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How 9/11 forever changed the lives of Latter-day Saints serving in the military

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Bruce A. Carlson was working in his office at the east side of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., when he was alerted that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.

“That seemed odd. … It was a clear day,” recalled the seasoned fighter pilot. “Something didn’t sound right.”

His suspicions were confirmed minutes later when a second plane struck the World Trade Center’s south tower. Like millions of others, he witnessed the crash on television in real time.

“I looked at [an associate] and said: ‘The world is never going to be the same. We are at war’.”

About 30 minutes later, a third hijacked plane crashed into the opposite side of the Pentagon. The Air Force general and future general authority was experiencing, firsthand, a new global conflict from an unexpected front line.

That same morning, a fellow Latter-day Saint service member named Jose Fonseca was trying to process the developing disaster from where he was stationed in San Antonio, Texas. 

Read more: How a prophet’s assurances in the hours following the 9/11 attack still comfort a military dad

Latter-day Saint Jose Fonseca was serving in the U.S. Army on the day of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The returned missionary would serve a deployment in Iraq.

Latter-day Saint Jose Fonseca was serving in the U.S. Army on the day of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The returned missionary would serve a deployment in Iraq.

Credit: Photo provided by Jose Fonseca

The returned missionary had enlisted in the U.S. Army several years earlier. Like Lt. Gen. Carlson, he knew that one thing was certain: The world was at war — and his world would never be the same.

“We knew this was not all a coincidence. It was an attack on U.S. soil,” he said.

Fonseca would later be deployed in Iraq, where he participated in weekly sacrament services with his rifle at his side because of the constant danger.

Now both retired from military service, Carlson and Fonseca belong to the legions of Latter-day Saints whose military, family and spiritual lives were forever altered by the events of 9/11. They are links in the chain forever connecting the Church to a defining chapter of history that is still being written.

Many Latter-day Saint servicemen and servicewomen were serving as soldiers, Marines, sailors, airmen or Coast Guardsmen on that pivotal Tuesday. Others would voluntarily put on their country’s uniform after that tragedy. To this day, members are enlisting or being commissioned in the officer ranks after following an impulse to serve and improve a world that still feels the pain of 9/11.

Sacred remembrance

For Latter-day Saints who served following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the 20th anniversary of the attacks will likely be observed with reverent remembrance. They will grieve for those who have been lost. And many will consider the many ways their own testimonies — fortified by ministering of fellow members — helped sustain them during conflict’s dark days.

“War is the devil’s playground,” said Elder Carlson, an emeritus general authority who was sustained as a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy in 2009 after retiring as a four-star general. “If there is anything bad that the devil can do, he will do it 10 times more in war.”

Two decades have passed since 9/11, but Ken Alford can still conjure up the images of young men and women who would be pressed into service in the early days of the global war on terrorism — including many Latter-day Saints.

Alford was working as a U.S. Army officer and computer science professor at the United States Military Academy on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The first plane to hit the World Trade Center towers struck just minutes before his 9 a.m. class.

“I announced to the class that we will do computer science later, history is happening right now,” he said.

The live television images of the crash left the cadets both shaken and resolute. “There was just a feeling of heaviness,” remembered Alford. “We knew everything had changed. We just didn’t understand how it had changed and what it all meant.”

Some of the young people Alford worked with at West Point, including several Latter-day Saint cadets, “would later bear some of the heaviest burdens of a war that began that day.”

As a historian who has worked with many Latter-day Saint veterans and others, Alford is uplifted “by the number of tender mercies that have occurred throughout this whole experience of this war on terror. 

“The Lord is able to take things and turn it to His good. … Even out of bad circumstances, good can come into the lives of individuals and communities.”

Gene Wikle is a retired U.S. Air Force officer who worked as a civilian liaison to the Afghan Air Force following 9/11. 

Ecclesiastically, he served as the Church’s first district president of the Kabul Afghanistan Military District. He was also deployed in Iraq as a civilian contractor.

During his tenure in Afghanistan, he presided over 1,200 Latter-day Saints from 16 nations, including many belonging to dozens of service member groups across the country.

Members belonging to the Kabul district did not proselytize during their service in Afghanistan.

Wikle approaches the 20th anniversary of 9/11 with a medley of feelings. He chokes back emotions as he considers his relationship with many Afghanis. He laments the tragedies that have unfolded in recent weeks. All are reminders of the lasting reach of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I grew to love the Afghan people,” he said. “They’re good people. They want the same basic things that we all want, which is peace and to be able to raise their children and educate them and have a job. They have the same wants and needs that we have.”

He often discovered common ground with his new friends through shared beliefs in a Heavenly Father. “I was always called ‘Brother Gene’ as we began to recognize that we are all brothers and sisters.”

The dire realities of the war since 9/11 impacted all involved, including Latter-day Saints. “During my three years of service as the district president, there were 25 members killed in the line of duty,” said Wikle.

Prophetic promises of peace

On the evening of the Sept. 11 attack, President Gordon B. Hinckley assured Latter-day Saints that the Savior’s comfort can be felt even amid the terror and uncertainties of war. 

“It’s a profound feeling to have the perspective that you can get from activity in the Church and temple blessings,” Elder Carlson said of President Hinckley’s promised serenity. “It’s a blessing to know the beginning from the end.”

President Gordon B. Hinckley addresses the memorial service in honor of those who died in the terrorist attack on the United States Sept. 11, 2001.

President Gordon B. Hinckley addresses the memorial service in honor of those who died in the terrorist attack on the United States Sept. 11, 2001.

Credit: Tom Smart, Deseret News

Several Latter-day Saints who spoke with the Church News about their post-9/11 military service also emphasized the sustaining fellowship found in the Church-sponsored service groups that functioned in combat zones. 

Such groups offered spiritual respite from the din and fears that often defined their deployments. Fellowship among the Latter-day Saints in uniform provided the peace promised by President Hinckley.

“I’m convinced that many [Latter-day Saints] were saved from some incredible evil because of the power of associating with other members,” said Elder Carlson.

“Just being able to go to church was always a great blessing,” added Fonseca, who retired as an Army warrant officer in 2015. “Sometimes the group meetings would only be for 30 minutes, but it was enough time for the sacrament and a brief message from our group leader. It was always nice to be with other members.”

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