God and country: Mormons mix missions, military service

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

Mormons and the military

Through the years there have been a number of tweaks in Mormon-military relations that have led to the cooperative relationship between the church and the U.S. military that currently exists. For example, in a story about the religious draft deferment presidential candidate Mitt Romney was issued in order to go on his LDS mission to France during the Vietnam War era, the Boston Globe reported that the issue of religious deferments "became increasingly controversial in the late 1960s."

"The Mormon Church," the Globe wrote, "ultimately limited the number of church missionaries allowed to defer their military service using the religious exemption."

Today, when there is no draft, "voluntary military service is an individual choice left to church members," according to LDS Church spokesman Michael Purdy.

"We honor those who have sacrificed much to serve their country, and express our gratitude to those who continue doing so today," Purdy continued. "Church leaders pray for the service men and women serving throughout the world and their families. They are particularly mindful of those who have lost a loved one and those wounded while serving their country."

While many returned LDS missionaries choose not to enlist for military service, a significant number do. Turley said recruiting in the state of Utah, which is predominantly LDS, goes "better than in other states."

"We are currently No. 2 in the nation for recruiting," he said, indicating that Utah places just behind Hawaii and just ahead of Idaho in the current rankings that are based on a complicated formula that includes enlistments, re-enlistments, educational levels and other data points.

"To be honest," he continued, "it's tough to find places for all the Utah kids who want to enlist. We have to make some of them wait until we have a slot for them. It's a very good problem to have."

The Utah National Guard, Turley says, "is very, very good compared to the rest of the nation."

"Ninety-seven percent of our recruits are high school graduates – that's very good," he said. "Our ASVB (Armed Forces Selection Vocational Battery) scores are generally higher, our education is higher, so our quality matrix is higher. We have a very patriotic population base in the state of Utah – people are willing to serve."

And the LDS background of so many recruits, he said, is part of the reason why.

"Of course, we see value coming from all denominations and cultural backgrounds," Turley said. "But there is no denying that the LDS Church is a significant part of the cultural mix here in Utah, so that is a big part of the reason why the Utah National Guard excels."

And make no mistake about it: The Utah National Guard excels.

"The Utah National Guard has always performed at such a high level, we are quite well-known throughout the United States as a superior National Guard," Turley said. "I don't know if that is attributable to the high number of returned LDS missionaries in our units – I can't quantify that. But the Utah National Guard is in the top tier of Guard states, and I have to say the culture has something to do with it."

The most recent numbers from the Defense Manpower Data Center indicate there are nearly 20,000 Latter-day Saints on active military duty — 7,174 in the Army, 2,694 in the Navy, 2,486 in the Marines and 5,787 in the Air Force — among the top 10 most common religious preferences in the U.S. armed forces. For those who choose to enlist, local LDS leaders provide a pre-military orientation meeting so they can know what to expect regarding church services and activities for those in the military, Purdy said. The orientation "offers suggestions on how service men and women can remain faithful and practice their religion in the armed forces," he explained.

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