God and country: Mormons mix missions, military service

Published: Sunday, Sept. 30 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

Twenty-year-old Brady Knowles doesn't look the part of a lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps specializing as a field radio operator. With glasses, freckles, a bookish demeanor and a shock of red hair, he looks more the part of Harry Potter than Captain America.

But these days you won't see him in either fatigues or a red, white and blue superhero costume. Instead you'll see him wearing the white shirt and conservative tie of a full-time missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

While some in the LDS Church have felt Mormon young adults have to choose between serving full-time missions for the church and enlisting in the military, Elder/Lance Cpl. Knowles is part of a significant number of Latter-day Saints who are finding meaningful ways to serve both God and country.

"A lot of people told me I couldn't be both a Marine and a missionary," Elder Knowles said before he left for the LDS Church's Indianapolis Mission last year. "But when I talked to the Marine recruiters and told them I was going to serve a mission, they told me it could be worked out. And it was."

Upon graduating from high school, Knowles enlisted and went through his basic military training and his assignment-specific communications training. The Marines granted him a two-year leave of absence for his mission, after which he will return to complete his four-year military commitment.

"I love the Lord, and I love my country," Knowles said. "I'm so grateful that I can serve both."

Missionary asset

Lt. Col. Michael J. Turley, recruiting and retention battalion commander with the Utah National Guard, said missionary service "doesn't really get in the way" of military service for those who wish to do both.

"We generally recruit the kids at 18, then at 19 they go on their missions for two years, then they come back to their military commitment," he said in his office in the Utah National Guard headquarters in Draper. "We see missionary service as an asset. When I watch these kids come back from missions, they are a great addition to our force. They tend to be more stable and mature."

While Turley stressed that the Utah National Guard is a diverse force with "great men and women from every faith, ethnic and racial demographic," there is no denying that "returned missionaries tend to be better soldiers."

"You just don't have to worry about the same things that you have to worry about with soldiers who haven't had that two-year missionary experience," he said. "Coming into the military is a challenge under any circumstances. What better way to prepare for military service than two years as a full-time religious missionary?"

Officials at both the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs indicated that young Latter-day Saints are allowed to leave the respective academies to serve full-time missions for the church. In order to do so, however, they must resign from the academy while they serve their missions – typically after their sophomore year – and reapply for admission.

"As long as the cadet met the military, academic and conduct standards prior to his departure, re-admission is usually not a problem," said John Van Winkle of the Air Force Academy's Public Affairs office.

Neither academy representative expressed any hesitation about the young person's decision to serve an LDS mission. Indeed, the academies have extended their normal age requirements to allow for those who choose to leave and then return, including the older returned LDS missionaries.

"In many ways, going on an LDS mission is a benefit to the cadet," Van Winkle said. "When he returns to the Academy, he's had greater life experience, seen a little bit more of the world, increased his communication skills, matured and is fully committed to returning as a cadet to the Air Force Academy by making the choice to return."

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