Trevor Smiley was issued several blue uniforms in 2016 when he arrived at the U.S. Air Force Academy — but don’t be mistaken, the first-year cadet was all green.
He was far from home and away from his family and the immediate support system he had grown up with. He admits feeling a bit shaken by the military training environment. There was a seemingly endless list of regulations he was expected to learn, the training was intense and his upperclassmen were constantly yelling at him.
And as a lifelong Latter-day Saint from Utah, he found himself, for the first time, in the religious minority.
“And I was the first member of my family to serve in the military, so I honestly had no idea what was going on,” said the native Utahn and returned missionary who is now a junior at the Colorado-based service academy.
But Fourth-Class Cadet Smiley soon learned he was not alone.
A senior couple serving as military relations missionaries and living close to campus soon reached out to him — offering him spiritual support, warm smiles and plenty of common sense advice about navigating the ins-and-outs of military life as a young Latter-day Saint.
The military relations missionaries also connected him with fellow members studying at the Air Force Academy.
“During our basic training, the missionaries got us all together, introduced us to the other new cadets and introduced us to some of the Latter-day Saint upperclassmen,” remembered Smiley. “They told us things like who would be giving us rides to Church and who were the people that would be helping us, and they introduced me to my new elders quorum president.
“Without the military relations missionaries, I would have been pretty lost.”
Military veterans — missionary ’ministers’
Smiley’s story is likely familiar to legions of Latter-day Saints in uniform and their families. In bases across the globe (from Korea and Japan to Germany and Italy and dozens of locales across the United States) the Church’s military relations missionaries are often a young person’s link to the gospel at a moment when they are separated from loved ones and facing choices about how they will conduct their lives.
There are approximately 30 couples serving as military relations missionaries around the world. Not surprisingly, their numbers have diminished over the past several months because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But, in military fashion, reinforcements are on the way.
“We’ve got about 30 couples that have been called and are waiting to go out into the field,” said Elder Dennis Johnson, who helps coordinate the military relations missionary program with his wife and missionary companion, Sister Madelyn Johnson. “Additionally, we have another 20 or so couples who are working remotely during the pandemic.”
At least one spouse from each couple is retired military, so they know well the nuances of life on, say, an army base or naval yard. They have worn the uniform and are fluent in the language of the soldier, the sailor, the airman or Marine.
“We have wonderful couples serving as military relations missionaries,” said Elder Johnson. “We hear so many great stories from people who are grateful that the missionaries are helping care for their sons or daughters or spouses who are serving.”
The military relations missionaries are also flexible, performing a variety of duties to meet the needs of their respective assignments. They hold family home evening lessons and teach institute classes for servicemen and servicewomen, facilitate lessons for the young missionaries working with military personnel, promote self-reliance, assist in activation and retention efforts and organize wholesome activities for young single adult members.
During times of war, many Latter-day Saint military families endure multiple deployments and lengthy separations. The missionary couples often become priceless friends — “grandparents with missionary badges” — for such families. In myriad ways, they provide spiritual support to husbands, wives and children who remain at home while their loved ones are away.
The missionary couples are also ministering resources to priesthood and Relief Society leaders in wards or stakes serving military personnel. Only a small percentage of Latter-day Saints serve in the military or have a family member in uniform, so many local leaders don’t fully understand the daily challenges facing, say, a young soldier and his or her family.
“So it’s very helpful for bishops and branch presidents and ward Relief Society presidents to have a missionary couple close by who understands the military culture,” said Frank Clawson, who directs the Church’s military relations office. “The military relations missionaries can empathize, which helps them as they minister.”
When a Church News reporter reached out to Elder Tom Davis and Sister Joy Davis on a recent morning, the couple was not immediately available. On that morning they were donning masks and helping serve hot dogs at a USO function on Fort Sill, a U.S. Army post near Lawton, Oklahoma.
Such is the varied life of military relations missionaries.
The Davises primary responsibility is providing Sabbath-day worship services for newly enlisted soldiers fulfilling their initial training at Fort Sill. Most of the young soldiers they see each Sunday are Latter-day Saints. Some are returned missionaries. A few are not members. But all arrive in their recently issued uniforms eager to enjoy a few moments of spiritual respite from the stress, exhaustion and noise of military training.
Pandemic precautions interrupted the traditional two-hour Sunday worship block at Fort Sill for several weeks, so the Davises are grateful such services have recently been restored, with adherence to social distancing practices.
Basic training is designed to break down young recruits so they can be rebuilt as soldiers. Military relations missionaries such as Elder and Sister Davis from Vancouver, Washington, are helping many find the spiritual strength they need even as they bulk up their bodies with push-ups and sit-ups.
“Many, at this time, are just seeking some sort of peace,” said Sister Davis.
An Army veteran who spent more than 30 years in uniform in both the enlisted and officer ranks, Elder Davis knows well “the spiritual vacuum” often felt by those in the military. Providing a few hours of Sunday worship and, if requested, a priesthood blessing proves priceless in filling such voids.
“They just soak in the Spirit that comes from meeting together,” he said. “They are edified by their neighbors.”
Many Latter-day Saints in uniform have taken an oath to defend their nation from enemies “both foreign and domestic.”
Those adversaries, they are learning, do not always present themselves conventionally. The ongoing pandemic is altering the way militaries operate. No surprise, the Church’s military relations missionaries are proving adept at adapting their own ministering during a time of disruption and uncertainty.
Elder Stephen and Sister RaNae Weston had planned to begin their callings as military relations missionaries at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, last April. The missionaries assigned to the Academy have traditionally been wise friends for the Latter-day Saint “plebes” who begin their grueling training prior to the beginning of the fall semester.
But the pandemic has forced the Westons to remain in their St. George, Utah, home thousands of miles from Annapolis. Still, they are connecting and ministering.
On July 5, the Westons hosted a virtual Sabbath-day gathering for the Latter-day Saint plebes who were quarantined in their rooms before beginning their formal military training. The virtual meet was not the ideal — but the Spirit was strong.
“We were able to speak with 15 or 16 of them on a virtual call,” said Elder Weston, a former Navy officer, Vietnam War veteran and former Australia Adelaide Mission president. “Both Sister Weston and I offered talks, we had some beautiful piano music and each plebe had an opportunity to introduce themselves and share their backgrounds.
“It was a lovely experience.”
Sister Weston added she “can’t wait” to be with the Latter-day Saint midshipmen in person. “But I’m so grateful we can do these things remotely. We’re doing what we can to support them.”
The Westons’ fellow military relations missionaries, Elder Marty and Sister Stacey Reeder, understand their enthusiasm. The Reeders are also waiting out the pandemic in their Utah home while anticipating a future assignment to Caserma Ederle U.S. Army Base in Vicenza, Italy.
As a retired U.S. Air Force pilot who knows well the pressures military life places on Latter-day Saints and their families, especially during deployments, Elder Reeder is grateful for this unique ministering opportunity.
“I know we can help people,” he said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article included a Church News graphic about military relations missionaries that listed incorrect locales for the following bases: Eglin AFB, Florida; Eielson AFB, Alaska; Keesler AFB, Mississippi; NSB New London, Connecticut; and USCG Cape May, New Jersey. The graphic has been updated.