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Powerful stories of military service from the First Presidency

by | Nov. 11, 2020

This story was originally published by LDS Living in May 2018 and has been updated in honor of Veterans Day

Many of our prophets and apostles have served in their respective country's military, including each member of our First Presidency. Here are powerful spiritual lessons these prophets and apostles learned during their military service.

President Russell M. Nelson

President Nelson’s success helping to create a heart-lung machine in 1951 drew the attention of the Surgeon General’s Office in Washington, D.C.

With the United States entangled in the Korean War, the Surgeon General’s Office decided to make the most of President Nelson’s obligated military duty by selecting him to form a surgical research unit at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.Image title

After uprooting their family and just days after the birth of their second child, plans changed for First Lieutenant Nelson, who was transferred into active duty. During that summer of 1951, President Nelson toured South Korea, including the battlefront, visiting mobile army surgical hospital units and suggesting improvements.

During this time, President Nelson came face to face with life-threatening danger, paralyzing fear, crippling handicaps, pain, death, heartbreak, disease, and those who lost limbs, lost their innocence, and lost hope. No doubt President Nelson’s kindness and compassion helped heal and uplift those suffering in such terrible conditions, even as his own empathy grew.

In one instance, President Nelson told the story of meeting a young Latter-day Saint soldier in a hospital—one who helped him understand the true breadth of faith:Image title

"As I came to one mobile army surgical hospital one of the doctors who knew I was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asked me if I would be willing to see a Mormon boy who'd been hit in the spine with a missile. He was a paraplegic; wouldn't ever use his legs again and so as I was introduced to this young man, he could see that I didn't know what to say. I greeted him and expressed condolences and love as best I could and he said, 'Oh don't worry about me, Brother Nelson. I know why I am here. And I don't use my legs to work out my salvation. I do that with my faith.'
"I learned a lot from that young man. He was under age. He was not even old enough to be an elder, but there he was with great faith facing a future of inability to use his lower extremities. I often wonder what ever happened to that wonderful young man who taught me a lot about faith" (Saints at War: Korea and Vietnam, pages 120-121).
Images from Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle

President Dallin H. Oaks

Shortly after graduating high school, President Dallin H. Oaks found himself thrust into an unexpected situation. In Life Lessons Learned, he explains:

When I was a young man I thought I would serve a mission," Elder Oaks said. "I graduated from high school in June 1950. Thousands of miles away, one week after that high school graduation, a North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel, and our country was at war. I was 17 years old, but as a member of the Utah National Guard I was soon under orders to prepare for mobilization and active service. Suddenly, for me and for many other young men of my generation, the full-time mission we had planned or assumed was not to be.

While President Oaks's unit was never activated, he explained in a 1993 general conference talk the powerful lessons he learned from his time in the military:Image title

When I was 17, I joined the Utah National Guard. There I learned that a soldier must use certain words in speaking to an officer. I saw this as another mark of respect for authority. I also observed that this special language served as a way of reminding both the soldier and the officer of the responsibilities of their positions. I later understood that same reasoning as explaining why full-time missionaries should always be called by the dignified titles of elder or sister, or the equivalent in other languages.
The words we use in speaking to someone can identify the nature of our relationship to that person. They can also remind speaker and listener of the responsibilities they owe one another in that relationship. The form of address can also serve as a mark of respect or affection.
So it is with the language of prayer. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches its members to use special language in addressing prayers to our Father in Heaven.
Image from President Oaks's Facebook page

President Henry B. Eyring

Due to the Korean War, President Eyring graduated from college and attended high school when the number of missionaries in the Church was greatly restricted. By the time he graduated with his bachelor's degree, the Korean War had ended but President Eyring had already committed to a commission in the U.S. Air Force. About this experience, President Eyring's biography, I Will Lead You Along recounts:Image title

Hal’s full-time military service began immediately after he finished his bachelor’s degree. He graduated from the University of Utah in 1955 with an air force commission and an assignment to train as a special weapons officer at Sandia Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the U.S. military was developing nuclear weapons. The plan was for Hal to spend six weeks training in Albuquerque and then deploy elsewhere. Most likely, it would be to one of the remote, sparsely inhabited places in the world where the United States housed its nuclear weapons.
On his second Sunday in New Mexico, Hal was asked to meet with President Clement Hilton of the Church’s Albuquerque District. President Hilton called him to serve as a district missionary. Hal had mixed feelings about the call. It fulfilled a promise made in a blessing given before he left home. In that blessing his new bishop, Weldon Moore, had said that Hal’s military service would be his mission. Yet his military orders were clear. “I’m happy to serve,” he told President Hilton, “but I’ll be leaving in four weeks.”
“I don’t know about that,” replied President Hilton, “but we are to call you to serve.”
Suppressing his doubts, Hal accepted the call and went to work, spending the recommended 10 hours each week meeting and teaching investigators.
Toward the end of his six weeks of military training, Hal was summoned by a senior military officer. Rather than being transferred, he learned, he would be staying in Albuquerque. A staff officer had unexpectedly passed away, and Hal’s physics education and performance during training had led to his being recommended to fill the open staff position. He would not only stay in Albuquerque but also work with a team of senior officers including colonels and generals from the air force, army, navy, and marines.
The most immediate benefit of this unexpected assignment was the continuation of his missionary labors. . . .
Missionary referrals were common, and Hal participated in many conversions. He would later describe one of those experiences:
"Years ago I took a young man, 20 years of age, into the waters of baptism. My companion and I had taught him the gospel. He was the first in his family to hear the message of the restored gospel. He asked to be baptized. The testimony of the Spirit made him want to follow the example of the Savior, who was baptized by John the Baptist even though He was without sin.
"As I brought that young man up out of the waters of baptism, he surprised me by throwing his arms around my neck and whispering in my ear, tears streaming down his face, 'I’m clean, I’m clean.' That same young man, after we laid our hands on his head with the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood and conferred on him the Holy Ghost, said to me, “'When you spoke those words, I felt something like fire go down from the top of my head through my body, all the way to my feet.'"
The companion with whom Hal served the longest, more than one year, was Jim Geddes. . . . Among their most memorable labors was a request to administer to a critically injured young girl. The phone call came during a weekday, while both Hal and Jim were at work on the military base. The girl and her parents were at the base hospital, allowing the two missionary companions to get there in a matter of minutes.
At the hospital, the parents described their daughter’s situation. She had been hit by a speeding car while crossing the road. The force of the impact had thrown her into a curb, crushing her skull. The doctors had told them that she was very unlikely to live.
The parents asked Elder Eyring and Elder Geddes to administer to their daughter. But before the pair entered the hospital’s intensive care unit, the father asked them to pray with him and his wife. In the prayer, he expressed confidence that the doctors were wrong, that through the power of the priesthood his daughter would be healed. Elder Eyring and Elder Geddes, he made it clear, would invoke a miracle.
Even those called may well have felt some apprehension. And yet when they see through the eyes of faith the challenge as it really is, confidence replaces fear because they turn to God.
Entering the girl’s room, the elders found her lying in an oxygen tent, surrounded by doctors and nurses. Bandages covered her head and face. The attending medical professionals had apparently been told that the elders were coming. They gave way, but not without conveying their contempt for the two young intruders, who lacked the traditional trappings of clergy. The lead doctor growled, “I don’t know what you plan to do, but you’d better do it quickly.”
Elder Geddes deferred to Elder Eyring to act as voice in the blessing. To his surprise, Hal felt impressed to promise the critically injured girl that she would live. When he spoke those words, the medical team murmured their disapproval. But after several tense days, it appeared that the promise would be fulfilled. The doctors conceded that the girl would in fact not die. Still, they stood firm in a prognosis of paralysis. “Your daughter,” they told her parents, “will never walk.”
Again the distraught but confident couple called on the missionaries. And again Hal’s blessing contradicted the medical prognosis. The girl continued to improve, slowly but surely. Before Hal’s military and missionary service ended, she was walking, attending Church meetings in a beautiful yellow dress bought to celebrate the miracle of her recovery. . . .
Hal served exactly two years as an air force officer and district missionary, deeply grateful for both opportunities.
Image from I Will Lead You Along
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