Serving in the armed forces was a family affair for many of the United States’ most prominent military figures.
Five-star general Douglas MacArthur was the son of a three-star. Navy veteran Sen. John McCain’s father and grandfather were both admirals. And “Old Blood and Guts” — Army Gen. George S. Patton — was the grandson of a Civil War colonel.
But military legacy was not a career-guiding factor for U.S. Army Brig. Gen. William D. “Hank” Taylor — a Church convert, Brigham Young University graduate and commander of the U.S. Army Operational Test Command in Fort Hood, Texas.
Outside of a few distant relatives, “I didn’t come from a tradition of military service,” said Taylor.
In fact, growing up, the one-star general never gave much thought to wearing his country’s uniform.
“I was an athlete — I came to BYU to play baseball,” he said.
But once in Provo he learned quickly that the pitches that blew by his high school opponents were a bit easier to find for top-flight college hitters. He also battled injuries, hampering his development.
“I had an outstanding-mediocre Cougar career,” he said, smiling.
But Taylor quickly adds that his time competing on the BYU diamond was time well spent. Cougar baseball coaches Gary Pullins and Bob Noel taught him lessons far beyond fastballs and backdoor sliders. They stuck with him even as he struggled.
“BYU was where I had my first real inkling of what leadership was about. … I learned that leaders never give up (on someone). You keep finding what a person’s potential is and you keep working on that.”
Even after his college baseball career ended earlier than expected, he relied upon the mentorship of BYU coaches. “I had no idea what I was going to do, so I enlisted in the Army National Guard — Coach Pullins had been in the National Guard.”
As a low-ranking soldier, he had no clue that a general’s silver star would one day be resting on each shoulder. But military life appealed to his athlete’s instincts. He enjoyed the physicality — “the Army’s kind of a contact sport” — and the mental challenges.
“And I loved the military’s sense of team,” he said.
He trained as an artilleryman before returning to BYU. When exercise sciences professor Philip Allsen learned Taylor had joined the Army “he marched me up to the ROTC building because, at the time, I had no intention of joining ROTC.”
Taylor continued with his BYU schooling, coached some baseball and was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1990. He seized any opening to enrich his military experience.
“The Army has given me so many opportunities,” he said. “I’m an aviator. I’ve flown every aircraft that the Army has, and I’ve jumped out of them.”
He returned to BYU for graduate school in 2001, joining Vance Law’s coaching staff for a year. He later taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.
“The challenge of having a mission, building a team and getting everyone moving in the same direction is like being a team captain again,” he said. “We have a mission, and we want to win.”
Taylor joined the Church when he was 9-years-old. A few Latter-day Saint friends from his Los Angeles neighborhood invited him to Primary and other activities. He was soon listening to the missionary discussions and was baptized.
Decades later, he’s found that being a priesthood holder and a general officer in the U.S. Army is a natural fit.
“I had some great mentors here from the cadre at BYU who taught us as cadets that you never have to go against your beliefs and values,” he said. “The intrinsic core Army values are honesty and integrity. They support who we are as Latter-day Saints.”
Latter-day Saints soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen are typically minorities in their respective units and assignments. “But you just lead and be who you are,” he said. “Never sacrifice who you are.”
Being a person of faith, he added, is never a military career liability. “We want people who are committed to things greater than themselves.”
Conversely, Taylor said serving in the military has made him a better Latter-day Saint.
“We move around a lot — and wherever we go, there are opportunities to serve in the Church. … Wherever I have been, I have had the opportunity to grow spiritually because I’ve had opportunities to serve.”
The general returned to BYU to speak at the April 25 Army ROTC commissioning ceremony for 13 new second lieutenants.
“It’s a big deal — they will be charged with leading some of the greatest men and women in our country," he said. “I want them to be excited, to take advantage of every opportunity, to lead and to never falter from their beliefs.”
Newly commissioned Second Lieutenant Spencer Allen called General Taylor “an incredible soldier and a remarkable Saint.”
The recent BYU graduate wrote in an email that the general encouraged him and the other young officers “to discover our personal leadership styles and to be very intentional with how we inspire each individual in our organizations.”
There were also moments of spiritual counsel.
“He told us to never turn down the opportunity to serve,” wrote Allen. “He promised us that good things happen when we serve, regardless of the capacity in which we are serving.”
Taylor and his wife, Cristen, have six children and six grandchildren. They know the sacrifices of military families. Since 9/11, the general has been to Afghanistan six times and once to Iraq. He spent almost five years stationed in Korea.
“For families, there will be times when it is hard. You have to communicate, support each other, talk things through and have common goals as a family. And, whenever you have free time, be entirely committed to your family.”
Less than 1% of the U.S. population serves in the military. A specialized, volunteer force means some Latter-day Saints may not even know a man or woman in uniform. But Taylor said there are still opportunities to support those who serve.
“Always remember, the Army is your army. These are your soldiers. They serve the country and they do it willingly. … Just continue to support us.”
Taylor will be deployed to Afghanistan next month, where he will function as a senior adviser to Afghan security forces.
The former college athlete remains a fit man — but it’s unlikely he’ll take the mound for any impromptu baseball games.
“I had my shoulder rebuilt two years ago — so I can still move and hit, but I can’t throw much anymore,” he said, laughing. “I’ve had too many jumps out of aircrafts.”