One could tell that the American Legion's Patriotic Religious Service in the Conference Center Aug. 27 would be an emotion-packed event. A major tip-off was when Jerry Ipsom, a Conference Center event coordinator, came walking down an aisle carrying four or five boxes of tissues to distribute. They came in handy when the expected tears began to flow.
Men and women in varying degrees of health and fitness and over a wide range of ages comprised the audience. Many walked with steps hampered by years or residual effects of battle wounds. Some came in wheelchairs, others moved with the vigor and strength of younger years, their limbs unscathed by war injuries.
From the posting of the American flag, with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square performing the National Anthem at the beginning to the sounding of taps at the conclusion, the program was just what it was promoted to be — a patriotic ceremony with a spiritual emphasis. The Pledge of Allegiance almost seemed to be a prayer; many struggled to control emotion-choked voices.
The choir and orchestra performed "America the Beautiful," "Consider the Lilies," "Who Are the Brave," "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Thou Gracious God, Whose Mercy Leads." Craig Jessop directed the choir and orchestra.
Scripture readings and prayers were offered and, in a solemn ceremony, memorial wreaths were presented. A lighted candle placed near a Bible and a prisoners of war banner paid homage to those who have yet to return home.
Elder Lance B. Wickman of the First Quorum of the Seventy welcomed members of the American Legion who had gathered in Salt Lake City for their 88th national convention. It was, he said, the third time the group had met in Salt Lake City. The program began shortly after the weekly network broadcast of Music and the Spoken Word.
"I feel a genuine kinship with you," said Elder Wickman, who twice served as an infantry officer in Vietnam. "We are all comrades-in-arms — a band of brothers."
Elder Wickman said that a significant number of the some 6,000 Utah National Guardsmen who have served or are now serving in the combat zone are members of the Church, and members throughout the U.S. are among those serving with various branches of the military.
"For us, such service is not only a patriotic duty, it can be a sacred duty." He referred to Alma 43:45, which speaks of the people fighting for their "homes and their liberties, their wives and their children, and their all, yea, for their rites of worship and their church." He added, "I believe that this is the ultimate creed of the citizen soldier — to take up arms in defense of family, cause and country....So, for that reason, all of us who are Latter-day Saints feel a sense of kinship with you. And if that kinship has its root in times of war, it has its flower in times of peace."
He spoke of service rendered by the American Legion in instances such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and noted that Latter-day Saints were there serving beside them.
"In communities large and small across this land — indeed, across the earth — Latter-day Saints are striving to serve their fellow men in need with food, with necessities and with basic human kindness — like you of the American Legion. 'Like a mighty army, moves the Church of God; brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.' Thus goes a stanza of that universally popular Christian hymn, 'Onward Christian Soldiers.' We hope that we are living worthy of that phrase — citizen soldiers on the march in the Lord's service.'
Elder Wickman said that this is perhaps the most self-absorbed of ages, but service is what really matters. "Service is what makes life satisfying and worthwhile. A commitment to service, whether in wartime or time of peace, is the hallmark of the citizen soldier."
Steven E. Wright, a member of the Sandridge Ward, Syracuse Utah South Stake and a former bishop who serves as the American Legion's national chaplain, gave the service's memorial address.
He referred to a song that the choir and orchestra had just performed, "Who Are the Brave," and said that it is a reminder that being brave and courageous are not traits that are reserved for those only in uniform fighting battles with tools of war. "As Americans, and especially as veterans, we must remember that our duty did not end when we took the uniform off, nor are we exempt from such duty if we never wore the uniform.... We must do our duty and act with courage to make the hard decisions and do what is right."
He suggested three major areas in which veterans and citizens must do their duty:
"First, we must maintain and increase our faith in God." He said the founding fathers placed their trust in God. "He was their defense, their refuge, their salvation....We too must exhibit that same faith in God, as a people and as a nation. We needed it in the past, and we need it today and we will surely need it in the critical times ahead.
"Second," he said, "we must strengthen our home and family ties." He spoke of three spiritual objectives of the American Legion that are directed toward the family: Encouragement of families to worship God, the holding of daily family prayer, and training children to "become imbued with the truth of God so that they can expect to seek His divine counsel and guidance throughout their lives."
"3. We must continue to preserve the freedoms granted to us by God. Our founding fathers knew that the foundation of this nation was spiritual, that the source of all our blessings was God....We must stand tall and we must be courageous in our efforts to keep God at the heart of our country, for without God there can be no real freedom. He is truly the author of liberty."
— The full text of Elder Wickman's address is available on lds.org.
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