When Jenna Carson dons the blue uniform of a United States Air Force officer next week, she will not only be following a family military legacy but also making Latter-day Saint history.
Both of Carson’s grandfathers and an uncle were Air Force pilots. Her father served in the U.S. Army. She calls it an honor to follow in their professional footsteps as she begins her own military career.
But Carson is blazing an uncharted trail — becoming the first female military chaplain endorsed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Earlier this month, the returned missionary was set apart by Elder Jeremy R. Jaggi, a General Authority Seventy, and she will begin her military service as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.
Being set apart as a military chaplain “was so beautiful,” she told the Church News. “It was definitely one of the highlights of my life.”
As a newly minted military chaplain, Carson added she is committed to help those she will soon be serving to “know that they are loved by God unconditionally. … I hope that they can feel God’s love.”
The daughter of converts Rupert and Karri Carson, Jenna Carson said the Church has long been an anchoring element of her identity. “It was always just part of who I was.”
While still a girl, she decided to serve others as a full-time missionary and eventually fulfilled a Spanish-speaking assignment in the Florida Tampa Mission. Working with migrant workers and others in need of spiritual uplift helped her discover an empathy that will serve her well in her professional ministry.
Missionary service, she added, “also taught me how the Spirit can teach me to learn.”
Carson received personal revelation during her mission that she would pursue graduate studies after finishing her bachelor’s degree in English at Brigham Young University. But initially she was uncertain which advanced academic field to pursue.
Amy Easton-Flake, a professor in BYU’s religious education department, proved to be a key mentor during Carson’s time as a student at the Church-sponsored school. Carson remembers Easton-Flake asking her: “Jenna, have you thought about Harvard Divinity School?”
The answer was no.
“But the Spirit said ‘Yes.’” said Carson, laughing. “I felt this strong fire that divinity school is where I would be going — even though I didn’t know what divinity school was.”
She immediately Googled “Harvard Divinity School” and learned more. While intrigued, it was not an easy decision to apply. Carson was newly married at the time and wondered if continuing her studies in Massachusetts was the correct personal choice. But after much prayer and fasting, she applied to Harvard and was accepted.
At the time, she thought her graduate divinity studies would put her on a path to a legal or academic career. “But during my first semester, in the fall of 2015, I learned what chaplaincy was,” she said. “Once again, I received a strong revelation from the Spirit. … I felt God was calling me to be a military chaplain.”
She reached out to the Church’s military relations and chaplains services office, expressing her desire to become a Church-endorsed military chaplain.
Despite her family’s military background, she had never envisioned herself in uniform until that moment. “Joining the military just wasn’t on my radar, so this decision completely surprised me.”
Still, she could not deny feeling a divine call to serve those who serve — particularly women in uniform. “I know that women serving in the armed forces face a lot of challenges; and I know that they can benefit from having a female chaplain.”
A chaplain in the U.S. armed forces is a non-combatant commissioned officer charged with providing religious services and spiritual support to fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen. A chaplain is also responsible for advising commanders on moral and religious issues.
On the U.S. military side, chaplain candidates must earn a master’s degree in theology or a related field of study. BYU offers a master of arts in religious studies that satisfies the military’s academic requirement.
Additionally, the U.S. Department of Defense and the Church have established faith-based requirements that candidates must complete to receive Church endorsement for selection into the chaplaincy.
The Church has selected and endorsed chaplains in the U.S. armed forces for over a century, and many Latter-day Saints have served their country and fellow military personnel in both times of peace and conflict.
But until Carson’s recent endorsement, none in the Latter-day Saint chaplain ranks has been a woman.
Her endorsement process stretched over several years. There were setbacks, and not everyone was encouraging. At the same time, she was also dealing with the personal challenges of a divorce. But Carson remained certain that the Lord wanted her to be a Church-endorsed Air Force chaplain.
She was also buoyed by the steady support of Frank Clawson, a retired Air Force pilot who was serving as the Church’s military relations director during much of her application process.
Despite occasional bouts of self-doubt, Carson ultimately placed her trust in God. Whatever happened was the will of the Lord. She could accept that.
“I trusted that Heavenly Father,” she said, “would give back to me better than I can even imagine.”
In early 2020, she again reached out to the Church seeking an endorsement to the military chaplaincy. Soon she received a Church endorsement to become a chaplain, initially to the Air Force Reserve.
During the pandemic, Carson was working as a hospital chaplain. Later, in May 2021, she found full-time employment as a Church-endorsed federal prison chaplain.
“I learned so much in that prison ministry,” she said. “It was sometimes hard and dark. But I feel like I had to do that before I started with the military.”
Working with the new director of military relations, Todd Linton, also a retired Air Force pilot, she continued with the Air Force application process and was interviewed to be endorsed by the Church.
Linton remembers being impressed by Carson’s journey to the military chaplaincy to that point.
“Jenna worked hard to prepare for the opportunity she hoped the Lord would provide,” he said. “It is truly a blessing to be led by revelation in this Church because the answer came allowing her to go forth and serve as an active-duty chaplain.”
Carson will forever treasure the memories of being endorsed by the Church and subsequently being accepted to be a chaplain in the military — a first for a Latter-day Saint woman.
On July 7, 2022, she was set apart by Elder Jaggi.
Elder Jaggi counseled Carson to study priesthood principles to best “accomplish God’s work.”
Her uncle, Greg Carson, a retired Air Force officer, administered the military oath of office that same day.
Carson begins a nine-week officer training course in August in Alabama and will later begin her chaplaincy working with airmen at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Meanwhile, other Latter-day Saint women are currently candidates to become Church-endorsed military chaplains. Carson may be the first Church-endorsed female military chaplain, but she will not be the last.
As she begins her historic service as the first female Church-endorsed military chaplain, Carson is drawing upon Christ-centered counsel she received from U.S. Air Force Chaplain Sam Patnaik, a fellow Latter-day Saint:
“Remember you are here to serve. You are here for other people. As long as you serve them and love them, you will do well in your career.”