it was their duty to serve their country during this conflict and acted accordingly. Thirty-three percent of the sample we studied were drafted into the Vietnam War. While twenty-seven percent volunteered for service. Many of those who volunteered stated their reason for signing up for a tour of duty was highly connected with their religious beliefs and religious counsel regarding service for the county. Another twenty percent of the veterans we polled were part of the ROTC program, and an additional twenty percent chose the military as a career during the Vietnam conflict. As more and more LDS servicemen enlisted, or were drafted by the US government, Church leaders in Salt Lake City kept a watchful eye on them.

Servicemens’ Perception of Church Leaders’ Counsel and Involvement During the Vietnam War

In an era when many Vietnam servicemen were unsure of the plebeian reaction to the war at home, members of the Church in the service were assured that their leaders supported and were pleased with their service.

Church Counsel on Conscientious Objectors.

            Before Vietnam, very little was said by Church leaders on the subject of conscientious objectors. As explained, the leadership plainly taught military participation was an assumed duty of Church members. When widespread discussion about conscientious objectors infused American culture, it brought forth statements on this subject from the Church’s leadership. One editorial by the First Presidency advised the following:

            Latter-day Saints are not pacifists in the accepted definition of that term. Neither are they conscientious objectors. Much as they hate war and its horrors, they recognize their divinely appointed task to help preserve liberty on the earth, and to sustain their governments in meeting unjustified aggression by evil powers.[xii] (1965b)

A year later, the First Presidency took an even stronger line: “Latter-day Saints are not slackers. They are not conscientious objectors, and they are not pacifists in the usually accepted definition.”[xiii]

Most servicemen were aware of the Church's position on this issue. For instance, sixty-seven percent of interviewees felt the Church was supportive of the war. Twenty percent felt it was neutral and only thirteen percent were unaware of how the Church felt about the war. Several veterans mentioned that they knew the Church was against conscientious objectors and thought the Church expected its members to serve in the military when called. One veteran said the reason he went to war was because he knew “the Church had said that conscientious objectors to the war were out of line and not in good standing with the Church."

            Thus, individual Church members in the service felt an affinity with Church leadership at home because of constant concern and support expressed by their central leadership. This concern was more than lip service: President David O. McKay, who served as the president of the Church (1951-1970) during most of the conflict, sent several high-ranking Church officials to visit LDS servicemen in Southeast Asia. Under the direction of McKay, a positive support prevailed, and advice by other Church leaders had a lasting impact on the general membership. One of McKay’s firmest directives was that serving or dying in a war was not the worst thing that could happen. In 1962, he firmly declared that though he loved peace, he did not value peace at any price: “There is a peace more destructive of the manhood of living man than war is destructive of the body. ‘Chains are worse than bayonets.’“[xiv] One veteran specifically mentioned McKay’s exact words and constantly reminded himself of them while he was in combat.

            Concern servicemen felt from Church headquarters was important to them. One veteran remembers feeling that all the Brethren were concerned for faithful LDS servicemen in Vietnam. Another veteran reiterated he also felt the brethren were very supportive and concerned for him and his fellow Church members serving a tour of duty. However, some Church leaders were mentioned by the veterans as having more of an impact on their experiences than others. It is notable that those General Authorities[xv] we found to have the greatest amount of recorded counsel in regard to the Vietnam conflict were the same individuals whom veterans remembered as having an influence on their experience in Indonesia. Of course those General Authorities who visited Vietnam had the greatest influence on servicemen we interviewed. One veteran explained: “It was neat to see Church leaders come into a war zone and put their life on the line to uplift us. That had an effect on my experience. Their counsel made me want to live the gospel better."

            An interesting aspect of the servicemen's memories is the fact that they felt much support from general Church leadership, but very little from local leaders. Only two servicemen remembered any support from their local ecclesiastical leaders. On the other hand, most of those interviewed felt a great deal of support from Church headquarters.

As the numbers of LDS servicemen grew, specific General Authorities were assigned to watch over the situation. In particular, Ezra Taft Benson, Marion D. Hanks, Victor L. Brown, and Gordon B. Hinckley (who now leads the Church) visited South Vietnam to encourage servicemen to remain faithful to their families and the Church.[xvi] These leaders provided counsel, policy, and appropriate practices to be followed by LDS in Vietnam during the country’s involvement. It is interesting that the veterans we interviewed remembered the men listed above as those whose counsel they remembered.

Those leaders who were most outspoken about the war were specifically remembered by those we interviewed as having an impact on individuals’ military service. For example, one veteran said after he heard Benson speak, “he had a good feeling with him that persisted for two weeks.” The lasting impact of that address for this serviceman was that it “helped a great deal [before he] started gaining [his] own experiences in the war.”

            Other leaders’ counsel seemed to help veterans cope with the Vietnam war experiences. General Authority Bruce R. McConkie reassured soldiers that killing in a war was not considered a sin by God: “The soldier who is required to take life . . . will be guiltless before the throne of the Just Judge.”[xvii] He added that Americans were “fighting for rights and privileges that are more precious than life itself.”[xviii] One veteran mentioned that this kind of counsel helped him “feel okay about taking someone’s life when called upon [because] it would not affect [his] eternal salvation.”

            The most sterling visit of Church leaders took place on October 30, 1966, when Marion D. Hanks and Gordon B. Hinckley met with approximately one hundred Church members gathered on the roof of the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon and dedicated the land of Vietnam to the preaching of the LDS gospel.[xix] Dedicating a land includes a statement that the nation is now open for proselytizing by Mormon missionaries.[xx] Performing such a dedication during a time of war is not a common practice. Usual policy is to cease proselytizing during times of war, not to begin it. But in Vietnam, notwithstanding the battle around them, Church leaders expected to begin converting new members.[xxi] One veteran we interviewed attended that meeting and felt it was a significant event in their Vietnam experience: “I was at a meeting where they dedicated Vietnam for missionary work. My testimony of prophecy had been strengthened because I was able to attend the dedicatory prayer by President Hinckley, and now I have seen much of that come to pass.”

            In the dedicatory prayer, Hinckley suggested an ideology little espoused by most American Christian churches in the 1960s: The Vietnam War could be a source of conversion for Christianity. He prayed,

            The manner in which thou hast turned the hand and the work of the adversary to the good and the blessing of many of thy children. And now we call upon thee at this time that thou wilt similarly pour out thy Spirit upon this land.[xxii]

He then added a request that “there might be peace, and that freedom-loving men might be allowed their free agency,” asking for an “added measure of the Lord’s Spirit” to “be poured out upon the land of Vietnam.”[xxiii] Hinckley felt that LDS servicemen “may perform an effective missionary labor through their examples, and that they may assist in lifting the veil in lands of darkness in which the gospel must someday be taught.”[xxiv] This unusual event and counsel opened the way for discussion of unusual consequences that took place as servicemen responded to their leader’s directive.

Missionary Efforts Among Servicemen

            After counsel such as Hinckley’s, some LDS servicemen saw their role in Vietnam as an opportunity to share their faith. With servicemen spreading their faith, Hinckley saw a blessing coming to the Vietnamese. On one visit, he expressed his confidence that many in that land would come to the restored gospel through the efforts of the LDS in military service[xxv] (Hinckley, 1967a, p. 53). This type of counsel brought great comfort to some of those who were serving in the armed forces. Church policy at the time was that each ward be allowed one missionary per ward.[xxvi] One veteran reiterated this policy in our interview and felt that “Mormon soldiers in Vietnam were buying time for missionaries to serve.” He felt he was personally buying time for his cousin to serve a Church mission. At the same time, this soldier followed this counsel and heavily proselytized his religion in Vietnam, feeling this was one of his purposes for being a part of the conflict. He remembered teaching the LDS Gospel all the time while in Vietnam and baptized one hundred fellow servicemen as Church members. Two other veterans also mentioned being instrumental in baptizing fellow servicemen. One baptized twelve, the other baptized eleven. Another veteran used his missionary efforts in a unique way. When he was in line for a promotion, he decided to share his religion with the OCS [officer candidate] board because he thought if he did, he would not become an officer. In juxtaposition, one individual felt he was led by the Lord in his military assignments and put in positions in which he not only served his country but also his Church. One interviewee said he “knew that Church leaders saw the war as war of opening doors to spreading the LDS faith.” However, most of these veterans did not preach their theology to the Vietnamese. Proselytizing was primarily with peers, and many veterans felt they were often revered by fellow servicemen as religious persons.

            One interviewee called Vietnam the “greatest missionary experience of his life.” Before leaving on his tour of duty, he met with Church leader Robert L. Simpson for a few minutes. Simpson stated “Good luck on your mission, Elder.” This remark gave this young man a purpose and had a great effect on his war experience. Indeed, he viewed his military service as a missionary experience. This particular veteran continues to be involved with missionary work in Indonesia. He, along with several other LDS veterans, established an organization called VASAA.

            VASAA, which stands for Veterans Service Activities Abroad, is a non profit, tax exempt, war veterans’ charitable organization, founded by a group who call themselves Christian veterans. Most of the members of VASAA are LDS. Their objectives are to (1) provide a forum for military veterans, (2) compile experiences of members of the Church in major military events, (3) assist families of former allies through service projects, and (4) cooperate with other humanitarian networks. This organization reunites families and since this organization’s founding in 1982, it has helped over six hundred people with family reunification programs and has located twenty LDS familied thought to be missing or dead. One veteran we talked with feels great fulfillment as he seeks to help America’s former allies. He feels he has opened many doors of opportunities. For the members of this organization, the Vietnam experience is an ongoing proposition.

            From the types of experiences listed above, it is clear to see that many LDS veterans felt their experiences in Vietnam were different from those of their American counterparts.

The Comparison of Latter-day Saint and Non-Latter-day Saint Experiences as Perceived by Interviewees

One of Marion D. Hanks’ consistent themes as he talked with LDS servicemen was a trust in their servicemen’s upbringing. Hanks said there was “no question as to the tradition transmitted in [the] boys' home[s].”[xxvii] This transmission of values may have caused differences in the way LDS servicemen experienced the Vietnam conflict.

            Of those interviewed in this project, all but one veteran said they perceived their experience as different from that of other military personnel who were not members of the Church. However, this solitary veteran admitted having no affiliation with his Church or other members of his faith during his Vietnam experience. He did not think, “the Church made [him] any better than people that were not members of the Church.” It is interesting to note that this soldier did not follow the basic tenets of his faith. For instance, in a sect that suggests praying daily, he admitted never prayed during his Vietnam experience. Therefore, because of his lack of effort, he felt the Lord did not help him or give him any kind of consolation. He also felt very lonely in his military service and did not seem to take advantage of associating himself with other Church members during combat experience.

            Other veterans we interviewed observed a remarkable difference in their experiences and other soldiers. They classified the difference as “huge,” “large,” “a world of difference,” “like night and day,” or “as if they lived in two different worlds.” Most of these differences were identified by veterans as having to do with their cultural upbringing and beliefs.

Many mentioned they felt their knowledge of the plan of salvation gave them an understanding of who they were and where they were going. The plan of salvation is a basic tenet of LDSember’s faith. Members believe God formulated a plan whereby his children could experience a physical existence, including mortality, and then return to live in his presence. The plan provides a way for everyone to receive salvation a exaltation. According to Church teachings, the purpose of God’s creating the earth was so his spirit children could obtain physical bodies and learn to walk by faith. The plan of salvation was created by the Father, brought into reality by the atoning sacrifice of his Son, and facilitated by the gifts of the Holy Ghost. It embraces the Creation, the Fall, and the Atonement, including the Resurrection, and encompasses all the stages between the premortal existence and final state of immortality.[xxviii] This particular doctrine was mentioned by several interviewees as being one of the decisive factors that separated their cultural experience in Vietnam from that of peers. One felt that this “little piece of knowledge [plan of salvation] made a huge difference.” For him, the knowledge of eternal consequences made his war experience different from others who had no such knowledge. Veterans felt the plan of salvation gave them a place to turn to. They were less fearful of death and felt the horrors of war did not seem as bad for them as for others. This belief system provided a greater sense of purpose and moral anchor. One individual related a very personal comparison. He and his brother-in-law were in Vietnam during the same years. He observed a marked difference in their two experiences as his brother-in-law became involved with immorality, drugs, and the black market.

Virtuous Servicemen

Personal chastity was seen by many of these veterans as one quality that made a distinctive difference in their Vietnam encounter. Hinckley used one adjective to describe GIs that was rarely used by other visitors to Vietnam. He called them “virtuous.”[xxix]

            Many veterans we interviewed would have also described themselves with the same word. The kinds of experiences in which the veteran mentioned above saw his brother-in-law involved were marked by other veterans as separating factors in their cultural experience in Vietnam when they compared themselves with other American servicemen. Along with being chaste, many LDS servicemen we interviewed suggested that one other Church standard they also held to which made a difference is referred to as the Word of Wisdom.

The Word of Wisdom is a common title for a revelation that counsels LDS on maintaining good health. Adherence to this revelation includes abstaining from all forms of liquor, tobacco, coffee, tea, and harmful drugs and suggests moderation in eating. Conformance to the Word of Wisdom is a prerequisite for members of this sect to enter the Church’s temples or hold office in any Church organization. Active members believe certain promises are associated with keeping the Word of Wisdom, including temporal promises of better health and a closer relationship with God.[xxx]

            One veteran concluded that he had a “better experience” because he followed the Word of Wisdom. Another observed his American counterparts in Vietnam having an attitude he referred to as the “free year.” This mind-set among some soldiers was that once you left the States, “nothing mattered anymore.” This attitude led to immoral activities, and drug and alcohol problems. This individual veteran saw this philosophy among most servicemen as “this might be the last day that I live so I need to have all the fun I can while here in Vietnam. On the other hand, he observed that LDS servicemen “knew where they were going, whether here or in the hereafter.” This veteran felt this perspective made a difference in the behavioral patterns of soldiers in Vietnam. Another veteran concurred that “the Gospel made a great difference in the way LDS servicemen governed their lives and the standards they set for themselves.” During this interview, this same individual declared:

My Church standards required me not to engage with prostitutes, drink liquor, smoke or be involved with drugs. Those standards quickly became part of the awareness of the other soldiers, and they also saw a large contrast between those who had something to believe in and those who didn’t.

            Another interviewee observed many who were addicted to drugs and indulging in what he called “immoral activities.” He felt that one of the reasons his war experience did not have such a lasting negative affect on him as it did on other veterans was his adherence to standards. He commented that adherence to such standards was not unique to LDS alone. One non-LDS man in this soldier’s unit held to the same values, and it “helped him out too.” Another individual related that those who had nowhere to go, had questions they could not answer and were “devastated inside.” Another GI concurred that those who did not have religion were the ones who were hooked on drugs and alcohol.

            Church membership alone did not make the differences these veterans observed. It seemed that Church members had to be active in his faith in Vietnam to reap the benefits these veterans identified. If a Church member had been less active in the US the tendency was to “participate in unbecoming activities.” Eighty-seven percent of Vietnam veterans in our sample said that those LDS servicemen who were inactive had similar experiences to those who were not members.

            One veteran felt that inactive members had an even worse experience than non-LDS because “when a person goes inactive the flood gates were opened all the way, and they acted even worse than non-members.” Another interviewee concurred:

Inactive [servicemen] were worse than those who had no religion at all. When a person falls into inactivity he questions his faith. And when a person questions his faith he will only get negative answers to those questions. If a person wasn’t active, he could find excuses for believing that his inactivity was perfectly justified, especially in a war situation.

Toward the end of one veteran’s tour of duty, an inactive member who was very involved in gambling and alcohol, came into his unit. He simply described the man as a “mess.” Another member also mentioned he saw a less-active Church member indulge in “sexual transgression.” Such deviation from Church standards was not winked at or ignored by more active members. For instance, one veteran had to recommend to a Church authority back in the states that one of his fellow Vietnam servicemen be excommunicated for behavior unbecoming a LDS.

            Some veterans suggested coming to Vietnam made most who were inactive become more involved and was a “turning point for them in their life.” One observation was that less-active members were affected in one of two ways. They either gained “determination to live the standards and become more active, or the war worsened their situation and they got lost [as far as the Church was concerned].”

            Those active in the Church before the war felt even more determined afterwards. Eighty seven percent said there testimony of the Church was strengthened by their Vietnam experience. Thirteen percent said their testimonies remained the same or there was no effect. One who said his religious energy remained constant simply said it was strong when he went and strong when he came back. None of the veterans said their testimonies of the teachings of the Church was weakened as a result of their war experiences. One individual did admit it was hard for him “to live in a situation where day in and day out [he] was exposed to pornography, horrible language, off-color jokes, drugs and alcohol and not have [his] testimony weakened to some extent.” Then he conceded that ultimately, he came out with a much stronger testimony. One veteran felt he had spiritual experiences during the war that strengthened his faith. Another even felt that seeing friends go to war who never came back was a faith-promoting experience. For the majority of the veterans we interviewed, the war reinforced their religious beliefs.

            Not only did these veterans’ war experiences increase their belief system in their Church, it also seemed to increase their activity in their Church when they came home. One affirmed that being in Vietnam gave him the desire to be more active in the Church and to do temple work.[xxxi] Another interviewee vowed that Vietnam was where he learned to love his Church. Others were sure that the reason they returned from Vietnam was divine intervention and protection.

Promised Protection

In 1969, General Authority, Hugh B. Brown, encouraged servicemen to believe in themselves and in the availability of divine guidance.[xxxii] Hinckley, whose counsel seems to contain the most salient words, went one step further and promised faithful servicemen they would be protected if they kept Church standards.[xxxiii] It is important to note that the protection Hinckley promised was not necessarily from enemy fireæthe protection was to be from evil and wickedness, which included immorality. In response to such counsel, many veterans felt their Vietnam experience was guided and protected.

            One veteran was sure that his Vietnam experience involved divine intervention. The Lord “saved his life” often. It is also interesting to note that one veteran mentioned that the only inactive Church member he knew was killed, implying he felt a connection between the death and inactivity. Another member of the sample concurred that every inactive Mormon he knew was shot down. Both of these veterans did not feel this was a coincidence, but that the “faithful got a blessing of protection.” Another veteran relates a situation where he also felt protected:

Just before leaving for Vietnam my Father in law blessed me that Heavenly Father would protect me while serving in Vietnam. . . . During the first couple of weeks I was in Viet Nam I had that blessing put to the test. While on an operation I stepped on a booby trap. The explosion sent me flying. My rifle went in one direction, my steel helmet in another, and I sat on the ground apprehensive about inspecting the damage to my foot. It felt like someone had taken a full swing with a baseball bat against the bottom of my foot. I picked pieces of the booby trap out of the dirt to save. The Vietnamese Officer came running up expecting another dead or wounded soldier -since he'd already had several that day and was amazed as I slowly got up and limped back to my jeep. During the rest of my tour I felt calm during the night ambushes or daytime sweeps I went on with our Vietnamese Units, because I knew I had Heavenly Father's protection. But I still kept reminding myself "Don't do anything stupid. Don't be John Wayne.”

One person added another interesting dimension. He stressed that living Church standards did provide an advantage. He saw “a lot of people” who lived by other standards “die needlessly because they were drunk or stoned.” Another veteran felt absolute about the Lord’s protection in his case. Where others worried about death, he did not worry about dying; he just looked forward to going home.

Making Their Presence Known

Hinckley also encouraged LDS servicemen in Vietnam to “make [their] presence known” and to “fellowship in the priesthood,”[xxxiv] promising them that they would be “prompted to participate in new and enriching opportunities for service,” and by so doing they would “find happiness in such company.” One individual felt he followed this counsel. Though he was in his mid-twenties, in his unit he felt he “was like a father to those kids; they hung around me and my squad because the Spirit was with me. These kids were scared because they didn’t know what was going to happen to them if they died.” Another remembered sharing his religious views of death and life often and thought it gave his fellow soldiers hope.

A Silver Thread

            Such hope may have been passed from leaders’ counsel to the LDS soldiers. Hinckley seemed to look consistently on finding some positive aspects of the war. If there was a positive side to the Vietnam conflict, Hinckley was one who would find it. For instance, in 1968 he said he saw “the finger of the Lord plucking some good from the evil designs of the adversary.”[xxxv] In this same address he articulated

            I make no defense of the war from this pulpit. . . . I seek only to call your attention to that silver thread, small but radiant with hope, shining through the dark tapestry of war—namely, the establishment of a bridgehead, small and frail now; but which somehow, under the mysterious ways of God, will be strengthened, and from which someday shall spring forth a great work affecting for good the lives of large numbers of our Father’s children who live in that part of the world. Of that I have certain faith.[xxxvi] (Hinckley, 1968a, p. 24)

            The “silver thread” he referred to was the participation of LDS servicemen in that country. In the “midst of the misery,” he observed “true manhood.”[xxxvii] In his consistently, positive outlook, he saw that “Vietnam, in many ways, [was] a wonderful experience for our LDS brothers and sisters.”[xxxviii] This positive outlook seems to have also permeated some of the veterans’ recollection.

            In the most positive comment we received during an interview, one individual called his experiences in Vietnam from 1971-1972 “one of the greatest experiences in my life.” This individual seems to treasure his Vietnam experience and maintaining that his Vietnam encounter is “very dear to my soul.” Others though not quite as positive, nevertheless presented some positive aspects of their individual situations in regard to Vietnam.

            One positive aspect that Hinckley suggested was a “great potential [for] leadership.”[xxxix] One common effect veterans mentioned was an increase in their leadership skills. One veteran felt his Vietnam experiences prepared him for Church leadership roles. One individual learned through his experiences to be more “cautious with the people” he is leading and mentioned that his combat experience has for a number of years helped him help young boys as he has served in the scouting program. Another veteran who has held Church leadership positions credits his success to his Vietnam service. Another veteran who made a career out of his army experience as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, said his experience helped him to learn about teamwork and how to do his part. Another person felt his Vietnam experiences put a lasting “imprint on his mind” and made him love his family more than he had before. Many of the interviewees felt they were more thankful. Increased gratitude seems to be a common thread in many of these veterans’ experiences.

            Several veterans came home with a greater love for country. One felt the LDS Vietnam veterans “had a greater sense of patriotism than any other group.” Moreover, appreciation of home and family was mentioned. Two said Vietnam had made them more responsible. Other positive effects included increased courage, self-control, respect for all peoples, greater decision-making ability, and better people skills.

            Much to the interviewer’s surprise as these Vietnam veterans related their remembrances most felt the positive effects of their experience in the service in Vietnam far out-weighed the bad. Even the twenty percent of those interviewed who were wounded during their tour of duty felt positive aspects outweighed negative. Seventy-four percent said their experience in Vietnam had no lasting negative effects on their life. And of those interviewed, only one stated that those negative effects were of significant consequence in their overall life experience.

            The veteran who felt lifelong negative effects from the war told us that when he first came home, he felt he was going to be all right. However, he soon became aware of how every deeply affected he was. Over the years, he has felt the symptoms become more apparent: i. e., yelling, screaming, hitting people, jumping out of bed for no reason, migraines, nightmares, depression, suicidal and homicidal feelings, and other psychological problems, including feeling ill during the months of October, November and December. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome and has been treated for it. Other symptoms he deals with include not being able to associate with people much, spending too much time alone, and not being able to be in enclosed spaces. Although, another veteran admitted he was mildly depressed for a short time when he returned home, other interviewees did not disclose any of these problems. Those who did mention negative effects listed the following: a dislike of the Vietnamese people, not liking loud noises, and constant pain from war-inflicted wounds. Another called the war an” interruption” because of several incomplete grades he took in school being drafted mid-semester. One father of four children during his service, regretted the strain the war on his young family. He also admitted the war made him question “our country, war politics and the motivation of political leaders.” Another interviewee concurs that one of his greatest frustrations was to see “the way politicians were not allowing us to win the war.” Whereas, most veterans expressed disappointment in governmental policy during the war, most were content with Church policy during the war.

Policies and Practices

            Appropriate Church programs and policies evolved to serve members living in Vietnam. In 1969, the Military Relations Committee was formed.[xl] Special LDS dog tags were designed.[xli] A serviceman's kit was prepared, including a pocket-sized copy of the Book of Mormon, a hymnal, a doctrinal compendium, and brochures on military life, sexual morality, and missionary opportunities.[xlii]

            Many servicemen spoke of the importance of this literature during their stay in Vietnam. A particular veteran remembered having the paperback Book of Mormon. He would tear pages out of it and study them in the field. When he came back to base, he would tear out more pages and study them. This individual thought the Book of Mormon “helped [him] the most--all of it. It helped because of the feeling that it gave [him, and] he read it for comfort. Another veteran also said he found the Book of Mormon to be a constant comfort and support; and still another felt comfort in the story of a Captain Moroni found in the volume, who killed people but still remained close to God. One individual called the Church literature his lifesaver and oasis. Leaders were eager to provide members in the armed services as much direction as possible through the media. For instance, from 1961 to 1973 Church periodicals “published over three hundred articles concerning Church members in the U. S. Military."[xliii] Families were encouraged to send servicemen at “least one good LDS book each month.”[xliv] Several veterans mentioned that wives and others had sent articles.

            Church leaders also provided an infrastructure organization for servicemen. By May 1966, approximately 2,200 Latter-day Saint military people in Vietnam were organized into twenty groups.[xlv] Eventually, South Vietnam became one of four zones of the Southern Far East Mission, divided into three districts, each district presided over by a presidency and council.[xlvi] Directives from Church headquarters suggested that Church programs and services be conducted as close as possible to those held at home.[xlvii]

            For those interviewed, Church activity in Vietnam ranged from involvement in a full church program to being the only LDS servicemen on a base. Several servicemen talked about servicemen’s groups that met together regularly for meetings and provided support. One LDS colonel reported flying around in a helicopter with a loud speaker announcing that church was being held and then picking up servicemen who could attend. Another held his own sacrament meetings in the jungle on Sundays and read hymns alone. Church was a time to escape from the troubles of war.

            Church leader Ezra T. Benson saw the faithful servicemen’s involvement in Vietnam as a precursor to further Church involvement in that land. On one occasion he said: “Mormon servicemen . . . throughout these nations are laying the foundation for effective proselytizing as they help to construct chapels and make friends and converts for the Church.”[xlviii] Such statements seem to have given these servicemen added purpose. This additional strength may have come from the common societal feeling of uselessness that pervaded the attitudes of other American servicemen who may have felt the frustration of trying to win an un-winnable conflict. During the war, the Church did establish a physical presence in Vietnam. One veteran informed that he was one of the men who built a LDS chapel in Bein Hoa.

            Activity in Vietnam did not bring Church inactivity to those we questioned. Every single veteran we interviewed was active in the Church after the Vietnam experience, even though twenty-seven percent were inactive while serving in Vietnam. However, one thing did change dramatically for these servicemen: their perception of war changed considerably after their Vietnam encounter.

            Though most veterans felt the positive effect of the war in their personal lives far out-weighed the bad, many said they came out of their Vietnam experience with a highly negative perception of war in general. Most were adamant that they would not want to have their children serve in a war.


            Leaders of the Church saw the possibility of the involvement of LDS servicemen as a way to spread Church doctrine. Faithful servicemen were encouraged to proselytize in Vietnam and serve in the armed forces when called on and did. Veterans we interviewed felt it was their civic and moral duty to serve. Many felt their tour of duty was also a mission for their Church, and many baptized fellow soldiers during their military service. General Authorities consistently gave their loyal support to those members serving in the Vietnam War and interviewees felt a positive influence from Church headquarters.

            Many Church leaders viewed participation in the war as an opportunity for growth and a possible positive experience. All veterans we interviewed, except for one felt their personal experiences in Vietnam was more positive than negative. Leaders often counseled servicemen to continue to live Church standards while they served in the military. The majority of veterans we interviewed felt living Church standards, especially the Word of Wisdom and standards related to chastity, made a great difference in their war experience. Church policies and practices became an intricate part of the individual soldiers’ war experiences.

            This study sparsely represents a much larger population. However, comparisons can be drawn that those veterans we interviewed perceived there experience in Vietnam to be different from that of other Americans largely because of their religious participation and that LDS servicemen experienced a distinct Mormon culture during the Vietnam War.

[i] Latter-day Saints (LDS) more commonly known as Mormons are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

[ii] Anderson, D. L., “Meeting the Challenge of the Latter-day Saints in Vietnam,” Brigham Young University Studies, 10 (winter 1970): 186.

[iii] As used in this paper “the Church” will refer to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints informally known as Mormons.

[iv] “Melchizedek Priesthood Page,” The Improvement Era, LXIII, (May 1960): 354.

[v] LeBaron, B.C., “A Letter From Vietnam,” The Improvement Era, (November 1966): 963.

[vi] “Melchizedek,” 354.

[vii] Boone, J. F., “The Roles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Relation to the United States Military 1900-1975” (Unpublished diss., Brigham Young University, Provo): 475.

[viii] “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Servicemen’s Committee,” Report to the General Authorities, Salt Lake City (1962).

[ix] Deseret News-Church News, (13 July 1968): 2.

[x] The First Presidency refers to the presiding council of the Church. It is composed of the President of the Church and a first and second councilor who have administrative responsibility for the Church.

[xi] “First Presidency Takes Stand on Vietnam War,” Deseret News-Church News, (24 May 1969): 12.

[xii] Editorial, Deseret News-Church News, (4 December 1965): 16.

[xiii] Editorial, Deseret News-Church News, (7 November 1970): 16.

[xiv] McKay, D. O., “Righteousness, Key to Peace,” The Improvement Era, LVIII, (June 1955): 395.

[xv] General Authority is a member of the top governing body of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

[xvi] Britsch, R. L. & Holloman, R. C. J., “The Church Years in Vietnam,” The Ensign, (August 1980): 24-30.

[xvii] McConkie, B.R., Mormon Doctrine 2nd ed., (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966): 827.

[xviii] McConkie (1966), 826.

[xix] Hinckley, G. B., “A Silver Thread in the Dark Tapestry of War,” The Improvement Era, (June 1968a): 48-50.

[xx] Many Latter-day Saint young men of the age of 19 voluntarily serve for two years reaching the Church’s doctrine at their own expense.

[xxi] Britsch &Holloman, 24-30.

[xxii] Hinckley, G. B., “Semi-Annual General conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Conference Report, (April 1968b): 22.

[xxiii] Hinckley (1968b), 22-23.

[xxiv] Hinckley (1968a), 48.

[xxv] Hinckley, G. B., “Semi-Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Conference Report, (October 1967): 53.

[xxvi] A ward is an ecclesiastical unit consisting of three hundred to five hundred people. It is similar to a Catholic parish.

[xxvii] Hanks, M. D., “Semi-Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Conference Report, (October 1968): 117.

[xxviii] Ludlow, Victor L., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, (New York: Macmillan Publishing company, 1992): 1091; McConkie (1966), 576.

[xxix] Hinckley, G. B., “Semi-Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Conference Report, (October 1969): 114.

[xxx] Ludlow, 1584; McConkie (1966), 846-7.

[xxxi] Temple work: “Holy sanctuaries wherein sacred ordinances, rites, and ceremonies are performed which pertain to salvation and exaltation in the kingdom of God are called temples” (McConkie, 779).

[xxxii] Brown, Hugh B., “Semi-Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Conference Report, (October 1969): 105-106.

[xxxiii] Hinckley, G. B., “Appreciation For Our Men in the Military,” The Improvement Era, (December 1966): 1122.

[xxxiv] Hinckley (1966), 1122.

[xxxv] Hinckley (1968a), 23.

[xxxvi] Hinckley, G. B., “Semi-Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Conference Report, (April 1968): 24.

[xxxvii] Hinckley, G. B., “Semi-Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Conference Report, (April 1969a): 114.

[xxxviii] Hinckley (1969a), 64.

[xxxix] Hinckley (1969a), 64.

[xl] Britsch, R., “The Church’s Brief Encounter in Vietnam,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism Vol. 2, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1970).

[xli] McConkie, B. R. to Lt. Col. Slover, Robert H., (1951).

[xlii] Miller, H., “Send Vietnam GIs Good Church Reading Material,” Deseret News-Church News, (26 March 1966): 13.

[xliii] Boone, 472.

[xliv] Miller (1966).

[xlv] Britsch & Holloman, 24.

[xlvi] Hardy, W. B., “The Influence of Latter-day Saint Servicemen in Asia,” The Improvement Era, LXXIII, (March 1970): 28.

[xlvii] Britsch & Holloman, 29.

[xlviii] Benson, Ezra T., The Improvement Era, (June 1970): 96-7.


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