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Saints at war: Preserving stories

Researchers document experiences of Church members in military

In March 2003, Richard O. Hatch, an attorney and colonel in the U.S. Army, was preparing his unit camped on the Kuwaiti border for war in Iraq.

"I felt impressed to gather all the soldiers and officers in my charge and talk to them about what they were about to undertake, since most of them were serving their initial Army tours and had never experienced combat," he recalled.

BYU researchers are looking to document the experiences of Latter-day Saints at war, including Richard Hatch, right, at Karbala Prison in Iraq on April 7, 2003.
BYU researchers are looking to document the experiences of Latter-day Saints at war, including Richard Hatch, right, at Karbala Prison in Iraq on April 7, 2003. Photo: Photo Courtesy Richard Hatch

On March 18, 2003, the group gathered in a large mess tent. "I had been praying for days asking the Lord to guide me as to what I should say to the 75 young soldiers and officers for whom I was responsible. As the appointed day and hour came, I still didn't have an answer. Not until the 20-minute Humvee ride across the open desert from my camp to the camp where we were meeting did I get an answer. But then it came to me, as clearly as if my remarks were being dictated: 'Helaman's Stripling Warriors.' "

He initially resisted the prompting, not wanting to "push my religious convictions on my subordinates."

A U.S. Army soldier rides a camel.  One challenge to collecting for the Saints at War project is that many involved are still deployed.
A U.S. Army soldier rides a camel. One challenge to collecting for the Saints at War project is that many involved are still deployed. Photo: Photo Courtesy BYU Saints at War project

Ultimately, however, he told the familiar Book of Mormon story, highlighting three things. First, was that Helaman's warriors had a conviction in the justness of their cause. Second, they were confident in their abilities as a result of their upbringing and training. And third, they obeyed all commands with exactness.

"As I concluded my remarks, I felt prompted to promise these young soldiers that if they obeyed every command with exactness, we, like the stripling warriors, may suffer wounds, but would all return home alive."

Lt. Col. Fareed Betros and his wife, Joan, served together in Iraq -- one of the very few LDS couples to do so.
Lt. Col. Fareed Betros and his wife, Joan, served together in Iraq -- one of the very few LDS couples to do so. Photo: Photo Courtesy Fareed Betros

It was three days later when the promise was tested. Their camp was attacked, and all of the soldiers who followed Brother Hatch's guidance survived.

The experience of Brother Hatch, a former bishop, is just one of many currently being documented by professors at BYU as part of the Saints at War project.

BYU's Saints at War project began in 2000 when professors Dennis Wright and Bob Freeman began an effort to help document and share the experiences of Church members participating in military conflicts. Since then several books and videos have been produced as part of the project, detailing Latter-day Saint experiences in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Submissions are also being archived in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections at BYU's Harold B. Lee Library.

Third Armored Cavalry Regiment's LDS service member's group shown after performing a baptism in an oasis in western Iraq's Al Anbar Province; Tony Bertolino, far left, was later killed by sniper fire. Kevin Wood, center, was baptized.
Third Armored Cavalry Regiment's LDS service member's group shown after performing a baptism in an oasis in western Iraq's Al Anbar Province; Tony Bertolino, far left, was later killed by sniper fire. Kevin Wood, center, was baptized. Photo: Photo Courtesy BYU Saints at War project

Kenneth L. Alford, a retired colonel in the U.S. Army and an associate professor in the BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine, is now working to document the experiences of Latter-day Saints who served in post-Vietnam conflicts (especially the Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq).

"The experiences these members are having are very different from the kind of life that most Latter-day Saints experience," said Brother Alford. "This gives us all an opportunity to learn what life was like for them, as well as to see the hand of the Lord and faith in these kinds of situations."

A U.S. Army soldier, center, on a flight to Mosul, Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, recorded some of his experiences for BYU's Saints at War project.
A U.S. Army soldier, center, on a flight to Mosul, Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, recorded some of his experiences for BYU's Saints at War project. Photo: Photo Courtesy BYU Saints at War project

The stories are important, Brother Alford said, because stories of faith can strengthen individuals. No matter what a person is doing, he said, they can gain strength by letting the "Lord have a hand in your life."

The project has also been an opportunity for those who have lost loved ones "to do something to honor their memory, to do something to remember them."

"What we are trying to do is document what it is like for Latter-day Saints in these types of conflicts," he said. "We are trying to document how their experiences and the experiences of those around them are perhaps a little different because they are LDS."

Brother Alford said one of the challenges to collecting research for this project is that many involved are still deployed. "We have not by any means reached everyone," he said.

Church members attend LDS servicemen conference in Bagram, Afghanistan, Dec. 12, 2004. BYU professors are recording the war experiences of Latter-day Saints.
Church members attend LDS servicemen conference in Bagram, Afghanistan, Dec. 12, 2004. BYU professors are recording the war experiences of Latter-day Saints. Photo: Photo Courtesy BYU Saints at War project

Brother Alford said organizers are still looking for submissions including:

"War stories" with LDS participation.

Faith-promoting experiences.

General interest items.

Church meeting experiences (how the church was organized and where meetings were held).

Missionary-oriented experiences (teaching the gospel and baptisms, for example).

Service projects that LDS members participated in while deployed.

How being LDS made a difference to the experiences of Church members.

What "everyday life" is like during deployment.

While project organizers welcome submissions from Latter-day Saint participants in any military conflict, they are especially interested in receiving submissions from anyone who participated in post-Vietnam military conflicts (with an emphasis on the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq).

First Lt. John Culpepper celebrates his 26th birthday on April 16, 2003, at the Baghdad International Airport.
First Lt. John Culpepper celebrates his 26th birthday on April 16, 2003, at the Baghdad International Airport. Photo: Photo Courtesy P. John Culpepper

To participate visit www.saintsatwar.org or contact Ken Alford, [email protected], 801-422-6497.

Authors awarded

BYU professors Robert Freeman and Dennis Wright will be honored Feb. 18 by the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge with the George Washington Honor Medal for their research on service in wartime by Church members.

For almost a decade, Brother Freeman and Brother Wright have documented stories of Latter-day Saint veterans from various wars in the 20th century, collecting more than 3,000 firsthand accounts. In addition, several books and documentaries have resulted from their research. Many of the accounts of these veterans are now housed in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections at BYU.

Through their research, Brother Freeman and Brother Wright gained insights into the impact of challenges of war on religious faith.

"Because our research includes the evaluation of spiritual perspectives in the wartime experiences of soldiers, it is unusual and sometimes sensitive," Brother Freeman said. "War presents a challenging context in which to understand the faith aspect of an individual's life."

The Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge commends the efforts of individuals and entities across America who provide leadership in preserving the legacy of freedom in America. Previous award recipients include the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Excerpts

Following are excerpts from experiences of Latter-day Saints serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf War collected as part of BYU's Saints at War project.

Ted Leblow, an active duty Army officer since June 1991, was deployed to Iraq for his second tour of duty in December of 2004: "I prayed that the Lord would help me deal with the situation I was in and give me a way to overcome the feelings of frustration and anger that were becoming a daily part of my life. When I prayed for this help I received a quick and very clear answer. I was not prepared for this answer and at first did not want to accept this answer but it was very clear and distinct. The answer I received was that I should pray for my enemies and for those around me that were causing these feelings of anger and frustration."

Colby Jenkins, a Green Beret officer, was deployed to Afghanistan: "I distinctly remember at this point of the operation my mind being cleared. With so many factors to consider and potential disasters awaiting us, combined with the fact I had no knowledge as to the status of my downed helicopter, my mind briefly felt clear and calm. I was still reaching for information and all was not calm within me. But a distinct moment of clarity came over me. I felt a calmness and a sureness enabling me to understand the situation and help my men along with our Afghan forces, to maneuver and eliminate the different threats at hand. The profoundness of these brief moments of clarity did not hit me until later the next day once we were all safely back at my firebase and I could calmly review what had occurred."

John Petty, an active duty Army officer, fought with the 10th Mountain Division in both Afghanistan and Iraq: "When I arrived in Kandahar, Afghanistan, the LDS service members' group met twice a week: Sunday mornings for church and Thursdays for [Family Home Evening]. I don't know why we held it on Thursdays, but we did. We met in the powerhouse. The powerhouse was our makeshift chapel, an old mud building built to house the generators that ran the Kandahar Airfield during Taliban rule. ... We called it the powerhouse because it gave us the power to resist temptation — which was, unfortunately, everywhere you turned in the form of DVDs, movies, magazines, tobacco, gambling and bad language used to occupy most soldiers during free time."

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