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."
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."
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.
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."
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?"
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company