Elder Bruce A. Carlson didn’t set out to be a fighter pilot. He actually liked accounting. But when he needed financial aid to complete college, he considered the ROTC program and, much to the surprise of his parents, enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.
After several weeks of basic training in Forbes, Kan., he called his parents, saying he didn’t like the training and was coming home. But a stern, though loving, father reminded him that it was his idea to join the military, and he was going to finish.
The next week, he took a ride in a T33, a small, single-engine jet trainer.
“That’s it,” he said. “I’ve got to be a fighter pilot.” Having tasted the thrill of flying, he said, “I fell in love.”
For the next 37 years, as he rose in rank to a four-star general, he was called upon to defend his country’s freedom.Now, as a newly sustained member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy during last April’s general conference, he continues his role as a defender — of faith.
“Serving your country is honorable,” he said. “It is no accident that on top of our temples is a statue of a great prophet and general. The Book of Mormon is a history of prophets leading their people in war.
“War is Satan’s most destructive tool,” he said. “War is his playground. It unleashes every carnal, debased, brutal, wicked aspect of humanity.” Pain and suffering are amplified. The counterbalance is righteousness, he contends. Without just men in leadership, war becomes a holocaust.
Elder Carlson was raised by a mother who was a member of the Church and a father who conducted his life by gospel principles. Those early years in rural northern Minnesota were filled with hunting, fishing and hockey.
It wasn’t until his senior year in high school after the family moved to central Minnesota where a small branch of the Church was established that Elder Carlson was baptized.
“At this stage in my life I believe I was a pretty good member of the Church,” he said. “I could sense the occasional presence of the Holy Ghost in my life. I dabbled in the scriptures. I felt good about rendering service and warmth in the fellowship of other members. I attended meetings regularly and served in callings.”
That year he was bedazzled by a high school sophomore, Vicki Lynn Martens, whom he baptized two years later. They married still a year later in 1970, civilly at first, then were sealed in the Salt Lake Temple on Aug. 8, 1972.
After being sealed, he said, “we had some wonderful gospel-centered experiences. In time, our first child was born, a son.
“But I was still a fair-weather Mormon, happy to be a part of the Church. I even thought I knew that it was true, but it was a very untested and fragile testimony.”
Then, in 1974, Elder Carlson was ordered to southeast Asia as an airborne forward air controller where he was deployed to the Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base. This would be their first separation since being married. Attending Church meetings would be nearly impossible.
“I began to worry that my belief wasn’t as strong as I feared it needed to be,” he said. “I determined to read, study, ponder and pray. At some point during my study, I had the quiet assurance of the truthfulness of the gospel. I began to understand that the Savior had a personal interest in me and the welfare of my small family. I began to realize that my duty was to come to know the Savior.”
His preparations served him well for the challenge that soon followed. As a 26-year-old group president, Elder Carlson met daily with 16 active servicemen at Nakhon Phanom Royal. “Not weekly,” he said, “we met every day. We needed to sustain each other daily. Every variety of wickedness was available at your fingertips. It was a long, tough year away from my family. I was involved in war with all its dehumanizing effects, attendant evil and moral challenges. It was the hardest thing I ever had to endure.”
Another of the Lord’s tender mercies came in 1988 when Elder and Sister Carlson returned to his hometown to visit his parents. Elder Carlson’s father surprised him with a request to be baptized. “It shows something of my father’s character. He was baptized midweek, then ordained a high priest and sustained as a member of the bishopric the next Sunday,” Elder Carlson said, growing emotional as he considered the faith of his father to abruptly change his lifestyle and assume the mantle of a significant calling without the advantage of training or experience.
This year, at age 59, after 37 years in the military, Elder Carlson retired on Jan. 1.
Looking back, two events were the crucial hinges on which his career swung.
In 1979, as a young instructor pilot, in discussions unknown to him, he was selected to become the aide to a four-star general, an assignment that took him from the cockpit and a commission that he relished. During the next 2½ years he became great friends with a general who helped mature his leadership skills and broaden his perspective as a commander. “From that experience I learned that I wanted to lead,” he said.
Sometime later, as a 22-year veteran of the armed forces, Elder Carlson was considering retirement. Again unknown to him, he was being considered to fill a significant assignment as the assistant to the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, the No. 3 man in the Department of Defense. “During the interview I told the undersecretary that I lacked the specific experience he required and was lacking in rank,” Elder Carlson said.
“The general agreed and concluded the interview by talking casually for a few minutes about life and family. Two weeks later I was called to fill the position and move to the Pentagon and later promoted to a two-star general. I was in the right place at the right time,” Elder Carlson said.
“The Lord directed my path,” he said. “He got me where I am. I had no expectations of being a general officer”
One thing that makes the gospel unique, said Elder Carlson, “is that you cannot only believe, you can know.” And as one who knows, he lifts a voice of testimony in defense of faith.