Gerry Avant: For 1 soldier, Vietnam was ‘land of opportunity’

“Vietnam isn’t viewed as a land of opportunity, but for Steve E. Baughman that’s what it became.”

That was the opening sentence in an article I wrote in 1986 about Steve E. Baughman, who was sustained as president of the Charleston South Carolina Stake on Sept. 14, 1986.

The next sentence explained why he saw Vietnam as an opportunity:

“In Vietnam in 1969 as a combat soldier assigned to the 1st Infantry Division — known as The Big Red One — he had an opportunity to study doctrines of [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], which he had joined a year earlier, and to discover the strength of his own testimony.”

Baughman was baptized in 1968, after having spent a summer working in Snowflake, Arizona, where he met Gerri Hale, who invited him to church.

“I was an easy convert,” he told me. “I fancied myself being an intellectual, a ‘thinker.’ Although I had grown up in a strongly religious home and didn’t have any problems with Christian standards, I had become disenchanted with many religious teachings and had almost become a recluse.”

Gerri Baughman and Steve Baughman.
Gerri Baughman and Steve Baughman. Credit: Courtesy Steve Baughman

Two young men who had recently returned from missions to South America began teaching him the gospel of Jesus Christ. “What they said was like a breath of fresh air coming into my life,” he said. “Nothing I believed in was overturned, but there was a whole new dimension, an understanding of what I believed.”

Shortly after he was baptized, he returned to Ohio, where he had grown up, and completed his studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “I was the only student member of the Church on a campus of 15,000,” he said. “The nearest ward was 30 miles away. I often rode to Church with a professor and his family. Because the ward was so far away, I didn’t have any contact with the Church during the week; I didn’t even have home teachers. I didn’t know much about the Church, just what the missionaries taught me. I kind of waded through my senior year at the university and returned to Snowflake and took a permanent job.

“That was a summer of malcontent. I wasn’t happy. I avoided the Church and I was miserable. I was pleased when I got drafted. I thought at least something was changing. That was the beginning of good things for me. It was another beginning.

“I was a little cocky about my education and, I guess, about the Church because I felt I knew things that others did not know, even though I didn’t know all that much. I was confident I would be assigned to some place very soft and that I would have a desk job because of my education. Then I got orders to go to Vietnam assigned to infantry. On the plane over, I realized there was a strong possibility I wouldn’t be coming back.

“In the five- or six-day period when I was going through processing, I felt I had to know if the Church and all I had learned [about it] was true. … One of the first details I had led me right by a non-denominational servicemen’s chapel. A sign on the marquee announced [a Latter-day Saint] service. Seeing it took my breath away. I had become convinced that the Church was something only for the western part of the United States. I thought it couldn’t possibly be in Southeast Asia.”

He decided to go to the Latter-day Saint services. “Except for the building and the fact there were only 10 men there — all dressed in combat fatigues — it was like walking into a meeting in Arizona,” he told me. “The same hymns were sung, sacrament was blessed and passed the same way. A flood of positive feelings came back. I knew then how much I had missed the Church.”

He began a personal study program. “As I read the Book of Mormon, I was overwhelmed by its truthfulness. I began writing letters to everybody I could think of to tell them about the Book of Mormon and the Church.”

After he missed a bus during a transfer to a new unit, which caused a mix up in his orders, Baughman spent the rest of his time in Vietnam as a clerk filing morning reports. He and Pfc. Peter Cookson, who was the Latter-day Saint group leader, went through every record in their division in an effort to identify all Latter-day Saint servicemen. “We visited every Church member we could find,” Baughman said. “Our group grew from six members to 35. We had home evening every week and got special permission to do home teaching.

From left, Joshua Baughman, Justin Baughman, Matthew Baughman, Steven Baughman and Nathan Baughman.
From left, Joshua Baughman, Justin Baughman, Matthew Baughman, Steven Baughman and Nathan Baughman. Credit: Courtesy Steve Baughman

“Being in that environment was a tremendous opportunity for me. I finished reading the standard works and read ‘Jesus the Christ’ and ‘A Marvelous Work and a Wonder’ and anything else I could get my hands on.”

After he had been in Vietnam for 10 months, he was interviewed and granted a temple recommend. He went to the Laie Hawaii Temple while on leave. He married Gerri Hale in the Manti Utah Temple in January 1971. A few days later he left for Germany, with his wife following within two weeks. He became a company clerk, which he said was “the next best thing to being commanding officer.”

“Starting out marriage together so far from home was like being placed in a module where we could develop our own lives together.”

Baughman served nine years as the Columbia South Carolina Stake president. He and his wife served as president and matron of the Columbia South Carolina Temple from 2011-2014, and then as missionaries in the Texas San Antonio Mission.

Steve and Gerri Baughman have five children — one daughter and four sons — and 11 grandchildren. They live in Summerville, South Carolina.

— Gerry Avant is a former Church News editor. She continues to write frequent columns for the Church News.