Even a forward thinker such as U.S. Army Lt. Gen. L. Neil Thurgood could not have envisioned, when he arrived at Fort Knox, Kentucky, for basic training years ago, that three stars would one day be resting on his uniform shoulder boards.
But those ornery Army drill sergeants he encountered at basic training “were great influences on my life and taught me what it really means to be a soldier.”
Several lessons that Thurgood learned as a young Army private remain with him today. He’s acquired many more during his three-plus decades in uniform — ascending the enlisted and officer ranks to where he serves today as the Army’s Hypersonic, Directed Energy, Space and Rapid Acquisition Director. (For the understandably uninitiated — think lasers, long-range hypersonic missiles and leading-edge, Star Wars-type stuff.)
The three-star general is believed to be the highest ranking Latter-day Saint actively serving today in the United States military. But while the insignia on Thurgood’s collar has changed several times, one thing remains the same: his devotion to his faith, family and country.
One’s “value base,” he told the Church News, never reflects rank, station or privilege.
“The fundamental belief and values systems that come from the doctrines of our Church have been a great base for me,” he said. “There’s no doubt that I’ve been challenged by my peers, but they only do that once. And then when they realize that you are not going to back down, I’ve found that they actually become a strong support structure.”
Others quickly discover when a person’s values are beyond compromise.
“As long as you’re paying attention to the Spirit, you will make the right decisions and stand up for the right reasons at the right time,” he said. “Those around you who are professional, both in person and in career, will respect that.
“There will be hard times, no doubt about that … but having the abilities to listen and discern [the Spirit] has been phenomenal for me, especially when you’re in difficult times such as combat.”
A Thurgood family service legacy
While Thurgood’s military career is impressive, it is not entirely surprising. Wearing his country’s uniform is a family tradition. His father, Leon Thurgood, was a career Army officer. His brother, Keith, is a retired Army two-star general.
“We grew up in Europe, serving in the districts and the branches of the Church,” he said. “I didn’t attend my first ward until my freshman year at BYU.”
From those small Church units, Thurgood discovered that relationships — spliced by shared faith — outrank mere membership numbers. “You also have to develop a strong testimony because you are in constant challenging environments where the people around you may not have the same construct of religion that you might have.”
Following his freshman year at Brigham Young University, Thurgood began serving in the England Birmingham Mission. At first glance, the lives of a proselytizing elder and a combat-trained soldier have little in common. In fact, the general believes several habits he acquired as a missionary remain invaluable to his military service.
“Number one is just the appreciation that there is something greater than you in this world,” he said. “Serving a mission teaches you to put things ahead of your own needs.”
Second, he added, missionary service broadens “an understanding of the world around you.”
The general’s duties afford him opportunities to work with allies and “great people” from all corners of the world. He values what he can learn from each of them — an appreciation he acquired answering to “Elder Thurgood.”
Practically, he concluded, full-time missionary work teaches a young elder or sister to organize, prioritize and recognize “guidance from the Spirit.”
“That ability to understand and discern has been invaluable to me as a husband, a father, a grandfather and as a soldier.”
Thurgood’s spiritual “calmness,” honed largely as a missionary, has also blessed others at critical moments.
“It can’t tell you the number of times a soldier who is not of my religion has pulled me aside and asked: ‘Will you teach me how to pray? We’re getting ready for combat — and I need to get right with God’.”
Family, faith and country
After initially joining the Army and experiencing the enlisted ranks, Thurgood accepted an officer’s commission after completing the University of Utah’s ROTC program.
He’s a veteran helicopter pilot, completed deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and holds a doctorate in strategic planning and organizational leadership from the University of Sarasota.
Thurgood assumed his current mission with the Army’s rapid capabilities and critical technologies office in 2019. “It’s a unique position; I’m the first director of this organization. We try to accelerate past traditional processes to get equipment to our soldiers much, much faster,” he said.
The general enjoys helping to articulate a high-tech military component that is the first of its kind on the battlefield. “It is the equivalent of building the first jet, or the first aircraft, or the first helicopter or tank. It’s something that has never been on the battlefield before.”
Thurgood’s Army duties mean sometimes being apart from his wife, Shauna, and their two daughters and three grandchildren. Despite the physical distance defining deployments, strength comes “from the relationships that you build as a husband and a wife and a family — and from your willingness to not compromise that relationship in any way, even during difficult times. … You have to have an eternal perspective and cherish that.”
Thurgood challenges Latter-day Saints from all backgrounds and nationalities to seek opportunities to care for and support military families, particularly in their own wards and neighborhoods. “And get involved, don’t be in the silent majority. Service to one’s nation is not restricted to those in uniform.”
His Army job demands long hours. But Thurgood makes time to teach in the elders quorum in the Sparkman Ward, Huntsville Alabama Stake.
“Doing nothing has never been relaxing to me,” he said, laughing. “So I spend my spare time with family and grandkids and keeping myself engaged. Whenever I can, I speak to youth and adult groups in the community and stay busy with a variety of things.”
Sparkman Ward Bishop Jeffrey Hoki said the general’s “fantastic gospel knowledge” and teaching skills make him a first-rate instructor.
More importantly, Thurgood “is just a service-minded individual,” said Bishop Hoki. Despite his demanding military duties, he still finds time to participate in elders quorum service activities.