Latter-day Saint Life

Mortars and Miracles: Faith-Filled Stories of Mormons in the Military

Shortly after arriving in Vietnam as an Air Force pilot, Larry Chesley looked around at the other airmen in his unit, his eyes stopping on a young man. “And the Spirit said, ‘He’s not coming home.’ And I dismissed it and I looked around the room and my eyes stopped on another man, and the Spirit said, ‘He’s not coming home.’

"And then the Spirit said, ‘And neither are you.’”

On their very first mission over North Vietnam, in December 1965, that first man was shot down. In March, the second man was shot down. And on April 16, 1966, Chesley was shot down. 

He awoke on the ground, surrounded by the Vietnamese and with three broken vertebrae. He wouldn’t see his home again for seven years.

Latter-day Saints have frequently forsaken their homes for foreign lands in order to serve their country, but through the distance and the trials, their faith has sustained them. There aren’t many people who know this better than Larry Chesley. 

After his plane was shot down, he was immediately captured and stripped down. “Here I am, surrounded by the enemy, in my underwear and socks, and something inside of me said, ‘Larry, pray.’ . . . I said a very simple prayer: ‘Dear Father in Heaven, I may have to walk a long way, and I can’t do it without my boots.’ And within one minute, those boots were returned. The only thing I ever received back from the Vietnamese. I didn’t know what a great blessing it was to have those boots until later, when I’d seen men who’d walked into prison barefoot and what it had done to their feet.”

While a prisoner of war, Chesley experienced terrible conditions, little food, and severe illnesses—even losing a third of his body weight, dwindling to a mere 100 pounds. But he also experienced countless miracles amid the trials—during the seven years he was imprisoned by the Vietnamese, he was only tortured nine times; others were tortured three or even four hundred times. He relied on the gospel for comfort—especially his patriarchal blessing, which promised he would be watched over and would return home from serving in the armed forces. “I believe deeply in my religion,” Chesley says, knowing he was protected. “It was one of the strengths I clung to during those dark days.”

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Larry Chesley on the day he returned to the U.S. after being released from 7 years as a POW in Vietnam.

Miracles Amid Missiles

But Chesley wasn’t the only one to experience miracles while serving in the military. With danger and destruction all around, many Latter-day Saint soldiers came face to face with death, sometimes escaping by only narrow margins. Bill Harrison, as a pilot in the marines during the Korean War, frequently encountered enemy fire while flying missions. One time after he came back from a bombing and strafing mission, a mechanic who was inspecting his plane told him he’d had a close call. “And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he pointed to a bullet hole that went through the cabin in the airplane about two inches behind my head.” 

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Bill Harrison being presented the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism in flights against the enemy in Korea, 1952.

One time Henry McCain, who served as an Army chaplain in Iraq for two tours of duty and in Afghanistan for a third, had an IED (improvised explosive device, or roadside bomb) explode in the exact spot where he had been standing only minutes earlier. “Everyone in that vehicle turned around and goes, ‘Chaplain, the Lord’s looking out for you. We want you in our vehicle.’” But that wasn’t the only time: McCain repeatedly evaded disaster, living through more than a dozen attacks and ambushes. On three separate occasions, his vehicle was hit directly by an IED. Not only was he never injured, but no one who was traveling with him had ever been killed, either. That meant a lot, since, at the time, casualties were mounting, with a soldier wounded every three days and one getting killed every week. The soldiers valued his presence—and what they knew was protection from God—so much that if there were multiple vehicles going out together, they would request that he spend four hours in one vehicle, then four in the next, and so on.

Not all miracles came in such drastic manifestations, though. Some miracles came in the form of answers to prayer. Once while in Afghanistan, Rachael Neff, a military intelligence officer in the Army, received reports of a district center that had been overrun and a group of soldiers that was cut off from the base and under attack from insurgents. Tasked with the responsibility of analyzing reports to determine where rescue helicopters should be sent, Neff felt the weight of others’ lives on her shoulders; too far away meant the soldiers would have to fight their way to the helicopters, but too close and the helicopters might be headed straight into an ambush. With conflicting information, Neff was unsure what to do. With the clock ticking, she left her office and went down the hall to the bathroom. “I would just get on my knees and pray that I would be able to do my job and that because I would be able to do my job, people would be safe,” she says. 

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Rachael Neff while serving in Afghanistan.

Neff was prompted to go to division headquarters— skipping much of the chain of command, which is a big no-no—and ask them for assistance. She ran the entire way there. “This is all happening with the knowledge that people are literally fighting for their lives,” she says. “So it’s critical that you act quickly.” She explained her situation and asked them if they had anything that could help her confirm or deny the information. She was rejected. “I walked out of the office, and I went into the bathroom in division headquarters, I got on my knees again, and I prayed: ‘Why am I over here if the answer’s no?’ And I got the response, ‘Go back.’” Despite her previous rejection, she returned and persisted, offering other suggestions, and was able to gain their assistance so she could get the intelligence she needed. She again raced back to her office to work out a new plan and relay the information to her commander. Eight hours of fighting later, all the soldiers and pilots returned unharmed. 

And, as is often the case in the lives of Latter-day Saints, many miracles occurred internally—in the hearts of the soldiers serving. Lloyd Richens had been inactive when he entered the service as a Navy electrician on the USS Intrepid during WWII, but he returned home with a strong testimony. “It was the Book of Mormon that did it,” he says. “We would get in a danger zone with suicide [bombers] coming after us, and we’d go eat in the chow hall and all the little Bibles would come out, all the little blue Testaments, and there’d be more religion there than you’d ever see any place else. And that’s what started me to thinking: just what are you going to do? I decided I’d better read the Book of Mormon and find out what it was all about. After I read that, I had no problem. . . . From not wanting to go to church, I started going to church because I wanted to, and that affected my whole life.”

Finding Comfort in Christ

The gospel proved to be both a solace and a strength for those serving overseas. Bill Harrison received a blessing before leaving for Korea that he would return if he followed the commandments faithfully. “I just lived what I’d been taught,” he says. “I knew the Good Lord would protect me if I did what was right. And that’s what keeps you going—you know you’re on the Lord’s side.”

Jill Shepherd hung pictures of the temple, a poster of Captain Moroni, and her favorite spiritual quotes all over her walls to remind her of what was most important while she served in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004. She also relied on prayer. “It wasn’t just morning and night,” she says. “It was all throughout the day and multiple times during the night. You’re always in communication with God.”

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Jill Shepherd prepares for takeoff in a Black Hawk.

One of the greatest ways Saints in the military stay close to the Lord is through attending Sunday services and partaking of the sacrament. “What was wonderful about being a Church member was I always had Sundays to look forward to,” Warren Price says. “No matter how horrible or hard the week had been, how hard the separation from the family, or any number of things that can cause difficulty—no matter how hard it got, we always had Sunday to look forward to. . . . Sometimes we had a building to meet in, sometimes we met in the tent, sometimes it was just around a cot or in the shade of one of the vehicles, but there was always the sacrament.”

“You really wanted to get the sacrament more than anything. It was so important, knowing that the next day you could be killed,” explains Henry McCain. “You might come in there all dirty; you might have just come off a mission; you’re sweaty, you’re dirty, you’re stinking. Nobody cared. You had your weapons with you, you might not have slept in some time, but you were there.”

And their strong testimonies helped them get through rough times. One of the hardest things, says Warren Price, was the people he couldn’t save. As a National Guard medic in Iraq, he watched some men die when their injuries were too great or he couldn’t get there in time. But a soldier’s death impacted everyone. “There are few things more moving than grown soldiers weeping openly and many of them despairing,” Price says. “But the knowledge that this is just temporary, that there is an overarching plan for our happiness and that God is watching over us, made it possible to get back up every day while we were over there and made it possible to do the difficult things that are required. Without the gospel, I doubt I could have survived.”

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Warren Price while serving in Iraq.

Called to Serve

And with the outpouring of blessings they received, Latter-day Saint soldiers in turn shared them—and the gospel—with others. 

Howard Bradshaw, who had served a mission in Northern California previous to being drafted into the Army, was the only Mormon in his unit. Immediately upon arriving in Korea in December 1951, he sought out and found LDS services to attend. Five other GIs and one Korean man comprised the branch, which met in a small room. Because of his upright example, Bradshaw’s commanders asked him to give talks in battalion meetings on clean living and morals to the other soldiers. He also taught English to the Koreans on Tuesday nights with a friend in his unit, who was not a member. Bradshaw invited all those he taught—American and Korean—to church. And they started coming. The first baptism took place in August 1952; five people were baptized in the China Sea. “We just kept working from there on, and by the time I went home in April of 1953, we’d probably baptized 50 Koreans in the China Sea, and lots of GIs,” Bradshaw says. “We just went from there and it was a tremendous success.” When he left, the Saints were meeting in a chapel that seated 300—and it was filled.

As a chaplain, Henry McCain would travel to the hospital to visit his MP (military police) soldiers and offer them a blessing. Inevitably, while he was there, a soldier from another unit would pipe up and say, “Hey, I’m LDS, can you give me a blessing?” And then someone else would recognize the peace and spiritual power that accompanied the blessings and would speak up as well: “I’m not MP or LDS, but can you give me a blessing, too?” There were times when McCain would give a dozen blessings in just half an hour. “That was the first time I ever ran out of oil,” he says—something that happened on more than one occasion.

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Henry McCain leads a group of soldiers in prayer.

Near the end of her stay in Afghanistan, Jill Shepherd witnessed a symbolic illustration of the impact the soldiers could have in spreading the gospel—even in a country where proselytizing was forbidden. A bunch of soldiers put the belongings they had collected during their deployment—including an Arabic Book of Mormon—in a box for people of a nearby village to claim and then left to attend to other responsibilities. When they returned and found the box empty, they looked around to see who had taken the Book of Mormon. They saw an old man reading it—“sitting on the only water source, a living well, in the village. And just the story and the impact of that message—that he was reading the word of God and just drinking from that while on the fountain—what an incredible thing that was to see.”

Moving Forward with Faith

The great service these soldiers do doesn’t stop when they come home, though. If anything, it accelerates. Although it’s often difficult to reintegrate into family and society life after being gone for so long and experiencing so many traumatic events, each of these veterans also finds the many ways in which their experiences can help them do good.

Since returning home, Howard Bradshaw, who had served a mission prior to being drafted into the Army and had so much missionary success in Korea, served three more missions with his wife. His experiences in Korea undoubtedly prepared him to continue in his Church service, and his wife calls his time there “his paid mission.”

Rachael Neff continued to serve in the military. After being selected for the Eisenhower Leadership Development Program, for which only 20–25 officers are selected each year out of the entire Army, she was hired as a tactical officer at West Point. “I believe that there are, even in our darkest times, ways that our Heavenly Father directs us on the path that is best for us, even if at the time we don’t see that as the path we thought it was going to be,” she says. “I know I have been blessed because of my military service and that my family has been blessed for it.” 

For some, though, the transition back to the U.S. wasn’t easy at all. Larry Chesley was released on February 12, 1973, seven years and three months after he bid farewell to his family. But even after returning home, he had more challenges to overcome: his wife, thinking him dead, had remarried while he was gone, and he had to figure out how to handle what that meant for him and their two children. “All the time I was away, I prayed that God would take care of my family for me, and it doesn’t seem as if he has,” he thought. However, he has overcome all the challenges placed in his path to become a stalwart standard of faith. He later became a state senator in Arizona, and he and his current wife completed four missions for the Church. He has also authored a book about his experiences as a POW, Seven Years in Hanoi.

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Larry Chesley today.

Like many other soldiers, Warren Price suffered severe posttraumatic stress. But, gradually, he was able to find help and rehabilitation, both for himself and his family. Price pursued a master’s in recreation therapy, focusing on how it can help veterans with PTSD, and started an organization called Freedom’s Families, which takes families on week-long retreats to help them recover and grow together through recreation. “It saved my life and it’s saving my family,” he says. Now, “It’s my mission and my kids’ mission and my wife’s mission to save as many families as we can.”

And despite all the struggles he has faced and continues to face, Price is grateful for them because of the good that has come from them. “The experience shook me to my very foundation, and it shook my faith, but coming through it, it’s really strengthened my relationship with God and my understanding of our purpose here on the earth.”

In the words of Kent Blad, an Army nurse in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm, “You wouldn’t give two cents to do it again, but you wouldn’t give a million dollars to replace it.”

See a photo gallery of Latter-day Saints in the Military Through History.

The above story was originally published in LDS Living in 2013.
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