Church is connected, committed to 36,000 Latter-day Saints in uniform

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May is National Military Appreciation Month — so here are a couple of remarkable yet opposing military facts to consider.

First, the ongoing Global War on terrorism has been waging for more than 15 years. That’s longer than the combined duration of World War I, World War II and the Korean War.

And second, less than one-half of one-percent of the United States population is actively serving in the military.

That makes for something of a national disconnect.

Deployments, long separations and the uncertainties of war are day-to-day realities for men and women in the armed forces and their families.

But for many civilians, military reminders are limited to occasional news updates and annual observances such as Memorial and Veterans Day. Some have no relatives in the armed forces. Others may not even know anyone in uniform.

The Church, through its Military Relations and Chaplain Services Office, remains both connected and committed to its 36,000 Latter-day Saint soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines serving across the globe.

The office’s guiding mission is, at once, simple and essential: Help ensure that the blessings of Church participation are available to every member serving in the armed forces.

Opened in the 1970s, the office is overseen by the Priesthood Department and demonstrates the Church leadership’s ongoing concern for its service members.

“Caring for our members in the military has always been a high interest by the senior leaders of the Church,” said Frank Clawson, who directs the military relations office.

The Church’s military link stretches back to the Mormon Battalion (1846-1847), which remains the only religiously based unit in U.S. military history. Since that time, legions of Latter-day Saints have worn their country’s uniform — including each member of the First Presidency (President Thomas S. Monson, U.S. Navy; President Henry B. Eyring, U.S. Air Force; President Dieter F. Uchtdorf; German Air Force and trained with the U.S. Air Force).

Meanwhile, Mormon servicemen and servicewomen helped establish the Church in many areas of the world — including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.

Service member groups

One of the primary duties of today’s Military Relations and Chaplain Services Office is to help organize service member groups when military members are unable to attend local wards or branches.

A group leader leads each service member group. He is like a branch president or bishop in many ways. He can conduct sacrament services, interview baptismal candidates and direct fellowshipping efforts for Church members and their associates.

A group leader does not hold priesthood keys, collect tithes and offerings or serve as a judge in Israel.

Service member groups continue to play essential roles keeping Latter-day Saints connected to the gospel in even the most challenging circumstances. During a recent Church News interview, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Slabaugh spoke of being stationed in areas across the world. At each stop he enjoyed the fellowship of other Mormon military personnel.

The office also helps ensure LDS recruits have access to Sunday sacrament services during basic training.

“They usually want to go to Church during basic training, even if it’s just to get away from their drill sergeant,” joked Brother Clawson.

LDS chaplains

Through its military relations office, the Church also selects, endorses and oversees more than 100 Latter-day Saints serving as chaplains in the United States Army, Air Force and Navy.

Chaplains are valued officers in the armed forces. They offer spiritual support and guidance to servicemen and servicewomen “dealing with all the challenges that exist in society,” said Brother Clawson.

They are also charged with supporting religious services and programs on their assigned bases or areas of deployment. LDS chaplains work in a pluralistic environment. Most of the people they work with are not fellow Mormons.

Each year, following October general conference, the military relations office gathers with the LDS chaplains in Salt Lake City for training and coordination meetings.

Military relations missions

“One-on-one ministering” with soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines remains the anchoring priority of the Church’s military relations office.

Much of that faith-based fellowshipping comes from couples serving military relations missions. They labor in myriad regions, including many locations overseas.

“The missionaries are a real resource for the Church,” said Brother Clawson.

There are 106 couples serving military relations missions around the world. At least one spouse from each couple is retired military, so they know the ins-and-outs of life on, say, an army base or naval yard.

They are also flexible, performing a variety of services to meet the needs of their respective assignments. They hold family home evening lessons and teach institute classes for servicemen and servicewomen, promote self-reliance, assist in activation and retention efforts and organize wholesome activities for young single adult members.

During this time of war, many Mormon military families endure multiple deployments and long periods of family separation. The missionary couples often become priceless friends for such families — reaching out to husbands, wives and children who remain at home while their loved ones are away.

Elder Jim Okeson and his wife, Sister Jeanne Okeson, are serving their second military relations mission. Helping young servicemen and servicewomen and military families has brought them many blessings.

“There is so much we can do to help our members in uniform,” said Elder Okeson, a retired Naval officer. @JNSwensen

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