Dressed in his military uniform, retired U.S. Army Col. Guy Hollingsworth described his deep love for his country and gratitude for freedom while speaking at a Brigham Young University-Idaho devotional in June 2015.
"I want you to know that I was as proud to put my uniform on today as I was nearly 40 years ago when I put it on for the first time on my 17th birthday," Hollingsworth said.
Hollingsworth, a BYU-Idaho faculty member in the Department of Foundations and Interdisciplinary Studies and former school administrator for almost 25 years, went on to discuss what it means to fulfill "a soldier's call to duty" as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"As you and I continue to serve in the Lord’s army and look to live the gospel in a more disciplined approach we indeed are all certainly trying to be good soldiers for the Savior," Hollingsworth said.
The theme of being a good soldier, for the Army and Jesus Christ, is fitting for Hollingsworth. Although he is quick to say he's not a hero and hasn't done anything impressive, the Idaho native recently retired after 41 years of military service, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan where he also served as a church leader. His experiences and lessons learned, shared in a recent interview with the Deseret News, serve as a tribute to servicemen and servicewomen in recognition of Veterans Day.
Hollingsworth was raised on a small farm in Preston, Idaho, where he learned from mentors in his family and community the value of work, doing hard things and helping others. He wasn't always good at it, he said, but those experiences helped prepare him for greater challenges later in life.
One boyhood experience that stands out is when Hollingsworth attempted the mile swim as a Boy Scout at Bear Lake as a 70-pound, 13-year-old. On a stormy June day, Hollingsworth was almost to the three-quarters mark when he began to struggle against the wind, the waves and the frigid water. Hollingsworth reached to grab the side of his father's canoe but pulled back when his father swatted at his fingers with the paddle.
"Don't you dare touch this boat or I'll take your fingers off," his father said. "You are going to make it."
Of course, his father never intended to hurt him, but not letting his son in the canoe taught Hollingsworth about pushing on during hard times.
"I was the last person to to climb out of the water that day, and I suffered some hypothermia later that afternoon," Hollingsworth said. "But my dad and others taught me the value of starting and completing hard things."
Military and mission service
In 1975, as the Vietnam War was coming to an end, Hollingsworth joined a local unit of the Idaho National Guard on his 17th birthday. Many of his "high school heroes," including an older brother, cousins, neighbors and nearly one-fourth of the young men in his high school graduating class were part of that artillery battery, Hollingsworth said.
"I couldn't wait to be part of it and looked forward to that association. I couldn't wait to go to weekend drill. I would have done it for free," Hollingsworth said. "It was that base of good people who trained for a common cause and made me love what I was doing. Those were good years for me."
Of his total 41 years, Hollingsworth spent 25 of those years with the National Guard and the last 16 with the Army Reserve. He started his career at the rank of private. In 1986, he attended the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Georgia and graduated as the distinguished military graduate. In the years that followed, Hollingsworth worked his way up to the rank of colonel while giving notable service, holding various leadership positions and receiving several awards.
From 1977-79, Hollingsworth served an LDS mission in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Initially disappointed he wasn't called to a foreign mission, Hollingsworth said learning the valuable lesson of being obedient and humbly submitting to the will of the Lord helped prepare him for his military career.
In his devotional remarks, Hollingsworth mentioned his military duties have taken him away from his wife and family for a combined total of 14 years. He's been married for 34 years. He said this to help students appreciate the sacrifice all servicemen and servicewomen make, so when they see someone in uniform they might simply thank that individual for his or her service.
On top of the 14 years away, his wife, Christine, has experienced long-standing health problems and he has missed birthdays, graduations, dances, parties and family reunions. Yet his family has always been supportive, and he has learned to love his wife dearly over those years, "even more so than I ever thought I could," he said.
While Hollingsworth was in Afghanistan, he typically communicated with his wife via video chat. But the internet connection was often so poor you could rarely see the face and hear the voice at the same time. The call was interrupted on a number of occasions by incoming enemy rocket fire, he said.
"Honey, I have incoming. The screen went blank and I had to take cover with the rest of the team," Hollingsworth said. "I can’t imagine how that made her feel. It was important to tell my wife and children often how much I loved them and how much I counted on them. I would not have been able to do what I did in the military without their support. We just tried to live the gospel, regardless of the circumstance, whether we were together or not — it didn't matter. The Lord has been and continues to be good and kind to my family."
Keeping the faith
During his deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Hollingsworth said there were many nights after long, difficult days when he would stand in front of his mirror and think, "How did a dumb farm boy from Preston get into this situation?"
A daily routine helped keep him afloat, he said.
Each morning Hollingsworth would strap his 9-millimeter pistol to his hip and drop to his knees for prayer. Then he brushed his teeth, put on his body armor and went about his business.
At the end of what was often a 16- to 18-hour day, despite the fatigue, he made sure to read a few scriptures and write in his journal.
"Regardless of what the day was like or how long it was, I was so grateful to have the scriptures and spend some time there, to be able to feel the Spirit and write a few thoughts down in my journal," Hollingsworth said. "Those were special times all by myself."
Holding a current temple recommend also made a difference, he said.
"I never used it during those long, 400-day deployments, but I was worthy to hold one, and it gave me strength to know I was worthy to go to the temple and serve as a district and branch president, that I was worthy to give priesthood blessings when people needed them. I knew the Lord would bless me because of it," Hollingsworth said.
On many occasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hollingsworth had the unique experience of preparing and taking the sacrament by himself. He would take a cracker from an MRE, or a meal ready to eat, or some dried-out bread from a dining facility, along with some warm water from a plastic bottle, say a prayer and sing a hymn out loud, read the sacrament prayers, and renew his covenants with the Lord. He would read a short message from one of the church leaders and finish with a closing prayer. The whole process lasted 10-15 minutes but was worth it for Hollingsworth.
"It's a unique and humbling experience to take the sacrament alone," he said.
As a branch president in Bagram, Afghanistan, Hollingsworth presided at meetings with anywhere from 20 to 80 members. For some soldiers, coming to the branch was their first opportunity to partake of the sacrament in months. They would stagger in right off a combat situation dressed in full body armor, with M-16 rifle and helmet — filthy, dirty, stinky and sweaty — some not having slept in 24 hours but wanting so badly to be with members of the church and take the sacrament. It was always an emotional scene to witness, Hollingsworth said.
"To see these folks who had gone through a difficult time to get a little peace and renew their covenants, as dog-tired as they were, it was an awesome sight," Hollingsworth said. "Most of them didn't want to leave. They wanted to stay a little longer and feel that spirit. I was able to see that on several occasions. You can't replicate it, but it's so powerful to see."
In the fall of 2008, Hollingsworth received a call from the Pentagon. They needed him for his educational training, his rank as colonel and his military background for an assignment in Iraq. He was asked to assemble a team and oversee the training of Iraqi soldiers and later serve as senior advisor to the Iraqi chief of staff-training, with one of the tasks being to create an Iraqi equivalent of West Point.
While in Baghdad, one day Hollingsworth found himself in a conversation via Skype with Elder Paul B. Pieper, general authority Seventy. He called Hollingsworth to be the district president of what would become the Baghdad Iraq Military District, the first of its kind in that country.
As he did with the call from the Pentagon, Hollingsworth said he again wondered, "Surely there is someone better than me for this assignment." It was an overwhelming moment for him, and there were an estimated 1,300 Latter-day Saint servicemen and servicewomen in the district. The district presidency initially formed three branches in that country, which later expanded into six branches.
"It was a fascinating, historic time for the church. I was blessed to be part of it," Hollingsworth said. "I thought I was just going to do my part and fulfill an Army assignment, but ended up serving in the church and helping the gospel and the keys of the priesthood to be present in that part of the world. I’ve been grateful and humbled for those things I’ve been able to be a part of."
God bless America
When Hollingsworth returned home from his time in both Iraq and Afghanistan, he was the senior-ranking official on each of those charter flights, giving him the opportunity to be the first to step off the plane. When Hollingsworth got to the bottom of the stairway, he dropped to his knees on the tarmac on both occasions and kissed the ground, he said.
"I was so grateful to be home and grateful for the love and kindness the Lord had shown me while serving with so many other good people in harm's way," Hollingsworth said. "I've seen the best and worst of mankind it would seem during those deployments. I know the gospel prepares us for challenges and events that will test us, make us better, and push us to help others in the hardest of times. From a mission to 35 years later, I'm grateful for those experiences, and I'm grateful for all those who served before and with me. God bless America."