God and country: Mormons mix missions, military service

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

There are also 64 retired military couples serving as senior missionaries at U.S. military bases around the world. Purdy said these couples assist local church leaders in serving and encouraging LDS service men and women.

"Stake presidents and bishops around the world are responsible for making the blessings of church participation available to service men and women," Purdy said. "Members in the military normally participate in wards or branches located near their military installations. In some instances, a new branch or service member group may be formed for deployed members of the church."

Spiritual recharge

Spec. Jake Funk, who served his full-time LDS mission in Southern California, is currently a mechanic and vehicle recovery specialist stationed in Afghanistan. He said he meets with a group of about 15 Latter-day Saints for an hour each Sunday.

"There are a lot of new challenges here," he said. "Every Sunday when I go to church, I feel like I get a spiritual recharge to face those challenges."

Spec. Brooklyn Clement, a combat medic who is also stationed in Afghanistan, was pleased to report that she had just received an email from her Relief Society president in Kabul, which she thought was "pretty cool." And every once in a while, she said, there is an LDS military chaplain who stops by for a visit.

But most Sundays, she said, when they aren't on military missions "we have a church group leader who has been called to conduct a short church meeting" among LDS personnel at her base.

"We have a discussion about one of the lessons from the teachings of the prophets, and we partake of the sacrament," Clement said. "It's always a different experience to sit in 'church' with a loaded weapon, while guys carrying weapons bless and pass the sacrament."

Both Funk and Clement agreed that their experiences in the church helped to prepare them for military service and makes them better soldiers.

"Serving a mission taught me to respect other cultures," Funk said. "It's a whole different world here – it would be easy to criticize. My mission taught me to show love to others and to serve them."

Funk said he also feels his LDS activity in Scouting and the church's Young Men organization prepared him for military service.

"Scouting and Young Men taught me the basics of what everything in the military is based upon: honesty, loyalty, respect, love, duty, courage and selfless service," he said. "My activity there set me up and helped prepare me for success in the military."

Similarly, Clement felt that the LDS Church's Young Women program was useful preparation for her. "I was always the 'medic' when we went to girls camp or did any Young Women activities, so it's the same here – except I'm one of the only girls around," Clement said.

"It's nice to have my faith to lean on when times are tough," she added. "If I ever get scared or lonely, I can say a quick prayer and feel so much better."

For Funk, an additional element of the relationship between the LDS Church and the military is how local church leaders back home reach out and minister to his wife, Liz, and son JJ.

"The ward is always checking on her and making sure she has everything she needs," Funk said. "Liz makes just as many sacrifices as I do. She is taking care of our newborn son alone, and I can't imagine the trials she goes through. I'm just really grateful for that support for her."

And that's just as it should be, Purdy said.

"Families affected by military service face unique spiritual, emotional and temporal challenges," he said. "We encourage ward members to extend fellowship and provide support to military families during times of deployment. Home and visiting teachers, Relief Society programs, priesthood quorums and social activities can be a great support to those with a deployed loved-one."

Pride and patriotism

But even among those who are experiencing those unique challenges of military deployment, there is peace and pride in the fulfillment of military duty.

"I'm proud of him," said Liz Funk, Jake's wife. "I miss him like crazy, but I'm proud of him."

"I've always looked up to those who have served in the military," Jake said. "I'm really happy that I'm able to follow in their footsteps. There is no doubt in my mind that (enlisting) was the right decision."

Clement echoed those feelings.

"I feel so privileged to be a part of doing some good in the world," she said. "The other day on a mission, I was able to provide some medical treatment to some little boys who had walked for miles in hopes of begging food from our convoy. It's the best feeling in the world, even if we're just able to make one person's day a little better."

That powerful mix of patriotism, service and devotion to duty is probably why Knowles felt such a strong desire to be both a missionary and a Marine.

"I just feel that I will be a better missionary because of what I've already experienced in the Marines," he said a few days before he left for the Missionary Training Center in Provo. "And I can't help but believe that I will be a better Marine for having served a mission.

"God and country," he added, smiling. "What could be more important than that?"

email: jwalker@desnews.com

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