SALT LAKE CITY — From the days of the Mormon Battalion through every war and every peace since, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have shown their love and dedication to the United States of America with a passionate and devoted spirit. Many have served and sacrificed in countless ways as "builders of the nation."
That spirit and dedication was honored in story at song at the annual Pioneer Day Commemoration Concert presented Friday night in the Conference Center by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square under the direction of Mack Wilberg and with honored guests Brian Stokes Mitchell and Linda Eder.
The multimedia presentation "For Those Who Follow: A Tribute to Our Armed Forces" demonstrated the common bonds between pioneers and soldiers; the sharing of faith and fortitude, struggles and fears; and the building of hope for the future.
Stirring music, such as "America, the Dream Goes, On," "God Bless America" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic" combined with moving stories from choir members and their relatives and others to honor all who have served our country.
One of those stories came from George T. Mitchell, who served with the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II and then in Korea and Vietnam. He talked of the many struggles and how he learned to "always try to do the best job you can. Go right to the top."
It's a lesson he taught his son, Brian Stokes Mitchell, who has performed with the choir on two other occasions and was welcomed back as an old friend. "It's such an honor to be back," he said, and especially because his father, who just turned 91, was in the audience. "This is a room full of friends, and now they are your friends, too," he told his father after a welcoming ovation.
Singing "What a Wonderful World," "America the Beautiful" and "Wheels of a Dream," the younger Mitchell noted that "it is a wonderful world, even with all the challenges life throws at us. This nation has always had a sense of hope. I'm grateful for the hope my father passed on to me, and I've taught it to my son. That's how it works. We each do our part and pass it on."
Linda Eder also brought a message of hope in "If I Had My Way," which was written by a friend just after 9/11. She also paid tribute to those who have sacrificed with "I'll Be Seeing You."
Choir member Dale A. Rasmussen, who was deployed to Iraq at age 52 with two of his sons, talked about decorating graves on Memorial Day as a child but not quite getting the meaning. "Now I understand. We serve because of love of country, love of family, love of children."
Jill Stevens Shepherd, daughter of choir member Karen Stevens, talked about serving in Afghanistan and the lessons of love she learned from the children there.
Richard Louis Elliott Jr., father of organist Richard Elliott, talked of being wounded after the Battle of the Bulge and how the thing that drove many of the soldiers was a feeling "we did not want our children to go through what we did."
Playing a lively, star-spangled version of "The Liberty Bell March" in honor of his father, Elliott expressed his gratitude to his father, who could not be there, and to all those who fought for the freedoms we enjoy today.
The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra also paid tribute to the sacrifices made by so many with the solemn "Hymn to the Fallen" and provided fodder for thought with "Who Are the Brave?"
It was a night filled with emotion, gratitude and honor for all the pioneers of history and the armed forces past and present.
And one of the most powerful messages of all came in the heartfelt words of the final selection, sung by Mitchell, Eder and the choir: "Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me."