Veteran Accounts

Kenneth L. Alford, “The War in Afghanistan: Veteran Accounts,” in Saints at War: The Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), 56‒192.

(Arranged alphabetically by last name)


Scott Adams received a commission in the United States Air Force in 2008 after completing law school. He served a mission in the Philippines and received his undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University. Adams has served in Alaska; Illinois; Georgia; Washington, DC; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and Afghanistan. He represented the U.S. Air Force in Australia. He has served as a ward missionary, bishopric counselor, high councilor, and Gospel Doctrine teacher.

Like most members of the armed forces, physical danger is a rare experience for me. Consequently, the relative burden of my sacrifice is small. But deployments are still stressful experiences of prolonged absence. In 2010, I deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO). I left on a cloudy day near the end of the Alaska winter. I have a vivid, gray memory of the departure, waiting for the taxi next to my wife in silent anxiety while the children slept. “I wrote a prayer in my journal in those first days, which included a plea concerning my then fifteen-month-old boy: “Please, Lord,” I wrote, “bless my boy. Do not let him forget me.”

The remedies for my initial melancholy turned out to be prayer, time, and busyness. I immersed myself in work at GTMO and was captivated by it. I became familiar with each detainee—two hundred of them at that time. I knew their files and spoke with them face-to-face. I often reflected on the idea from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s writing: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” Frequent, face-to-face interaction did indeed melt away any inner hostility I might have felt. In its place came the surprising realization that these men suffered sorrow much like my own: longing for home, anxiety for their children, and a desire for freedom.

It is often said the law of war is founded on three fundamental principles—necessity, humanity, and honor—and that honor, the principle that animates all other rules of war, is based on mutual respect among combatants. That seems rather idealized today, but I learned at GTMO that mutual respect is possible, even with extreme enemies.

I spent one afternoon with a detainee, trying to convince him to write again to the federal courts to request an attorney. He kept sending mail to the wrong addressee, and I was trying to show him how to address his letter properly. While working with this man, I recall being struck by his youth. He seemed frail, vulnerable, and was certainly younger than me. This same detainee claimed to have converted to Christianity. The claim was met with skepticism, but I had no reason to doubt his sincerity. He spent long hours reading his Bible, and his conversion came at great sacrifice to him, resulting in isolated confinement for his safety. I recall sitting with him while he affectionately stroked his Bible as if it was a soft treasure. While at GTMO, I ensured the detainee library included a copy of the Book of Mormon. I attended a small, eclectic branch, worshipping near the noisy evangelical group in the next room.

R. Scott Adams is greeted by his children as he returns from Cuba. Courtesy of R. Scott Adams.R. Scott Adams is greeted by his children as he returns from Cuba. Courtesy of R. Scott Adams.

I found a broad spectrum of behavior and attitudes among the detainees. At one end of the spectrum were men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, a principal architect of 9/11. He and others like him were rude and defiant. At the other end of the spectrum were men like Omar Khadr, a Canadian captured at age fifteen. He spoke perfect English, was always compliant, and usually had a greeting and a smile for me.

We were in the business of releasing detainees, and I interviewed each one shortly before they were released. One man played a vigorous game of soccer in the recreation field the day before his release. When he learned there would be photographers documenting his return, he demanded a wheelchair—claiming that as a result of many years of torture, he could no longer walk. Many detainees were dishonest and made claims of abuse. But others were quiet, complacent men who spent their days napping, reading Harry Potter, and taking art classes.

Throughout my time at GTMO, I longed to be home. I clearly recall walking through the airport in Alaska, desperate to look like a returning hero. I had spent half my toddler son’s life away from him. But his sisters’ squeals of “Daddy!” warmed him to the idea of a returning father. I did not believe the frequent reminders that postdeployment readjustment can be difficult. It sounded like a warning that heaven will initially be very hard, but I was surprised to find the reacquainting period was a significant family challenge.

* * * * *

The second time I deployed was easier. We were living in Georgia when I left for an eight-month deployment to Afghanistan in 2013. The children had grown some, and we had a new son. This time the entire family took me to the airport, where we embraced on the sidewalk. I recalled a famous quotation from Seneca—“Wretchedness is a sacred thing.” The collective weeping of a young family was, for us, a sacred experience that drew us closer together.

Afghanistan included some of the risks many people imagine, including indirect fire rockets landing in random spots. However, I never felt anxious or in danger at any time. It was a divine blessing, a tender mercy. It felt normal, even comforting, to take the sacrament in a concrete room late on a Sunday night, with service members in uniform who had weapons slung over their shoulders.

I worked in Afghanistan as the Judge Advocate, or JAG, for an Air Force combat wing. That meant conducting investigations and courts-martial, resolving funding issues and other routine business. Each Saturday I was given the morning off. During that time, I taught an English class at a local school for young men or volunteered at a local hospital. One Saturday I brought a box of blankets to donate at the hospital. This was an unusual donation. I typically brought crayons and paper or stories to read to the children. But when I opened the box of blankets, I quickly found myself overrun by women in burqas, pushing me aside, desperately grabbing the blankets. It was a sobering look at the faceless destitution of Afghan women.

I became very attached to the people at the hospital and the young men in the school. It often struck me as remarkable that despite the ostensibly important office work I did in that theater of war, the most meaningful time in any given week was always the three short hours I struggled to teach English. Because I had no materials and no experience teaching English to foreigners, I taught much the same way I used to teach Tagalog to young American men in the Missionary Training Center.

While I was in Afghanistan, the Afghan government held elections. Voting was risky, and many polling locations were attacked. I was amazed at the courage and patriotism of those incredible young men when I learned every one of them had risked his life to vote. During my final class, we parted with tears. I still keep in touch with many of the young men, who continue to fill me with optimism for the future.

I returned home again desperate to appear as a returning hero but ultimately content to slip quietly back into domestic life. I found pleasure in anonymously taking the sacrament in a large chapel with a shirt and tie, next to restless children. Like my mission, I am grateful for the deployment experiences but might be reluctant to repeat them. In the end, it was prayer, church, and family that provided me the necessary strength to endure.


Chaz Allen grew up in a loving home of eight children and served a mission in Belém, Brazil. He attended the United States Military Academy and was commissioned as an Army Aviator. He later became a scout recon pilot of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior and served as a platoon leader and troop commander in Afghanistan, supporting Operation Enduring Freedom from 2010 to 2011 and 2013 to 2014. His wife and five children enjoyed living at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, while he served as an instructor. He has served as a Primary teacher, ward mission leader, and Young Men president.

Emails sent from Kandahar, Afghanistan

April 16, 2010

Looking a little like Darth Vader, Lieutenant Chaz Allen prepares to fly another helicopter mission. Courtesy of Chaz Allen.Looking a little like Darth Vader, Lieutenant Chaz Allen prepares to fly another helicopter mission. Courtesy of Chaz Allen.

Every day, little boys will gather near the fence line of our base and petition for bottled water or treats from soldiers. We are restricted from approaching the fence or giving things to them because the enemy we fight is so insidious that it would easily enlist a child as a suicide bomber or human shield. I’m sure most of those boys are innocent and curious, but the reality of this kind of warfare won’t allow for interaction with them. There are some big hearts in our troop, though, and we do try and show some affection to the local little ones. On today’s flight, we brought some “candy bombs” with us: about six bags of a variety of candy that our team threw out the door at little kids so they could have a treat from the Americans and enjoy chocolate or bubble gum for probably the first time. The children were curious at first, and some were scared of us when we flew over; but when they realized we meant them no harm, they started swarming to the candy as we threw it. I particularly enjoyed throwing it in the direction of some little girls: they were very shy and looked like they were going to miss out, but they burst out of their reserved posture to try and grab up some of the candy I threw near them. Grandma Allen challenged me to get some treats to the kids of this rough place, and as I saw those smiling faces below our skids, I couldn’t help but smile and wave right back at them. It’s hard to believe that a lot of those boys will be enlisted to fight against us. Right then, all I saw were some beautiful children of God who were embracing the simple joys of youth.

August 16, 2010

I had been asleep in my metallic cube of a room for about two hours when I started hearing the whir of the sirens that warn of impending rocket and indirect-fire attacks on our airfield. I was tired from a night full of flying in our area of operations and considered just ignoring the sirens and rolling over. But, being a platoon leader, I dragged myself out of bed, hopped off my bunk, slapped some sandals on my feet, and put some sunglasses on before leaving the dark comfort of my air-conditioned room for the 120-degree heat and blindingly bright light outside. As I started checking rooms and getting accountability of my men, I noticed a change in the siren’s tone. I strained to hear a crackling voice over the loudspeakers: “KAF [Kandahar Airfield] is under direct attack—seek shelter.” That was a new one for me. I knew what an indirect attack was like, but a direct attack meant the perimeter was in jeopardy, and we might have some uninvited guests. I ran back to my room and loaded up my M9 Beretta [pistol]. By now, many of our troopers were coming out of their rooms like zombies (that’s what the night shift can do to you), and everyone was looking for some answers. “Get back in your rooms, lock and load,” I ordered. “Be ready to gear up and launch if things get crazy.”

First Lieutenant Chaz Allen’s Army aviation unit at Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2010. Courtesy of Chaz Allen.First Lieutenant Chaz Allen’s Army aviation unit at Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2010. Courtesy of Chaz Allen.

On our northern perimeter, a large group of enemy insurgents had snuck up within a few hundred yards of the perimeter and were charging the fence line. Their goal was to breach the wire with suicide bombers and open up a channel for their men to pour in in order to disrupt and terrorize the airfield. They were well equipped with small arms, RPGs, and enough explosives wrapped around them to make a crater the size of a swimming pool. When they charged the wire, the tower saw them, initiated the sirens, and began engaging them. I don’t know what happened, but as the kamikazes neared the wire, one of the men “prematurely detonated,” vaporizing himself and blowing apart all the rest of his assaulting cohorts. In one instant, their attack was over; their lives ended.

At the same time, we had a scout weapons team (two Kiowa OH-58Ds, a lightly armored reconnaissance helicopter) coming back to our airfield after test-firing their weapon systems. They showed up seconds after the blast, just as the chunks of dirt, flesh, and broken AK-47s settled to the ground. The team confirmed that there were no more insurgents in the area and that the immediate threat in that sector appeared to be over. The rest of the day was quiet, but the attack was a clear portent of an emboldened enemy pushing their offensive even as we push ours. I was startled to think that our airfield wasn’t the impenetrable fortress I’d grown accustomed to thinking it was. I realized that out here, there is no such thing as being “safe and sound.”

December 17, 2010

While zooming past dried grape fields and mud huts, my squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel “Hank” Taylor, one of three Latter-day Saints in the squadron, asked, “So how is Sara doing? Are you doing a good job keeping in touch with her and your boys?” (Our commander knew every one of his soldiers by name and likely every spouse’s name as well.) I responded that things were great at home. I have been greatly blessed with a wife who is both independent and fully competent in handling all the issues back home, and he shared with me how his family was doing.

Lieutenant Chaz Allen holds his son prior to deploying to Afghanistan in 2010. Courtesy of Chaz Allen.Lieutenant Chaz Allen holds his son prior to deploying to Afghanistan in 2010. Courtesy of Chaz Allen.

As the flight continued, we provided area security for the ground elements that were holed up in an abandoned compound. While flying overhead, we started hearing the soft popcorn-popping sounds of what could only be small-arms fire. The ground element crackled over the radio, “We’re taking fire—it looks like it’s coming from the east at 150 meters! One of our guys is hit; we’ll need a medevac!” I looked out of my door to see the camouflage-clad soldiers below taking cover behind the thick mud walls of the compound and returning fire with well-aimed shots. The tracers raced to and from the different fighting positions like a laser light show, and amidst this chaos our team set up for attack runs.

The lead aircraft nosed it over and unleashed a fury of .50-cal rounds that shredded the enemy’s position in a tree line. Our aircraft came in directly behind them and thundered more incendiary rounds into the position. Then the Apache came in for the final blow and fired 30mm high-explosive rounds until the position was nothing more than a smoldering mass of dust and debris. We banked our aircraft around to ensure that there were no enemy personnel sneaking away from the engagement site and then began thinking about how we were going to secure the landing zone for the medevac pickup. We instructed the ground force to pop smoke, and they marked the LZ [landing zone] with the billowing clouds of green smoke from a smoke grenade. As the Black Hawk came in for its final approach, we dropped altitude and set up to cover the site where the enemy would likely be. While inbound, the enemy forces did their best to shoot us down.

The medevac bird picked up the casualty and egressed [exited] in a safe direction while we focused our attention on the elusive enemy. We searched for the shooters but were unable to regain contact, so we covered the friendlies nearby until they exfilled [withdrew] from their positions and moved back to their combat outposts.

When we refueled, we checked for any aircraft damage. To me, it seemed that surely there would be scars along the thin metallic frame of our aircraft—at least shards of shrapnel in the blades. To my utter surprise, there was not one mark on our entire aircraft: We had come through the firefight unscathed—both ourselves and our airframe. I knew that Heavenly Father was mindful of me, and he had taken care of our team.

December 17, 2010

The Christmas spirit is a very powerful thing. I know for me, though, it was a bit challenging to get into that oh-so-desired Christmas spirit this year. When I returned from R&R [rest and recuperation], everything seemed quite bleak and depressing. I had just returned from fifteen of the most heavenly days of my entire life. I enjoyed the unspeakably wonderful reunion with my incredible wife and adorable boys and met up with so many loved ones that my heart was brimming with joy; we did everything we had meticulously planned and then some. I was blessed with two of the most perfect weeks a man could ever hope for. I was surrounded by everything and everyone that was important to me. When those final foreboding days closed in on me and I knew that I would be leaving soon, I would catch myself staring off into space with a glum look, allowing the overwhelming weight of homesickness and loneliness to slowly bear down on me. My shoulders would literally sag under the weight of it.

Chaz and Sara Allen comfort two of their children prior to Lieutenant Allen’s departure for Afghanistan. Courtesy of Chaz Allen.Chaz and Sara Allen comfort two of their children prior to Lieutenant Allen’s departure for Afghanistan.
Courtesy of Chaz Allen.

When the time came to go to the airport, my heart seemed to beat slower than normal, begrudging me for leaving my family yet again. I was in my Army combat uniform, and Sara and I broke protocol to hold hands, hug, and kiss every chance we had in those last few minutes.

When it was time to provide the flight attendant my ticket and offer a single, final goodbye, I turned to Sara and gave her and Marek, my son, the biggest bear hug I could muster. As I pulled back, I saw Sara’s eyes brimming with tears as she strove to be strong. Her soft voice broke as she said, “I love you, Chaz,” and right there my tough-guy image shattered and the floodgates opened. The vision of my beautiful wife blurred as the tears poured down my cheeks, and I gave them both a final squeeze, saying, “I love you, Sara. I love you, Marek. I’ll miss you so.”

My heart felt broken, and my legs felt so heavy that each step took enormous willpower. Looking back, I noticed that the man behind me and the ones behind him were crying too. With a gentle voice, he said, “Thank you for your service, son,” and patted me on the shoulder. When I sat down in my seat, nearly every single person that passed by me gave my shoulder a pat or a squeeze and muttered a word of encouragement or thanks. Later, I learned that Sara, at the gate door, received hugs and encouragement from passengers who also had tear-streaked cheeks. I was inspired by the support of my brothers and sisters on that flight and know that the image of Sara with Marek in her arms as we shared that last goodbye will be forever in my heart. Those next few days were filled with lonely flights and long nights in Kuwait while I made my way back to Afghanistan. After arriving here, I was met with some smiles and a few “welcome backs”—but most of the men knew there was little “welcome” about returning to combat.

February 3, 2011

First Lieutenant Chaz Allen’s commander in 2010 in Afghanistan was another Latter-day Saint, Lieutenant Colonel Hank Taylor (left). Note that Lieutenant Allen’s nametag reads “Taylor, Jr.” Courtesy of Chaz Allen.First Lieutenant Chaz Allen’s commander in 2010 in Afghanistan was another Latter-day Saint, Lieutenant Colonel Hank Taylor (left). Note that Lieutenant Allen’s nametag reads “Taylor, Jr.” Courtesy of Chaz Allen.

“Long Knife Two-Six, this is Chaos Nine-Five Romeo. We are in heavy contact. Requesting air support. Over!” Fifteen kilometers away, I brought my hand to my headset to further press my ear cup and speaker to my ear. I channeled my radio to the distressed voice’s call and pressed my push-to-talk switch. “Chaos Nine-Five Romeo, this is Long Knife Two-Six. Understood last transmission. Request position, current sitrep [situation report], and enemy location. Over.” I looked to my copilot who gave me a knowing nod. A second later, a transmission breaks across our headsets, filled with the shaking voice of the forward observer as he passed us his grid location and as much as he knew about the enemy firing on his position. I pointed my finger out the door in the general direction of the contact and transmitted to my team that a TIC [troops in contact] is taking place fifteen klicks to our south and that we are moving in now—weapons hot. I am the air mission commander on this flight and know that every second we take in getting to our men on the ground could spell the difference between life and death. I directed our scout weapons team to drop low and cut above the treetops and mud huts, flying NAP [near as possible] to the earth to mask our rotor noise as we were inbound and allow us to find, fix, and destroy the enemy.

Suddenly, our radios crackled with the panicked voice of our forward observer: “Enemy positions now to our north and east, two hundred meters. One of our men is hit. We’re assessing the wounds. They are bounding on us!” In the cockpit of a Kiowa Warrior, there is an unusual serenity during firefights. The sound we hear is attenuated by two separate, effective layers of soundproofing in our helmets, and radio transmissions come across incredibly clear above the muffled rotor noise and the pops and booms of bullets and explosions. We are taught to bring calm to the situation when things start getting rough. In my seat behind the flight controls, I am detached enough from the fight to keep a clear head but can also recognize that things are heating up significantly and that the pressure is on our soldiers to hold their ground.

I informed Chaos Nine-Five we were thirty seconds out and requested he fire M203 smoke into the enemy position to mark it. We were inbound with .50-cal [machine guns] and high-explosive rockets. I can distinctly hear the relief in his voice as he returned with “Roger. Smoke’s out.”

My lead aircraft pulled back on his cyclic and initiated an aggressive climb to gain altitude, bleed off airspeed, creating a gun-to-target line that would maximize ballistic effects. As soon as he bumped up, we began our bump as well. I could hear the thunder of his .50-cal through my headset. As we nose over our aircraft, Sharp let loose with two rockets and then ripped into the enemy position with the .50-cal M3P machine gun, which is hard mounted to the airframe about three feet behind the left seater’s position. The gun’s muzzle is almost directly outside the left seater’s door. When that weapon fires, the concussion caused by hurling those armor-piercing incendiary rounds two thousand feet per second literally causes your teeth to chatter and jostles the entire helicopter, even in its most stable dive profile.

Our team’s .50-cal run was successful in suppressing the northern enemy position, and we moved in on the enemy to the east. We banked our helicopters over until the earth was almost all we could see and rolled out, setting up our inbound attack run. Our lead dove in on the enemy and fired a short burst of .50—too short—and then followed up with rockets. As we were coming inbound, the lead bird called on our internal frequency: “Our .50 just jammed. We’re rockets pure.” We dove in on the enemy, and the ground element informed us that the bad guys moved into a grape hut set up like a bunker. We adjusted our run and began a lethal burst of .50-cal that stitched through the mud hut’s roof, setting the reeds and grass aflame. At the end of our burst, I heard Sharp curse and perform a break turn out of our inbound dive. He looked over to me and said, “Sir, can you see if the .50 is jammed? I’m getting no response!” I stuck my head out the door and saw that the belt-fed weapon’s control arm was stuck midway through its race and that our .50 was now out of the fight as well. In this firefight, both of our fire-breathing dragons were down. We were now limited to two seven-shot rocket pods each, and we had both already fired two of our folding-fin rockets.

Chaplain Mark Allison (center) is shown leading a group in prayer before a mission. Courtesy of Mark Allison.Chaplain Mark Allison (center) is shown leading a group in prayer before a mission. Courtesy of Mark Allison.

The ground element reported taking further fire from the south and said that since we are overhead, they were going to try and assault through the enemy position and capture the enemy hunkered down in the grape hut. Knowing that our rockets would not be enough to support those Joes, I called up our sister team that was operating a couple of klicks away and requested his assistance for a hasty battle handover.

Now the camouflage-clad gladiators below us are moving fiercely forward over the terrain, determined to get their hands on the men who injured one of their brothers-in-arms. As the inbound team sped to our position, the ground element requested another attack on the grape hut. Our lead fired off all his rockets but one. (You always keep some munitions aboard to ensure you’re armed while en route to the forward arming and refueling point.) As we approached, Sharp pressed the fire switch and a rocket thundered out of our rocket pod. He pressed it again—once, twice, three times—with no result before breaking away. As we broke, Sharp told me that the number four, three, and two rockets didn’t recognize the fire command and that we have only one left.

I knew the ground element needed cover now more than ever. I could see them bounding into certain enemy fire. Our fuel was critical, and our .50s were down. We had only one rocket that might not even fire, and our ground element was in the most vulnerable moments of its assault. It was a moment of crucial importance, and without even thinking, I deviated from protocol and requested my inbound team to pick up my six and follow us in. “Look for my mark,” I declared. “We’re marking with rockets. Fire directly on our mark. Friendlies inbound and potentially danger close.”

We moved in, unleashed our last rocket, and broke away. . . . We witnessed, in reluctant jubilation, as the rounds thrashed apart the enemy grape hut and left our friendlies unscathed. I passed the battle into the capable hands of our fellow air cavalry scout troopers, and we made a break for the nearest refuel point. As we moved away from the battlefield, I could still hear the chatter on the radio as the ground elements moved in on the objective area. Before we finally signed off, they offered their appreciation.

At the refuel point, we had our .50s worked on by our crew chiefs and got our rockets checked out. There was no explanation for why our last rocket fired when the system was already down, and I am not sure what drove me to mix teams and risk air-to-air collisions in a firefight. Now I realize that the whole time I was up there, ideas came to me suddenly and smoothly, and although I did not ever hear a distinct voice directing me where to go and what to do, I felt guided and somehow looked after. It was one of many unique and now treasured experiences I have had with the Holy Spirit this year in which he assisted me in calling crucial information to remembrance, comforted me, and led me to safety.


See Mark Allison’s biography in the Gulf War section.

This title of liberty flag was made for Chaplain Mark Allison by Sister Leslie Ison in his home stake. Courtesy of Mark Allison.This title of liberty flag was made for Chaplain Mark Allison by Sister Leslie Ison in his home stake. Courtesy of Mark Allison.

I asked Sister Leslie Ison, a quilt maker in my Salt Lake Cottonwood Heights home ward, to make a flag representation of Captain Moroni’s title of liberty, so I could carry it with me and display it at Latter-day Saint service member sacrament meetings as I traveled throughout the combat zone. She gladly quilted the flag and sent it to me in time for it to be displayed at our first Latter-day Saint service member conference in Afghanistan on December 12, 2004, which was presided over by Elder William Jackson, Area Authority Seventy. Additionally, Sister Ison also secured the help of our ward Relief Society sisters to make several hundred postcard-sized title of liberty flags for me to give to Latter-day Saint service members wherever I encountered them throughout Afghanistan. After three to four months I had distributed all of them. They proved to be a powerful and motivating symbol for Latter-day Saint warriors. It even inspired an Army Apache helicopter pilot to paint the words of the title of liberty on the side of his helicopter.

Latter-day Saint chaplain Mark Allison (center) is shown with an Afghan father and son near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Courtesy of Mark Allison.Latter-day Saint chaplain Mark Allison (center) is shown with an Afghan father and son near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Courtesy of Mark Allison.

Before long, I noticed that these miniature title of liberty flags were an effective reactivation tool with less active Latter-day Saint military personnel. It was heartwarming and brought a smile to my face when I circulated throughout the battlefront visiting Latter-day Saint troops at Forward Operating Bases and saw the small title of liberty flags being displayed by both active and less active service members. Others kept it in their scriptures, and several carried it with them whenever they went “outside the wire” on combat missions. Displaying and distributing these small flags was likely the most powerful and effective ministry tool I have had in my long career as a military chaplain. Without a doubt, the words of Captain Moroni from so long ago echo through the centuries of time to inspire, motivate, comfort, and strengthen modern-day righteous warriors.


Ren Allred was commissioned through the University of Utah’s Army ROTC program in 1972. He was chief of the Army’s Media Relations Branch at the Pentagon during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. During more than twenty-four years of active service, he served in a variety of command assignments, from battery command to commanding an artillery group in the Republic of Turkey. He has worked as a government contractor in Africa, the Middle East, and former Soviet Republics. Lieutenant Colonel Allred was the professor of military science (Army ROTC) at Brigham Young University from August 1993 to September 1995. He retired from active duty in March 1996. As a civilian contractor, he was the last president of the Kabul Afghanistan Military District. He and his wife, Linda Kathleen Noble Allred, are the parents of eight children.

My wife, Kathy, and I were in Brazil picking up our son from his mission when I received a phone call from a friend of mine, who was a program manager in Afghanistan. He said, “I need a media individual here as quickly as possible. Would you be willing to come for a year?” Kathy and I discussed it and prayed about it. Since I wasn’t quite ready to retire, I thought it was a great opportunity. Kathy and I visited with Elder Bruce Porter, of the Seventy, seeking his guidance as he had been our bishop and a close friend for many years. Elder Porter told us, “I don’t know why you’re going to Afghanistan, but there must be a reason.” We accepted the job and decided this would be a good opportunity to serve both church and country.

About two months after I arrived in Afghanistan, I was called to be a member of the district council. A month later, I was called to serve as a counselor in the district presidency. After two or three weeks, I still hadn’t been sustained. The next Sunday, I was sustained but not set apart. The district president said, “I don’t know why I’m not setting you apart, but we’ll just delay.” That afternoon, he received word his contract had been eliminated. He was given just three days to leave the country. He called the Area Seventy and explained the situation. Soon after, I received a call from the Area Seventy. He interviewed me and asked for recommendations for the next district president. The next evening, he called me as the district president, but he wanted to know how long I would remain in Afghanistan. I explained I would be there for another six months. At the end of that six months, my company asked me to stay for another year in a new job with an increase in responsibility. I called the brethren and let them know.

Our military district covered all of Afghanistan—from the far south to the far north, from Mazar-e Sharif to Kandahar, and from Helmand province in the west to Jalalabad in the east. Our district also included Manas Air Force Base in Kyrgyzstan. We had over 1,500 members in six branches, about ninety-two service member groups, and about seventy members in remote locations. We also had several members in Black Ops (covert) units. I would receive emails stating, “President, I’m here in country, but I can’t tell you where I am.”

We estimated that approximately 1 percent of the force in Afghanistan were Latter-day Saints—military, defense contractors, and government employees. We had Church members from at least fifteen different countries. I had to recognize I couldn’t do everything I would normally do in a regular, organized Church unit. Possibly 90 percent of my Church time was spent using the Internet. I relied heavily on the Spirit and on email. I called branch presidents, counselors, elders quorum presidencies, and many others over the Internet. I also used the phone whenever I could. I didn’t have the opportunity to travel outside of Kabul because of security concerns.

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U.S. Army soldiers being transported in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.U.S. Army soldiers being transported in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

We found there were generally four types of Church members who arrived in Afghanistan. The first were active individuals. They were active at home, and they were active while they were deployed. They sought out the Church. They were quickly called into the leadership roles and were extremely helpful. The second type was individuals who were active at home, but in Afghanistan they wanted to “take a break.” The third type was individuals who weren’t active at home, but once they were in the war zone they wanted to become active. They were great. Hopefully, many of them returned home more active than when they left. The fourth and final type were individuals who had not been active at home, and they didn’t want to be active in Afghanistan. I frequently received phone calls from family members who said, “My son (or husband, or daughter, or brother) is stationed over there. He hasn’t been active in the Church. Would you reach out to him? Can you let him know that the Church is there for him?” We were more than happy to do so. Sometimes our overtures were well received, and sometimes they were met with a belligerent attitude. Seeing individuals come back into the faith when they’ve been away for a while were the most tender experiences I had. Interestingly, most of those experiences were generated because of the faith of another member of the Church. It was gratifying to see people change their lives.

* * * * *

One day, I met with an Afghan general officer. He spoke perfect English to me. As I sat down by his desk, he called his “tea boy” to bring us some chai (tea). We would then be expected to spend ten to fifteen minutes socializing. Afghans used “chai time” to determine if they were going to trust you. As the chai boy placed a cup in front of me, I turned to the general and said, “Sir, I appreciate this offer, but I do not drink tea.” I put my hand over my heart and said, “I do not drink tea because of my faith.” He looked at me and said, “You’re a Mormon, aren’t you?” When I answered “Yes, I am,” he replied, “I’ve been to America. I know your religion. I congratulate you for living it.”

I always taught the Latter-day Saints in our military district, “You should be up-front and appropriately share your beliefs with others. They will honor people who are true to their faith.”

* * * * *

Our sacrament services were like a normal sacrament meeting. We had the same format; the same spirit generated by music, prayers, talks, and testimony bearing. The duration of our meetings could be different, though. Sometimes sacrament meeting would only last ten or fifteen minutes because that was all the time the members could attend. Across our military district, we had meetings on Fridays, Sundays, Wednesdays, and other days. Our meetings were matched to the circumstances, the amount of time available, and the number of people who could attend.

One of the pieces of counsel I received from our leaders was to ensure everyone had the opportunity to partake of the sacrament at least once a week. Therefore, the sacrament was a part of almost every meeting. During the week wherever and whenever we could, we offered “gospel instruction classes”—a term the chaplains asked us to use because individuals could be briefly released from duty to attend. Many attendees would not have been able to attend if we called it institute. We often had a combined priesthood and Relief Society class.

To increase individual spirituality among the members, we encouraged every member to read the Book of Mormon each day with the goal to complete it, at least once, during their tour of duty. This helped many members stay close to the Spirit even in difficult times.

The gospel can give you a blessing of comfort when you need it most. It can also build the armor that is always needed around us. Will the gospel protect you against all harm? No, but it can certainly help you to deal with harm. The Lord knows our needs, and he provides the solution.

* * * * *

At the end of my second year, I was told my job was being eliminated. The next day, after I had told the brethren I was leaving, my company again invited me to stay for another year. I accepted their offer and continued serving as district president. During that year there were political actions taken to reduce the number of soldiers in Afghanistan. We saw a significant decrease in the overall force and the number of Church members in the country. I was released on December 31, 2014. The district was reduced to a branch in Kabul with groups located in Kandahar and Bagram. The day I left Afghanistan, we were down to seventy-five members in the entire country.


Michael Beesley is a retired Salt Lake City police officer. He served two tours in Iraq and five in Afghanistan (2006 to 2013). He has been married to his wife, Marilynn, for thirty-nine years, and they have three children. Michael’s Church service includes being an ordinance worker in the Jordan River Utah Temple and counselor in several bishoprics. He served a mission in New England from 1975 to 1977.

October 3, 2009

Forward Operating Base Bostick

Naray District, Konar Province, Afghanistan

Today was another sorrowful day for our AO [area of operation]. At 0615 [6:15 a.m.], I awoke to the roar of our 155mm cannons. The sound was deafening so we knew the powder charge was for maximum range. This went on for a full hour—two rounds every thirty seconds. When I saw the direction of fire, I knew the reports that had been coming in for the last several days of an impending attack on one of our COPs [combat outposts][1] was more than likely proving to be true. The COP, which was in the process of being closed and then relocated, was vulnerable and presented an excellent tactical opportunity for the AAF [anti-Afghan forces] to strike.

At the same time, air raid sirens at our FOB [forward operating base] were sounding the alert: “In-coming fire; seek hard structure!” We were being shelled by indirect mortar fire from just beyond the mountain ridges on both sides. I quickly got into my body armor and strapped on my Kevlar helmet. I pulled the charging handle on my M-4 and racked a round in my pistol. I then sat in my small but fortified room and waited for further instruction over the loud speakers.

For the next hour, my cement and wooden bunker shook, with dust and small particles falling from the ceiling around me. I had previously put up an angled awning over my bed to catch the falling debris during such artillery fire. Intermittent between the loud blasts of our guns, distant impacts of AAF 82mm mortar rounds could be heard exploding inside and outside the wire [base perimeter]. Within the next hour, Apache gunships, UH-58 Kiowas, and MEDEVAC Blackhawk helicopters began arriving—partly to defend our FOB, but primarily to arm and refuel to support the COP under attack.

Finally, the overhead announcement came that the threat level had dropped at our base, but that a level three uniform was still required when moving about [body armor and Kevlar]. As the day progressed, an announcement I had become all too familiar with was broadcast: “All personnel assigned to battlefield recovery, respond to the aid station.” I said out loud, “Oh no, here we go again.” I knew that stretcher teams, off-duty medical personnel, and anyone else with medical experience would be crossing my doorway, for I was located next to the aid station and across from the new hospital under construction. With focus and determination, these unsung heroes came. As usual, more showed up to help than were needed, but no one was turned away. Due to the large number of assigned staff, of which I was a part, and the overabundance of volunteers, our briefing location was moved to a spacious but unfinished room in the unfinished hospital.

We were informed a large number of casualties were expected and much preparation needed to be completed before we received our wounded warriors. Teams were quickly formed with specialized members shuffling toward their assigned groups. It was then requested that all those with medical experience raise their hands. At the beginning of my police career, I received my EMT certification and throughout the coming years was able to apply many of those skills in the field, so I raised my hand.

This picture, taken in summer 2006, shows Michael Beesley’s military police squad from the 511th Military Police, deployed from Fort Drum, New York, to Tal-Afar, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Marilynn Beesley.This picture, taken in summer 2006, shows Michael Beesley’s military police squad from the 511th Military Police, deployed from Fort Drum, New York, to Tal-Afar, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Marilynn Beesley.

The first sergeant, who I had come to know during these call-ups in the past, saw me raise my hand and walked toward me. When he got to my side, he pulled me close and quietly said, “You’re not going to have time to help with the wounded. You’re needed for the KIAs [killed in action].” I learned eight U.S. Army soldiers had been killed in the fighting. I repeated, “Eight U.S.?,” showing my obvious surprise. In confirmation, the first sergeant simply responded, “Eight.”

Knowing what was needed next, I began looking for eight tables to set up in an isolated section of the building. I soon learned all available tables had been brought to the aid station. Even the makeshift receiving rooms for the “walking wounded” would only be able to use field stretchers placed on the ground for lack of tables. A young specialist, who saw the concern in my eyes as I stood rubbing my chin, walked up to me and said, “Don’t worry, sir, we’ll get you some tables.” Within fifteen minutes, eight tables from the overflow chow hall were set up—four along one side and four along the other side of the room. I would soon spend two hours attending to eight brave soldiers cut down in the prime of their lives.

Michael Beesley (second from right) is shown with three Afghan soldiers. Courtesy of Michael Beesley.Michael Beesley (second from right) is shown with three Afghan soldiers. Courtesy of Michael Beesley.

As the tables were being set up, suddenly a brilliant beam of light shone through the only window in the room, coming to rest upon one of the tables that would soon hold one of the fallen soldiers. I gasped at its brilliant luster and was overcome with the feeling that our loving Heavenly Father had come to take home eight of his brave sons.

The battle at the COP lasted more than ten hours. After two hundred U.S. and Afghan reinforcements were sent into the battle, the COP was finally secured. The dead and wounded could now be flown back to our forward operating base.

While waiting, I was able to recruit two young, wide-eyed sergeants to assist me with notetaking and other associated functions. They were polite and eager to assist, but I could see the trepidation in their eyes. I emphasized to them the importance of what we were about to engage in and attempted to prepare them for what they would see and do. When the time finally came, the fallen soldiers were brought in as they had been taken from their battle positions. The next two hours were very emotional—spent by the side of each soldier helping to identify and prepare him for his final flight home.

Upon completion of our duties, eight fallen heroes lay flag-draped and ready to be returned to the members of their unit who waited restlessly, but respectfully, just outside the room. As I stripped off my last pair of latex gloves and walked out of that hallowed empty room, I thanked the Lord for those selfless, patriotic soldiers. Not just the ones who had given their lives, but for all the men and women who tirelessly, and without complaint, stayed to the very end in true and loving service to their fellow brothers-in-arms.


William Black served in the United States Marine Corps Forces Reserve in Utah from 2002 to 2011 as a light armored vehicle crewman. He served on deployments to Okinawa, Japan, in 2003–4, Fallujah, Iraq, in 2007–8, and Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2009–10. He served a Latter-day Saint mission in Melbourne, Australia, and graduated from Utah Valley University and the University of Iowa. He has served in Young Men and elders quorum presidencies.

Helmand Province, Afghanistan

Winter 2009

William Black at Combat Outpost Payne in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, during the summer of 2010. Courtesy of William Black.William Black at Combat Outpost Payne in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, during the summer of 2010. Courtesy of William Black.

While providing security for a route clearance team, I decided to position my LAV (light armored vehicle) atop a certain hill that was preventing us from seeing a good portion of open desert clearly. I felt the position would be the perfect vantage point for us to provide security without having to move the vehicle while the route clearance crew inspected the area for bombs.

As we approached the top of the hill, a feeling hit me very powerfully that we should stop immediately. Almost before I could issue the command to the driver, he stopped accelerating. I felt we were in danger and that there was an improvised explosive device (IED) somewhere nearby. We backed down the hill, keeping to our original tracks so as not to disturb any new ground. We took up a position on the far side of the hill, and our sudden change of plans caught the platoon commander’s eye.

About twenty minutes later, I told him of my impression, and he asked the route clearance team to inspect the top of the hill. They discovered a large IED buried directly in front of our tracks, not more than ten feet from where we had stopped. The explosive charge was larger than one that had killed several crew members in a similar vehicle about a month earlier.

I have never felt such an overwhelming compulsion to act a certain way while in a combat zone. The warning I received was definite and powerful enough to prompt me and my driver to react immediately. As I told him to stop, he felt an identical feeling of urgency and immediately stopped. My driver did not consider himself to be a religious person, but he told me, without my prompting him, that he felt an unmistakable need to stop driving forward immediately before my command to do so. Another few feet, a fraction of a second at our speed, and we would have run over sixty pounds of handmade explosives.

No other explanation adequately describes my experience, including the simultaneous impressions my driver and I received that day, other than that God protected us. I believe he did—whether in answer to the faith and prayers of the wives and children of the members of my crew or for some other reason, it makes no difference. We received a warning that probably saved our lives.


Daniel Bolick retired from the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2009 after twenty-six years of service as a special agent, supervisory special agent, and acting legal attaché in Hong Kong and Pretoria, South Africa. He worked as a civilian in Afghanistan in the NATO Rule of Law Field Support Mission—Afghanistan in Helmand Province. He served in Afghanistan several years and was Patrol Base Jaker Latter-day Saint service member group leader. He served a Latter-day Saint mission in Taiwan in the late 1970s.

It was Sunday in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. There were no organized Latter-day Saint meetings on the military base where I stayed, but I saw that a nondenominational service was scheduled and decided to check it out. I felt a warning premonition from the Spirit as this thought passed through my mind, but I was uncertain what it meant. It wasn’t telling me to stay away, so I entered.

The Kandahar Military Branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in May 2009. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.The Kandahar Military Branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in May 2009. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.

The one-hour meeting began with an opening hymn familiar to me. It is found in Latter-day Saint hymnbooks under a different name from the chapel’s hymnal. The melodic sounds were sung a cappella by a couple dozen attendees because there was no piano. I sang along, adding my voice to those of my fellow Christians.

The leader of this small congregation gave his sermon from the New Testament, Philippians 3, and I followed along in my smartphone version of the King James Bible, highlighting selected passages as he read. Midsermon and without any warning, the pastor suddenly turned to the topic of Mormonism. “There is a great heresy called Mormonism,” he declared from the rickety wooden podium.

I could not allow such a statement to go unchallenged. I did not hesitate to raise both hand and voice, which easily carried through this tiny congregation. “Excuse me, but I am a Mormon,” I announced. The preacher gave no audience to my comment and continued through his prepared remarks. “They believe in little gods,” he started to say, but then he stopped, suddenly jumping back to his comments on Philippians, which was supposed to be the basis for his sermon—an awkward transition at best.

I thought for a moment what I should do and considered walking out, but the presence of the Spirit told me to remain and think uplifting thoughts, so I stayed seated in my now somewhat uncomfortable position. Nothing more was said about Latter-day Saints, and I sensed that my brief interjection may have derailed what would otherwise have been a protracted tirade against the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I bowed my head for the closing prayer and was the first person out the door afterward.

As I hastily walked away from the diminutive chapel, I heard footsteps approaching from behind. It was a member of the congregation. He caught up with me to apologize for the chaplain. The fellow attendee reassured me he did not agree with what was said about my faith. A few moments passed, and another person from the congregation caught up with me and gave similar feedback. Having heard the words of those two, I believed there were still others who probably also felt the same way.

Time passed, and I went to the chow hall for dinner. Much to my surprise, the chaplain bumped into me as I waited in line. Ashen-face, he then asked politely for a moment of my time, and I withdrew from the queue to speak with him. He apologized to me for his inappropriate remarks and asked for my forgiveness. I knew that the only correct answer to give was “Yes, I forgive you.”


Lieutenant Colonel Richard Bratt, U.S. Army (retired), deployed to Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. A native of Winslow, Arizona, he attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, for two years and then served in the New Zealand Wellington Mission. He returned to West Point after his mission and graduated in 1996 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He also earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Alabama at Huntsville and graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Richard retired from the Army after twenty-one years of active duty service. Richard and his wife, Nancy, have enjoyed serving in the many branches and wards where they have been stationed.

Captain Richard Holling and country singer Toby Keith are shown flying from Kabul to Bagram, Afghanistan, on June 3, 2004. Toby Keith was visiting National Guard soldiers from his home state of Oklahoma. Courtesy of Richard Bratt.Captain Richard Holling and country singer Toby Keith are shown flying from Kabul to Bagram, Afghanistan, on June 3, 2004. Toby Keith was visiting National Guard soldiers from his home state of Oklahoma. Courtesy of Richard Bratt.

I served in Bagram, Afghanistan, from March 2004 to March 2005 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. I was the commander of B Company, 214 Aviation Regiment, a CH-47D (Chinook) helicopter company based out of Wheeler Army Airfield, Hawaii. I had several great experiences in Afghanistan as a pilot, commander, and member of the Church. I flew a variety of missions including basic resupply, sling loads carrying vehicles, humanitarian aid missions, Army and Marine air assaults, and different types of Special Forces infiltrations. The tactical missions were the most challenging missions to plan and execute but were the most rewarding to fly. Because our Chinooks had such a large carrying capacity, we also flew many VIPs. I flew country singer Toby Keith, rock legend Ted Nugent, CBS News reporter Laura Logan, former Secretary of the Navy and U.S. Senator James Webb, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

On September 16, 2004, our task force received the mission to transport Afghan Interim President Hamid Karzai, his entourage, and protective detail to Gardez (a town sixty miles south of Kabul) for a school opening. This critical mission required extensive planning and was considered very high-visibility because it was three weeks prior to Afghanistan’s first democratic election. We were always told that if we lost President Karzai, we would lose Afghanistan because of his ability to keep the many Afghan factions together. In order to perform this mission, we flew three Chinooks and had two AH-64A Apache escorts for protection.

The mission began as we departed Bagram and headed south to Kabul to pick up President Karzai at the presidential palace. I was the air mission commander for the Chinook flight and also the pilot-in-command of the second aircraft of three. The first aircraft landed at the palace, picked up several people, and departed the palace landing zone. My aircraft landed at the palace to pick up the remaining passengers going to Gardez. My crew chiefs and flight engineer did an excellent job preparing the aircraft for the mission. They even got an extra soft seat cushion for President Karzai to use. The first thing we noticed about him as he boarded the aircraft was that he gave the cushion to an older Afghani gentleman who also was on the flight. Everyone in the crew remarked how impressed they were by that small act of kindness. We then departed Kabul and headed south for Gardez.

The initial plan was for both aircraft to land at the same time in a large dirt soccer field near the school. As we approached the landing zone, we saw hundreds of people awaiting President Karzai’s arrival. As the first Chinook landed and offloaded the passengers, we realized it would be impossible to land two Chinooks simultaneously because of the hazardous dust conditions created by the first Chinook. For some reason, the locals had plowed the entire field, which made the landing even worse because of the poor visibility created by the dusty conditions.

Consequently, we flew a go-around to the right and came in after the first aircraft departed the landing zone. My copilot, CW4 Neil Hermoso, was on the controls as we approached the field above twenty knots to avoid losing our visual cues from the dust cloud. He began the descent, and as the aft wheels touched the dirt, a dust cloud engulfed the aircraft, and we couldn’t see anything. Usually, when we conducted dust landings, the aircraft would sink into the soft ground, but for some reason we kept sliding forward.

On July 24, 2004, 25th Infantry Division Soldiers, assigned to the Joint Logistics Command stationed in Bagram, Afghanistan, prepare a vehicle to be sling-loaded by a Chinook helicopter. Courtesy of DoD.On July 24, 2004, 25th Infantry Division Soldiers, assigned to the Joint Logistics Command stationed in Bagram, Afghanistan, prepare a vehicle to be sling-loaded by a Chinook helicopter. Courtesy of DoD.

As I tried to see through the dust, I could see the aircraft approaching the rock wall of the soccer field, and I immediately told Neil, “Go-around!” If we continued, the front rotor blades would have hit the wall. Neil did a tremendous job and executed a smooth go-around, despite the dusty conditions of the landing zone. As we came in on short final for the next approach, the ground controller came across the radio and screamed, “Rockets! Rockets!—Abort!” We immediately broke to the left and departed to the north. I made contact with Pirate 6 (LTC Rodney Robinson, from the 1-211th Aviation Regiment—Utah National Guard), who was in one of the Apaches and informed him of our situation and intentions.

We eventually reorganized the flight and returned to Kabul. While en route, President Karzai inquired if any of the children or people at the school opening were injured from the rockets. When we landed back at the presidential palace, President Karzai made his way to the front of the cockpit, shook our hands, and gave us a thumbs-up sign.

We then flew back to Bagram and shut down the aircraft like it was just any other routine mission. As Neil and I walked back from our flight, we both talked about how we were watched over by Heavenly Father. A few short hours after the incident, the assassination attempt was already on the major news channels.

As I look back on the incident, I am amazed at how the Lord protected us. For some unknown reason, the field had been recently plowed, which made the dust situation worse. As we completed our first approach and landing, the view from our six o’clock position was totally obscured. This is significant because that was the same direction the RPGs came from. We were on the ground for only about 3–5 seconds, and the dust cloud was so huge that it totally masked the aircraft. If we would have landed first, we would have waited for the dust to settle before lowering the ramp to let President Karzai and his detail out, which would have given the enemy an excellent opportunity to engage our aircraft on the ground—a much easier target than in the air. Because we were on the ground for such a short time, the dust cloud still masked our entire aircraft. On our second approach, the enemy decided to engage our aircraft prior to landing. Fortunately for us, they missed the aircraft completely!

Three weeks later, Afghanistan held its first successful democratic election and Hamid Karzai was elected president. Reflecting on that September day, I know Heavenly Father protected all of us. There may be some who would attribute the events to superior airmanship or just plain luck; however, I absolutely know that the Lord had a hand in the events of that day.


Paul Breckserved as a missionary in the California Los Angeles Mission. He served in the active and reserve components of the U.S. Army for over nineteen years. He also served as a platoon leader for the 1457th Engineer Battalion in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He served as a company commander and staff officer with the 1st Infantry Division, 3rd Brigade in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, from June 2008 to June 2009. He also served in Kabul, Afghanistan, as the Camp Eggers facility project manager.

On June 13, 2008, I started my journey to Afghanistan. I felt prepared and ready for the deployment. I had trained for over a year with A Company, Special Troops Battalion, Third Infantry Brigade Combat Team, First Infantry Division. Shortly before deploying, I was the commander of A Company Engineers, but I had a change of command before leaving. I had served for twelve months as a commander. I left with eight other people on what is known as the torch party. We were sent ahead of the brigade to start the process of taking over from the 173rd Parachute Infantry Regiment based out of Jalalabad, Afghanistan. The advance party consisted of logisticians, transportation officers, and property book officers.

Soldiers salute their fallen comrades. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.Soldiers salute their fallen comrades. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

After a day or two in Bagram, I heard on the loud speaker, “In thirty minutes, all personnel are to report to Disney Drive for a ramp ceremony.” Disney was the main road that spanned the entire main part of the airfield and led to the air terminal. I was not sure what was going on, but I remembered that during orientation, they said if we heard that announcement we were to move to Disney and participate. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people lined the street.

Everyone was very quiet, and I was struck with a sense of humility. I saw a vehicle out of the corner of my eye making a turn down the part of the road I was on. I was near the passenger terminal, and the only way to the flight line was right in front of me. The vehicle was moving slowly and had several people walking behind it. As it approached, the emotions started to kick in. Tears welled up in my eyes. I figured out what was going on. The vehicle was carrying the flag-draped caskets of two fallen soldiers. Behind the vehicle was a general officer, a battalion commander, and a command sergeant major. Behind them were two NCOs [noncommissioned officers] who were to escort the remains all the way to their final resting place. Near them was a cameraman filming the ceremony. As the vehicle approached, I noticed that all were slowly raising their right arms to render a very deliberate and reverent salute. Each soldier, airman, sailor, and Marine rendered a very somber salute. The vehicle moved closer to me, and tears slowly rolled down my face. I stood tall and turned my head slightly to the left to put my eyes on the Stars and Stripes draped over the coffins. I slowly brought the fingers of my right hand to the very edge of the brim of my hat. I watched as the vehicle drove by me, and I said a little prayer to myself: “Our Father in Heaven, please be with these fallen heroes as they pass through the veil, and comfort their families, and let thy Spirit be with them. Amen.” The Spirit was present, and I felt overwhelmed. The moment was very somber and humbling, and it was difficult to control my emotions. I had been in the military for nearly seventeen years, but this was the first time I had experienced a “ramp ceremony.” The caskets moved onto the flight line and were loaded onto an empty C-17 cargo jet. The jet was quickly buttoned up and headed down the runway for takeoff. All of the workers around the flight line stood by to render a salute as the plane passed by.

This was the start to my yearlong deployment. The realities of combat had just hit me as hard as a Mack truck. Nothing over the past year of training had prepared me for a moment like this. Two days later, we boarded a C-130 cargo plane and flew to Jalalabad. The flight was only thirty minutes. After arriving at Jalalabad, I quickly settled in and started working. I lived at Forward Operating Base Finley-Shields. The base was named after two soldiers who were killed by a suicide car bomb about a month prior to my arrival.

A soldier relaxes during a few minutes of quiet time. Military life in a combat zone has been described as “hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.A soldier relaxes during a few minutes of quiet time. Military life in a combat zone has been described as “hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

As I settled in, I started going out on convoys and helicopter rides. I was able to see the areas my battalion would be responsible for in Nangarhar province while conducting counterinsurgency operations. The terrain was spectacular. To the south are the Tora Bora Mountains, about eighteen thousand to twenty thousand feet tall. They were still snowcapped, and their beauty is awe inspiring. These mountains are rugged and steep and provide most of Southern Nangarhar with water for irrigation and living.

Soldiers from my battalion arrived and settled in. I had lots of concerns and doubts, but I put my head down and kept moving forward. The mission must go on. We must do our duty, whatever it is.

On July 8, 2010, my good friend and brother-in-arms Sergeant Douglas Bull was killed by an IED [improvised explosive device]. I woke up that morning feeling uneasy and on edge. I went to the office around 0730 [7:30 a.m.] and started working on some emails and small projects. Around 1100 [11:00 a.m.], word came down that a vehicle had been hit in Chowkay Valley [near the Pakistani border] by an IED. Chaos ensued as we tried to get the details.

An American infantry rifleman looks for enemy activity. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.An American infantry rifleman looks for enemy activity. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

We soon learned that an IED killed one soldier and wounded three others. I asked Major Kip Korth if he knew who was killed. He hesitated and said, “Sergeant Bull.” My eyes immediately welled up with tears. A communications blackout was put in place so there was no way for me to call home. I sent my wife a quick note that said “Bad things happened today. Can’t say much. I will talk to you in a couple of days.”

For the first time in my life, I felt depressed and alone. I had hundreds of people around me, yet I felt alone. I started to feel like I was in the wrong place doing the wrong job. That night, I lay in bed and cried. I did not sleep and had a hard time not thinking about SGT Bull and the family he left behind. I had thoughts that I never had before. I wondered if there was any way I could get out of this deployment. I fell asleep and woke up feeling like I could do this assignment. My mind was not cleared, but clearer thought processes had returned. Now it was time to help everyone move on.

Around July 10th, a memorial service was scheduled. After a few speakers, the service continued with the first sergeant reading the roll call, a long and solemn tradition. This brought tears to my eyes. He read the names one at a time, and then he said the name that we had all come to honor, “Bull. SGT Douglas Bull. SGT Douglas Bull.” No answer. At that moment, “Taps” began to play. We all stood and rendered a salute in honor of Sergeant Douglas Bull. Following the playing of “Taps,” we filed one by one to the front of the memorial. We snapped to attention, raised our hands slowly to a salute, lowered them slowly, and then knelt before the memorial display and said a short prayer.


Lilia Bullock, born in San Angelo, Texas, served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. During her Afghanistan deployment, she served as a captain in the United States Army in the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade as the brigade chemical officer. She also served as the assistant S2 (Intelligence) during the deployment. She was the branch pianist during the deployment and a Primary worker in her home ward. She married Donald Earl Bullock Jr. on December 20, 2005.

I believe in the power of fasting and prayer. This past Sunday, I felt the strong urge to fast. I hadn’t fasted the previous Sunday since I had to work that day. I almost went to breakfast. I did go to the chow hall. On my way there, my feet stopped on their own, and the word “fast” came powerfully to my brain. I tried to ignore it and justify why I shouldn’t fast. I signed in at the chow hall and felt a heavy weight on my chest. I grabbed a tray and stood in line, but I couldn’t think straight. All I felt was that I shouldn’t be there. I stepped out of the line and walked out of the chow hall without grabbing a bite to eat. I went straight to my room and started my fast. I fasted for the safety of my husband, asking the Lord to watch over him while he flew, so that he could come back safely to me and we could be sealed for time and all eternity.

He was stationed in Shindand, Farah, Afghanistan, at that time and had been gone for a week. He came back the next day without incident. I didn’t think much of it until this morning. Last night, my husband went out on a three- to four-hour resupply mission. He was flying attack chase for three Black Hawks [helicopters]. He smelled faint smoke in the cockpit but didn’t think much of it. He thought it was the smoke from fire in the villages that sometimes wafts into his aircraft. When they were coming back, smell of smoke came back stronger as he was climbing over a mountain. He told his front seater to put on his goggles since he thought it might be a generator fail. Three seconds after his front seater put on his night vision goggles, the generator failed and the cockpit started to fill with heavy smoke. He looked for a place to land, but he was over rocky terrain, and there was no safe place.

He started to descend and asked one of the Black Hawks to be his wing and tell him if his aircraft was on fire. His left generator was blowing heavy sparks, which meant he was on fire. He wanted to open the cockpit door to relieve some of the smoke in the cockpit, but he knew that at the altitude and speed that he was flying, the door would be ripped off. He started getting flashbacks of our friend who was in a similar situation in May, who died while trying to land an aircraft in a little valley on a mountaintop. He started to panic but said a quick prayer. As he was about to open the door, he felt a strong feeling to calm down—everything would be all right. Within a couple of minutes, he felt the airframe shudder, and almost immediately the smoke cleared.

The generator exploded, which stopped the sparks and kept the aircraft from going up in flames. He was able to safely make it home. As he told me the story this morning, I kept thinking about my fast and all of my prayers for his safety, as well as my family’s prayers and placing our names on temple prayer rolls. I broke down and cried for a second when I thought about this.

* * * * *

Donald and Lilia Bullock served together in the same area in Afghanistan. Courtesy of Donald and Lilia Bullock.Donald and Lilia Bullock served together in the same
area in Afghanistan. Courtesy of Donald and Lilia Bullock.

My deployment story started when I was sent to Iraq in 2007 as a brand-new second lieutenant. I was fresh, green, and naive to the ways of the Army. I was eager to start my job, eager to integrate with my new unit, and I was single. I became a target to every male in that camp. Though I wanted to maintain the standards of the Church, I allowed the intense peer pressure to break me down.

The stress of the deployment, the relationship I was in, and my loneliness finally pushed me to turn to a friend of my boyfriend, named Don Bullock, whom I trusted. He was a maintenance test pilot for the AH-64D Apaches and worked with my boyfriend. He was the only person who showed a willingness to listen to my distress. I latched on to his kindness with a fervent grasp. He made an effort to eat breakfast every morning with me, as no one else in my unit would eat with me, not even my boyfriend. A friendship sprang up between us that I didn’t want to lose.

As we redeployed back to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the current relationship I was in threatened the friendship I had developed with Don. Fortunately, that poisonous relationship came to an end, and I was able to foster the relationship I had with my dear friend. That friendship gradually sprung into a relationship and from there into our marriage. I loved this man and couldn’t see how I could spend the rest of my life away from him. However, he wasn’t a member of the Church. As we became serious in our relationship before our marriage, I told him I could never leave the Church, even if I wasn’t living my life in accordance to Church standards at the time. He was open-minded to what I had to say, and he had family history with the Church. He related to me that he used to go to the Church meetings with his great-grandmother when his mother used to live with her in his early years. When his mother decided to leave the Church, she took him with her. Despite his experiences growing up and going through his first marriage, he was constantly looking for a church to join. He started coming to church with me five months before we were married.

Donald and Lilia Bullock share a moment with Church district president Gene Wikle (right) in Afghanistan. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.Donald and Lilia Bullock share a moment with Church district president Gene Wikle (right) in Afghanistan. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.

Although I wanted a small wedding, we ended up marrying in the church on December 20, 2008. The ceremony was performed by our ward bishop and attended by my family and half of the ward members. The day was bittersweet. I was elated that I was marrying my sweetheart and that my immediate family could all be there, but I wasn’t being sealed for time and all eternity, which was something I wanted more than anything else.

After we married, my husband started taking the missionary discussions and was baptized on February 21, 2009, two months after our marriage. That day was so beautiful to me. It was a step closer to our ultimate goal of being sealed together. A month and a half later, we were deploying again, this time to Afghanistan. We were originally scheduled to deploy in November 2009, but with the push to increase troops in Afghanistan, my brigade commander pushed to have us deploy six months earlier than scheduled. He received his wish, and April 2009 saw the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade deploying to southern Afghanistan. My husband left a week before I did.

Donald and Lilia Bullock inside a military tent. Courtesy of Donald and Lilia Bullock.Donald and Lilia Bullock inside a military tent. Courtesy of Donald and Lilia Bullock.

As I watched general conference the weekend before I deployed, I voiced some concerns I had about leaving to a close friend of mine in our ward. Her husband and my orthodontist (who lived in my ward) gave me a priesthood blessing. It was full of comfort and guidance. It assured me that my husband would return home safe and that I would be safe as well as long as I kept the commandments, remembered to pray faithfully, and continued reading my scriptures.

On the 31st of May 2009, our district president, President Gene Wikle, met with us. He spoke with me a little prior to the start of sacrament meeting, and I told him of my husband, who couldn’t be there because he had to fly some maintenance test flights that day. President Wikle was kind and gave me an “Armor of God” coin for my husband and myself. It was a beautiful coin, and I still carry it. He later announced to the little branch that my husband and I were the first recorded Latter-day Saint married couple in the Kandahar Branch in Afghanistan. I thought that was neat.

When I saw my husband later that day, I gave him the coin from President Wikle. He was impressed that the district president would think of us. I saw President Wikle the following Tuesday at the laundromat as I was pulling my clothing out of the dryer. We started talking again, and I felt impressed to let him know of my husband’s recent conversion. He asked if we had been to the temple yet. I told him no but that I was hoping we would be able to qualify to go soon after we returned to the States. He wrote down some notes about our situation, and we parted. He sent a message to the branch presidency that he wanted for us to take temple preparation classes. Once again, I was impressed by the love and concern he had shown for us in our little branch.

On the 17th of April 2010, Donald Earl Bullock Jr. and I were sealed for time and all eternity in the Raleigh North Carolina Temple. It was a beautiful day, perfect for this sacred ceremony.


During Operation Enduring Freedom, Brady Cox served as an individual augmentee[2] in the U.S. Medical Role 2E Hospital at Camp Holland, Multinational Base Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan. He was an emergency physician stationed at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Virginia. He has served in the bishopric of his ward and as an assistant group leader to a service member group.

An American flag flying at sunset over Camp Holland, Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Brady Cox.An American flag flying at sunset over Camp Holland, Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Brady Cox.

While taking care of a very difficult patient, I was once again reminded of the tender mercies of the Lord toward his children. A young member of the Afghan National Army was brought to our hospital with a complaint of dental pain and gum swelling. He was initially seen by an Australian doctor who asked that I come and see the patient. It quickly became apparent that the young man was much sicker than his complaint of dental pain let on. He had been losing significant amounts of weight for the past several months as well as having daily fevers and night sweats. His gum swelling was consistent with something called gingival hyperplasia, which is abnormal in an otherwise healthy young man. Because of these symptoms, we decided to check some blood work. Unfortunately, our fears were realized, and this young man was diagnosed with leukemia—a devastating diagnosis for a young person in Afghanistan, as there is no treatment available in the country.

Two Humvees, modified to serve as ambulances, are pictured in front of U.S. Medical Role 2E Hospital at Camp Holland, Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Brady Cox.Two Humvees, modified to serve as ambulances, are pictured in front of U.S. Medical Role 2E Hospital at Camp Holland, Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Brady Cox.

At this point, my goal was to get him home to his family so he could be near them as he prepared to pass away. I struggled with the frustration of not being able to help him. I wrestled with knowing exactly what to do. The obstacles to get him home seemed insurmountable. I found myself praying almost constantly for two to three days about how I could help this young man. I prayed that my Heavenly Father would help open a way to get him home to his family.

Finally, after three days of searching for a way to get him on a flight to his family, an avenue opened up. There was a flight that could get him to the military hospital in Kabul where his family could meet him and be near him as he passed away. In order for us to get our patients on these flights, we had to speak with an accepting physician at the final destination. I called and spoke to the on-call physician at Bagram Hospital. She told me that it would be much easier if we spoke with the French Hospital in Kabul, as it was much closer, and they could transfer him directly to the military hospital.

At this point, I had the blessing of seeing the hand of the Lord at work. I was told when I spoke to the French Hospital that there wasn’t anyone who spoke English there. Fortunately, I still spoke nearly fluent French, as I had served my mission in France. I spoke directly to their doctor and made arrangements for my patient to be transferred on the next available flight. Within a matter of hours, he was able to get on a flight home. I could do very little to treat him medically, but I knew that the most important thing for him was to be near those who loved him. Heavenly Father, in his beautiful mercy, provided a way. I don’t know the final outcome of this story, but I do know that my testimony of the love our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ have for each of us was strengthened. They know each of us individually, and they hear and answer our prayers.


Joe joined the Church at the age of eighteen in Renton, Washington, and began serving in the Canada Montreal Mission the following year. He met his wife, Christina, at the Seattle Institute of Religion while attending the University of Washington. After graduating in international studies, he spent several years in banking and finance. He returned to the University of Washington for additional study and taught early-morning seminary while he was a student, but he felt the Lord was calling him elsewhere. In 2003, after graduating a second time from the University of Washington, Joe enlisted in the Army as an Arabic linguist. After six years, he felt the Lord was again calling him elsewhere, and he qualified to become a U.S. Army chaplain. His previous Church callings include missionary, elders quorum president, Sunday School president, ward and stake Young Men president, high councilor, seminary teacher, Cubmaster, and, of course, chaplain.

Chaplain J. Joseph DuWors (left) standing with a fellow soldier, Specialist Seaburg. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.Chaplain J. Joseph DuWors (left) standing with a fellow soldier, Specialist Seaburg. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

“Pastor, we need spiritual food.”

Over the last six months of my deployment as a Latter-day Saint chaplain, I have met faithful Christians from all over the world. They come from places as diverse as villages on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya, the islands of Fiji, Afghanistan itself, and the U.S. None have left more of an impression on my heart and mind than six Pakistanis who traveled from two different cities to work on our FOB [forward operating base] in Spin Boldak, Afghanistan. Spin Boldak is one of two main border towns between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is southeast of Kandahar by about eighty kilometers, and the imposing mountains of the border with Pakistan look down from the east. It is largely a desert region with villages consisting of various Pashtun tribes and subtribes, as well as a nomadic group known as the Kuchi (Pashto for “gypsy”).

Here, as the “pastor” of the collective Protestant services on the FOB, I made the acquaintance of Sharif, Robert, Arif, Shabaz, Anil, and Sohail. They are Christian except for Sohail, who is Hindu. All who meet them are inspired by their humble, simple, and childlike faith. Naturally, I desired to share the gospel with them. However, proselytizing is a delicate matter in a war zone. So, I did my best and left the rest to God. I ordered copies of the Book of Mormon in Urdu, their language. After these arrived, I left them out on the old hymn chest in my office. One day, they all came to visit me and saw the books. Surprisingly, they snatched them up without even a word. They probably assumed they were handouts like the many Bibles and other things I keep to give out.

Latter-day Saint chaplain J. Joseph DuWors posing with a saber in front of a loaded Stryker vehicle. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.Latter-day Saint chaplain J. Joseph DuWors posing with a saber in front of a loaded Stryker vehicle. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

I said nothing in the moment because there were others present, and it could have been awkward. Time passed, and after a week or two, I asked them if they were reading my book. They said that they were. I encouraged them but said little else. A couple more weeks passed, and I again asked them if they were reading my book. Because we had come to know each other better, I felt comfortable telling them that I believed that God had brought us all together so that they could receive this book and that it was very important that I teach them about it. However, I left it at that and waited again for a week to pass.

Soon, word came that they would be leaving in a month to take new jobs at Kandahar Airfield. I told them that before they left I could teach them about the book. Doing so would be somewhat challenging as my duties kept me pretty busy. One Wednesday they asked when I could come and see them. Thinking that it was for a routine visit, I hesitated. It was a busy week. I had meetings, and the only time I could come was right after their work while their dinner was being served. I didn’t want to keep them from dinner. Anil said, “Pastor, we need spiritual food. Dinner does not matter. You must come teach us about your Bible,” meaning the Book of Mormon.

Chaplain J. Joseph DuWors frequently traveled Afghanistan with a camera, which enabled him to capture candid shots like this. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.Chaplain J. Joseph DuWors frequently traveled Afghanistan with a camera, which enabled him to capture candid shots like this. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

With that, I could see the time was right, and I could not afford to wait any longer. In accordance with our policy guidelines, I had been invited to share by the individuals involved, and agreed to come see them the next night. Coincidentally, that week a physical therapist from Kandahar Airfield and a personal friend, Major Evan Petersen from my home ward in Grafenwoehr, Germany, was visiting the FOB. I invited him to come and help me teach. We agreed to keep it simple, since we were counting on Anil to interpret to make sure we were understood. I would introduce the calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and Evan would teach about the appearance of Jesus Christ in 3 Nephi 11 and Moroni’s promise.

When we arrived to teach, our six Pakistani friends invited an additional four Filipino workers who had recently arrived to work at the FOB. We were taken to the best accommodations they could offer, a shipping container turned into a sort of dorm room with bunks, and we were given a cot to sit on. Brother Petersen and I proceeded to teach those ten men about the Prophet Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. We read in English and had them read in Urdu. I passed my personal scriptures to the Filipinos who understood English. To assist us in teaching, we printed color copies of paintings from the Church website of Joseph Smith, the First Vision, Moroni burying the plates, and Joseph and Oliver translating. They looked reverently at each picture and passed them around among themselves. The pictures seemed to help them understand. Brother Petersen read the promise of Moroni and asked them about its meaning. He carefully reviewed the role of the Holy Ghost as a witness of truth and told them that it would help them know that the Book of Mormon was true.

Before he finished, something happened of which every missionary dreams. Anil said, “We already believe in the book. We know it is true.” Brother Petersen, wishing to clarify, asked, “How do you know?” Anil’s simple response was “By the Holy Spirit.”

The entire time we were there, we knew the Holy Spirit was present. We could feel the Lord reaching out to these amazing and faithful Christians who had never heard of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, the calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith, or the Book of Mormon. I can only imagine the challenge those faithful Christians have had struggling to maintain their faith in a majority Muslim country. They have faced significant challenges and cannot openly worship or meet where they live. I told them that I believed that the Lord intended them to take this message to their families and fellow believers where they are from.

In the few weeks that remained before they left, I taught them all I could. Brother Petersen returned to Kandahar Airfield, but we explained that he could continue with them there and that we would make sure they kept in touch with both of us. Only the Lord knows what will happen in the future, but my missionary heart dreams of someday visiting Pakistan and seeing branches or wards filled with the families, friends, and descendants of those six men.


Guy Hollingsworth served a four-hundred-day combat tour in Iraq, beginning in June 2009, as a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. He was the first president of the Baghdad Iraq Military District. He deployed again on a second 400-day combat tour to Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014, where he served as the Bagram Afghanistan Branch president. He retired in 2016 after forty-one years of military service, which included fourteen years away from his wife due to military service. He served several years as an associate academic vice president at BYU–Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho, and currently serves as the vice president of student services at the LDS Business College in Salt Lake City.

Members of the Bagram Afghanistan Branch in March 2014. Branch president Hollingsworth is leftmost on the second row. Courtesy of Guy M. Hollingsworth.Members of the Bagram Afghanistan Branch in March 2014. Branch president Hollingsworth is leftmost on the second row. Courtesy of Guy M. Hollingsworth.

I deployed to Afghanistan in 2013 as a combat arms Army colonel. My assignment was to find ways to track, disrupt, and destroy the Taliban. While in Afghanistan, I also served as president for the Bagram Afghanistan Branch. My work responsibilities and travels around the country often extended over my day of worship, which was either Friday or Sunday. I made every effort to find a few minutes to take the sacrament, often by myself. I would search for a quiet, secluded corner, such as the back side of an abandoned building or the dark concrete slab of a bunker. By myself, I would take out a cracker from my MRE (or a piece of bread I had carefully packed in my ruck sack) and a warm bottle of water to humbly renew my covenants with the Lord.

In those harsh situations, I would remove my Kevlar helmet, take off my backpack, set down my M-4 rifle and 9mm pistol, pull off some of my other combat gear, and wipe the grime from my face—to begin my communion with the Savior. I would quietly say an opening prayer, whisper the words to a familiar hymn, read a paragraph or two from a previous First Presidency message (which I carried in my cargo pocket), and then carefully read the sacrament prayers out loud—blessing and taking the bread and water in what was usually a lonely, desolate, and austere setting. I would then quietly sing another verse from a different hymn and whisper a closing prayer. The entire sacred event would often take all of ten minutes or so but would renew my strength for the day and the week and the need to carry on with what usually were several difficult and dangerous tasks.

Guy M. Hollingsworth (center) presided over the Bagram Afghanistan Branch during a 400-day combat tour in 2013–14. Statie Young (left) was his second counselor, and Gist Wylie (right) served as his first counselor. Courtesy of Guy M. Hollingsworth.Guy M. Hollingsworth (center) presided over the Bagram Afghanistan Branch during a 400-day combat tour in 2013–14. Statie Young (left) was his second
counselor, and Gist Wylie (right) served as his first counselor. Courtesy of Guy M. Hollingsworth.

Taking the sacrament alone was an experience like nothing I had felt in my life before. It was a sacred few minutes for me to bare my soul to my Savior and ask for his forgiveness and continued blessings of protection in my life and of my branch members. The principle of renewing covenants took on a whole new meaning in my life—a tremendous impact through my aloneness at the time—and a reminder I was not alone.

Those simple yet overwhelming experiences will remain colossal to me in a very personal way as long as I live—a tender mercy and a grateful gift for holding the priesthood of God worthily. I was never more thankful for holding that authority and using it to stay close to the Savior and my Heavenly Father during those most trying times in my life.

May we all be grateful for that sacred event each Sunday—wherever life may take us.


William Jackson served as a physician in the U.S. Foreign Service. While serving in a repeat duty assignment in New Delhi, India, he was called as an Area Seventy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and given ecclesiastical responsibility for Afghanistan.

Members of the Bagram Afghanistan Branch in June 2014. Military unit rotations created constant turnover in most Church units in Afghanistan, as a quick comparison with the opposite photo will attest. Courtesy of Guy M. Hollingsworth.Members of the Bagram Afghanistan Branch in June 2014. Military unit rotations created constant turnover in most Church units in Afghanistan, as a quick comparison with the opposite photo will attest. Courtesy of Guy M. Hollingsworth.

On my first trip to Afghanistan (fall of 2003), after having been called to serve as an Area Seventy in the Asia Area, I attempted to find the Latter-day Saints stationed there. It wasn’t as easy as you might imagine. The military population in Afghanistan at that time was much smaller than it would be later. Even the Military Relations Department in Salt Lake City had trouble keeping tabs on exactly who was in the country. I felt that my role was to first figure out where the flock was and then start trying to meet their needs as best we could. The Area wasn’t given a lot of instruction from Salt Lake about how to handle Afghanistan. We just felt our way through those first few months, trying to get a feel for what we could organize while not being physically on the ground with the soldiers.

One of the things I discovered right away was that we had some very active Latter-day Saint groups functioning independently of each other. Some of them didn’t even know the others existed. Prior to their deployments, many soldiers were given blessings by their stake presidents who also set them apart as group leaders, even though they weren’t sure if there were actual groups there, or if there were leaders already set apart. We had many small congregations that had multiple people ordained to be leaders by stake presidents who, by this stage, were no longer in the authority loop. It took a while to sort everything out.

Latter-day Saint chaplain Mark Allison (left) and Area Authority Seventy William Jackson prior to taking a helicopter trip. Courtesy of Mark Allison.Latter-day Saint chaplain Mark Allison (left) and Area Authority Seventy William Jackson prior to taking a helicopter trip. Courtesy of Mark Allison.

We had a significant group of Church members at Bagram Air Force Base, north of Kabul. This was the largest Air Force base in the country, and we were never without lots of members there, at least during my time. It didn’t take too long to compile a pretty substantial list of the Church members in Afghanistan. The Latter-day Saint chaplains I worked with the most over those first two years were named Eliason, White, and Allison. By mid-November 2003, we had over one hundred members of the Church on our list that we knew about. Most of them were at Bagram Air Base. Unfortunately, we were still struggling with a few problems. One was that there was no obvious central authority. It was difficult to meet their ecclesiastical needs because we didn’t have one logistical go-to person or place where they could get what they needed. There was also no formal Church organization or easy way to manage formal Church priesthood functions, including dealing with sin or transgression. A lot of that was still being handled long-distance through their stake presidents. All those issues were settled over time.

In December 2003, we decided to have our very first conference at Bagram Air Force base. There were approximately seventy people in attendance. That was such an amazing experience for me. It’s one of the few sacrament meetings I have been to where there was a line of rifles along the back wall instead of strollers. The Spirit was amazing. It was a neat experience being there with these brothers and sisters serving their country, putting themselves in harm’s way, but also sharing something so basic and of core importance as the gospel.

Elder William Jackson’s employment as a U.S. Foreign Service physician enabled him to travel throughout Afghanistan. Courtesy of Mark Allison.Elder William Jackson’s employment as a U.S. Foreign
Service physician enabled him to travel throughout Afghanistan. Courtesy of Mark Allison.

We started a series of weekly reports, where each group would report how they were doing. They also updated us on any changes in membership. They would let us know how many had attended sacrament meeting and give us an idea if there was anything that they needed with which we could be trying to help or support them. Altogether, there was a weekly communication from the field to Chaplain Allison, then to me, and finally to the Area.

In early June 2004, we scheduled another conference. We didn’t think we’d have to worry about the weather in June, but you never know in southern Asia. The day before the conference, I found myself in Islamabad, Pakistan. I had an international flight scheduled to Kabul that would arrive twenty-four hours in advance so there would be plenty of time to deal with any mix-ups. Of course, when I got to the airport, I was told that my flight had been cancelled. There were no other flights scheduled that could get me there by the specific time I needed to be picked up at Kabul Airfield by a Black Hawk helicopter from Bagram. I started turning over every leaf, knocking on doors, and looking for some way that I could possibly make it up to Kabul on time. Eventually, I found an unscheduled flight on a tiny aircraft called a King Air. I don’t even know who ran the outfit, but it was scheduled for the next morning. If it left on time, it would get me there about an hour before the Black Hawk was due to arrive.

The armored vehicle that Elder William Jackson was riding in was attacked by a suicide bomber. These photos show the damage that the vehicle sustained. Courtesy of Gerald C. Brady and William Jackson.

The armored vehicle that Elder William Jackson was riding in was attacked by a suicide bomber. These photos show the damage that the vehicle sustained. Courtesy of Gerald C. Brady and William Jackson.

The armored vehicle that Elder William Jackson was riding in was attacked by a suicide bomber. These photos show the damage that the vehicle sustained. Courtesy of Gerald C. Brady and William Jackson.Top, Middle, and Bottom: The armored vehicle that Elder William Jackson was riding in was attacked by a suicide bomber. These photos show the damage that the vehicle sustained. Courtesy of Gerald C. Brady and William Jackson.

I made the chaplain aware. He reminded me that they only had a very short window of opportunity when they were given permission to fly to Kabul, pick me up, and fly back for the conference. I got to the airport first thing in the morning, and of course, the King Air flight was delayed—no obvious reasons, just delayed. Eventually, we did leave, and I prayed that little plane could fly faster than I thought it could fly.

We flew into Kabul and started to land. Kabul airfield had one runway. In the middle was the Afghan international airport. Right beside that, with high concertina wire fences, was the military base. They were separated only by a few hundred yards and shared the same airstrip. The airfield was littered with bombed out Russian aircraft from previous fights. As I flew in, I looked out my window and could see the Black Hawk sitting in its prescribed place, rotors spinning.

I looked at my watch and knew I had about ten minutes to make it off this plane and to that spot before my ride was going to be forced to leave. But a large international airliner had just arrived from Europe, and the immigration and customs line stretched all the way onto the tarmac. I could see my helicopter, but I couldn’t get to it! My embassy expediter came out to see me, and I told him, “I have to be on that helicopter, and I have to be on it right now.” Being the creative Afghan that he was, he stole a couple of glances side to side and said, “Come with me.” He took me out of line and over to the fence separating the two buildings. He pulled back a loose part of the fence and said, “Go through, go through. I’ll get your bags; don’t worry. I’ll check you into the country. Just go through.”

In my white shirt and tie, and my omnipresent black briefcase, I slipped through the wire, hoping I wasn’t going to receive some sort of a warning shot over my head, and entered Kabul Airbase. I sweet-talked my way through several checkpoints and burst onto the tarmac where the helicopter had been. It wasn’t there, and I could see it disappearing across the runway and into the distance. As I ran out onto the tarmac, I don’t know what the guards thought as they saw a civilian drop his bag, put his hands up, and yell at the sky. I thought, after all this, I had missed it by just a few seconds! Suddenly, the helicopter stopped and swiveled around. I could see helmets sticking out of the side door, looking at me. It returned to pick me up. After it landed, I saw the chaplain on the helicopter. He was surrounded, he told me, by the Bagram elders quorum! There were a couple of gunners and pilots, but otherwise, everyone on the flight was a Latter-day Saint. They said they’d been praying I would make it. We flew rapid fire over the rooftops from Kabul to Bagram with the big machine guns swinging side to side and finally settled down in a more peaceful, secure location. There were 132 people at the conference (thanks to the Utah National Guard) on the 5th of June 2004, which, to my knowledge, was the largest priesthood gathering in the history of Afghanistan. It was a great conference, once again. Afterward I had an uneventful trip back to Kabul.

* * * * *

In mid-November [2005], I flew to Kandahar for the opportunity to meet with some of the Saints in southern Afghanistan. In Kandahar, the members of the Church lived at Kandahar Airfield, which was ten to fifteen miles southwest of town in the middle of the desert. Just northeast of Kandahar City is a big, mostly modern compound that had been built by Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, when he lived in Kandahar. The American Embassy staff and employees took advantage of his facility at that time. I would land at the airport, drive through town, and go to that compound during my stay. There I would do my work and take care of my patients. On this particular morning, as we prepared to return to the air base, we organized ourselves at the compound into a caravan of six vehicles. The first of the six vehicles was a gunship, a tricked-out Toyota Hilux with a big .50-cal machine gun loaded in the back, the double cab being filled with local Afghan soldiers who were part of our protective detail. The second and third vehicles were armored SUVs—embassy vehicles. They looked like normal SUVs on the outside but had an extra metal reinforced body to protect its passengers. They each weighed about six tons. The fourth and fifth vehicles were empty flatbed trucks going to the airport to pick up supplies for the compound. The last vehicle was another gunship, bringing up the rear. The Afghan gentleman driving the truck immediately behind my vehicle (#3) stopped halfway through our trip to pick up his fifteen-year-old nephew who had skipped school that day to go out to the American Air Force base.

Our drivers loved to drive fast. That was very unnerving for most of us because we thought we were always about to hit someone. It happened all the time! We were always bumping into cars and nudging people out of the way. We cleared the end of the marketplace and could almost see open road in front of us when we came upon a green sedan parked in the right-hand lane of our two-lane road, effectively blocking that lane so that we all had to swerve around him. Just before we got there, it pulled back into the road to resume its journey, and instead of picking one lane or the other, it drove right in the middle of the road, not unusual for Afghan traffic. The first gunship was somehow able to get by it, and the first embassy SUV laid on his horn and was able to squeeze by before he took up residence in the middle of the road, completely blocking our way. We were unable to get past him. We could see our caravan starting to pull away. Our driver and the guy sitting shotgun (with a shotgun!) were getting anxious. They did not want to fall behind, so they got behind the guy and started blasting the horn. He would not get out of our way. Right before our driver was about to drive right over him, he laid on the horn one more time, and the vehicle moved back into his lane. We started to drive past, followed by the rest of the caravan behind us. As we drove by, our inclination was to lean over and see who was driving the car that was causing us so much trouble. It was just some young Afghan man with a beard like every other man on the street. As we were beginning to pass him, I noticed that he was starting to drift back into the middle of the road again, and I knew he was going to hit us! I could just imagine what kind of damage our car was going to do to the side of his car when that happened. As we were just about to collide, I tensed my muscles and leaned over in my seat. Instead of hearing the grinding metallic destruction of his vehicle, I heard a deafening explosion. He was a suicide bomber—the first one in the history of Kandahar. He had swung back over to broadside us as he detonated. There was a deafening explosion, then everything went black. I suddenly felt weightless. We had been blown into the air and down the street about forty yards before landing on our roof, spinning around 180 degrees and falling over onto our right side. That’s when it hit us that we’d been the victims of a suicide bombing.

I barely had time to figure out if I was all still there when I heard the protective detail yelling, “Get out of the car. Get out of the car. We’re on fire!” I thought to myself, get out of the car? Really? We were always taught to stay in the car if attacked! But I could see that there was fire all around us; in fact, there were flames outside my door leaping toward the sky. Then I wondered how we were going to get out at all. The windshields were super thick, bullet-proof glass and each door weighed about six hundred pounds. Even if I could open them, I would just be exiting into an inferno. That’s when I realized that sometime between the explosion and the landing, the front windshield of our SUV had fortuitously blown out. I grabbed the young lady sitting next to me by the back of her shirt, guided her in front of me, and followed the protective detail out into the street.

It was a surreal scene. There were people screaming and yelling everywhere. Down the road was a big black mushroom cloud where the bomber’s car had exploded. Our protective detail of Afghan soldiers (vehicle #6) were running up and down the street firing their AK-47s into the air—pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. They were trying to clear everyone away from us. By the time we got out of the vehicle and stepped over the big cement median to the other side of the street, we were all by ourselves. There were people crying. I could see cars that had been blown off the road into buildings. I could see pieces of people in the street. There had been a motorcyclist right next to us when that bomber detonated; I can’t imagine that he stood any kind of chance at all. The fifteen-year-old boy who was joyriding with his uncle in the truck right behind us was killed instantly.

I looked back at our car and realized that I had left my briefcase in it. Everything in my life was in that briefcase—documents, scriptures, notesyou name it. I asked our protective detail with the shotgun if I could quickly run back and grab it. He said, “Doc, are you crazy? There’s no way you’re going back over there.” Almost on cue, the diesel tank in our vehicle erupted, and there followed a second deafening explosion as our car was engulfed in a bright orange mushroom cloud.

By this time, the first embassy vehicle found a break in the road and had come back to get us. We were shoved into the back and continued to the airbase. We finally were able to take an inventory of ourselves. We found that other than a singe on one of the soldiers and a little cut on another, none of us were injured—no broken bones, no eardrum injuries, no loss of consciousness. Our car was destroyed completely, but the metal box we were sitting in was not breached. A lot of people died in that explosion. The bomber’s car was completely atomized. The only recognizable part of his car that remained was the front bumper, which had been thrown one hundred yards down the road beyond us. Even cars in front of us were blown off the road and into buildings by the force of the explosion. And yet we walked away.


During Operation Enduring Freedom (2004–5), Colby Jenkins, a Green Beret, served as the detachment commander of a Special Forces A-team. His team occupied a remote firebase in the mountainous region of southeastern Afghanistan. Before entering active military duty, Colby served a Latter-day Saint mission to Brazil and graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is married to the former Heather Farnsworth. Following Afghanistan, Colby and his team deployed to various South American countries, where they worked alongside other South American Special Forces units. He currently lives in California, works for Google, and is serving as the bishop of his ward.

In April 2005, U.S. Special Forces officer Colby Jenkins was interviewed by American television journalist Tom Brokaw. Due to security restrictions, the NBC camera crew was not allowed to directly film his face. Courtesy of Colby Jenkins.

In April 2005, U.S. Special Forces officer Colby Jenkins was interviewed by American television journalist Tom Brokaw. Due to security restrictions, the NBC camera crew was not allowed to directly film his face. Courtesy of Colby Jenkins.Top and Bottom: In April 2005, U.S. Special Forces officer Colby Jenkins was interviewed by American television journalist Tom Brokaw. Due to security restrictions, the NBC camera crew was not allowed to directly film his face. Courtesy of Colby Jenkins.

My experiences while leading a Special Forces A-team in combat strengthened my testimony in many ways. I have felt and experienced, once again, the tremendous power of the priesthood and the protection of a priesthood blessing. The Holy Ghost and my knowledge of the gospel helped me in new ways while I was deployed in combat far from home and family.

I deployed to Afghanistan with my team for about nine months in late 2004. We occupied what was perhaps the most remote firebase held by coalition forces, from which we launched direct action combat operations as well as humanitarian and goodwill missions. Perhaps our most significant combat operation occurred in the spring of 2005 in the mountainous region of southeastern Afghanistan. We worked hard to strike at al-Qaeda associated militants [AQAM] in our area and had much success. After developing time-sensitive information, we seized an opportunity to strike at AQAM provincial leadership while they attended a meeting. Due to the nature of those operations and the flexibility required to hunt down a mobile and deceptive enemy in such restrictive terrain, my planning, as the detachment commander, was hasty yet deliberate (crisis-action planning, as we call it).

My higher headquarters understood the value of the target we were pursuing and pushed valuable helicopter assets and additional forces to assist us in our time-sensitive strike. With the air assets flying to my camp and additional forces marshaled to move upon my notification, my A-team and our Afghan forces made final preparations and boarded their assigned aircraft. I reviewed the plan once again with the key element leaders as well as the flight commanders to ensure my intent was clear.

Without going into too much detail, the plan called for multiple aircraft to insert my forces at different points along the target area compounds once we positively identified and confirmed the target area. With additional fast movers and attack helicopters providing support overhead, my forces began the initial infiltration. As during previous combat operations, my mind raced during these final seconds as we approached the target and waited to exit the aircraft.

Hearing the inbound helicopters as we arrived, AQAM in the target area began to engage us with various small arms and machine guns. After inserting my portion of the assault force, my helicopter took direct fire from an enemy position as it attempted to leave. The pilot called on the radio as he attempted to fly out of our drop-off point and stated simply, “Mayday. Mayday.” The other portion of my assault element also received direct enemy fire and began to radio their situation to me while seeking cover and returning fire.

Colby Jenkins is shown shaking the hand of a young Afghan girl who lived in a nearby village. After the first snow of the winter arrived, they knew there would be many Afghans experiencing difficulties and suffering, so they ventured out to help where they could and took emergency supplies to those most in need. A piece of candy or something for the children was always well received. Courtesy of Colby Jenkins.Colby Jenkins is shown shaking the hand of a young Afghan girl who lived in a nearby village. After the first snow of the winter arrived, they knew there would be many Afghans experiencing difficulties and suffering, so they ventured out to help where they could and took emergency supplies to those most in need. A piece of candy or something 3for the children was always well received. Courtesy of Colby Jenkins.

With my two assault elements engaging different enemy forces at different locations and one helicopter going down and out of communications, the fog of war seemed extremely thick in my mind. The attack helicopters were identifying additional targets and engaging them accordingly as the fast movers waited for their opportunity to buzz by and strike if necessary. During those critical deafening minutes and seconds of initial intense action, the need for me to understand the situation, make decisions, and issue clear guidance, together with our ability to fight, would determine the outcome for that day—be it good or bad.

At this point of the operation, I distinctly remember my mind being cleared. With so many factors to consider and potential disasters awaiting us, combined with the fact I had no knowledge as to the status of my downed helicopter, my mind briefly felt clear and calm. I was still reaching for information and all was not calm within me, but a distinct moment of clarity came over me. I felt calm and a sureness enabled me to understand the situation and help my men along with our Afghan partnering forces maneuver and eliminate the different threats at hand. The profoundness of those brief moments of clarity did not hit me until later the next day after we were safely back at my firebase and I could calmly review what had occurred.

While engaged in the midst of the firefight, the uplifting and clearance of mind I experienced occurred briefly, yet it came during the critical moments of our struggle. While I might not have recognized it at the time, my later reflection helped me realize that the calmness and peace of mind I experienced stemmed directly from the priesthood blessing my father gave to me prior to my deployment. In that blessing, my father promised me safety and the ability to do what was necessary to return home. Whether in combat situations or life in general, our own personal skills and abilities only get us so far. I know without the protection and power of the priesthood, my abilities to lead and fight those days might not have been as clear or effective.

Colby Jenkins is pictured in 2005 walking a little Afghan girl to the front of the line to get her a little teddy bear pillow. Colby said, “I always sought out the little girls because I longed so much for my own two little ones. Helping these little Afghan girls and seeing them smile is what brought smiles to my face.” Courtesy of Colby Jenkins.Colby Jenkins is pictured in 2005 walking a little Afghan girl to the front of the line to get her a little teddy bear pillow. Colby said, “I always sought out the little girls because I longed so much for my own two little ones. Helping these little Afghan girls and seeing them smile is what brought smiles to my face.” Courtesy of Colby Jenkins.

A young Afghan girl hugs a stuffed animal given to her through humanitarian packages from people in the United States in 2005. Courtesy of Colby Jenkins.A young Afghan girl hugs a stuffed animal given to her through humanitarian packages from people in the United States in 2005. Courtesy of Colby Jenkins.

We fought throughout that day, eliminating quite a few AQAM [Al-Qaeda associated militants], wounding others, and capturing several other individuals, including the high-ranking AQAM leader we had targeted. Luckily, the damage the downed helicopter and crew initially sustained did not prevent them from clearing the nearby hilltop as they left our location which enabled the pilot to execute a hard, yet safe, landing away from our activities. We later reached and secured the helicopter’s location and remained there for a period of time while others completed operations to remove the helicopter and the remainder of my forces. AQAM elements continued to maneuver on us throughout that dark and uncertain night. It was a night in the desert I will never forget. I reflect often on this operation and the distinct clarity of mind I experienced during perhaps the most critical yet volatile moment of the day.

Tom Brokaw and a small NBC television crew visited my camp and team shortly after that particular mission. He spent a few days filming us and gathering information about a special “War on Terror” television program, which later aired on NBC. During my conversations with Mr. Brokaw, he seemed extremely interested in my missionary experiences. He was struck by meeting a Latter-day Saint missionary conducting special operations on the frontiers of Afghanistan. He told me of his tremendous respect for President Hinckley and how he enjoyed his meetings and interviews with the prophet.

My knowledge of the Book of Mormon, in particular, paid tremendous dividends during my deployment. It helped me to better understand the nature of the enemy we faced. The evils the AQAM did to Afghan people and the manner in which they lived and fought often paralleled the Book of Mormon’s Gadianton robbers. It was obvious to me that the powers of Satan and the evil he places in the hearts of receptive men is real and a force to reckon with. Those who do not recognize wicked influences often fall victim to them. While I did not have the prophet Alma to turn to for guidance prior to battle like the Book of Mormon military leaders often did, I did have the Book of Mormon and my testimony to lean on. And lean I did as we fought to complete our mission and return home safely to our families.


Steve Larsen served as an engineer and psychological operations officer in the U.S. Army following his graduation from The Citadel at Charleston, South Carolina, in May 1986. He met his wife, Catherine Rose Yarn, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. After becoming a member of the Church in 1995, he served in Sarajevo, Bosnia, following the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords. He and Cathy were sealed in the Washington D.C. Temple in March 1997. After a combat tour at Kandahar, Afghanistan, he served on the faculty at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2006.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, before the Iraq invasion, my battalion—the 92nd Engineer Combat Battalion (Heavy) stationed at Fort Stewart, Georgia—deployed to the Afghan theater of war. Afghanistan had seen considerable combat since 1974 and suffered debilitating economic stagnation under the repressive Taliban regime. Our mission was to repair airports so that they could be used to fight Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces.

An American C-17 aircraft is shown taking off over the heads of soldiers from the 92nd Engineer Battalion. Soldiers are shown repairing the base runway in March 2002. Note the rugged mountains in the background. Courtesy of Stephen C. Larsen.An American C-17 aircraft is shown taking off over the heads of soldiers from the 92nd Engineer Battalion. Soldiers are shown repairing the base runway in March 2002. Note the rugged mountains in the background.
Courtesy of Stephen C. Larsen.

The 92nd Battalion, one of the few active duty construction battalions in the U.S. Army, had been sent to five locations. The two largest contingents were sent to the high desert towns of Bagram and Kandahar. I was an Army major serving as the battalion executive officer (second-in-command). Like all executive officers, I was simply called the “XO.” To reach Kandahar, we had flown on enormous U.S. Air Force C-5 Galaxy transport planes with our heavy construction equipment, which included massive bulldozers and 20-ton dump trucks, from Georgia to California to Guam and then Diego Garcia, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The C-5 Galaxy was too big to land at Kandahar so we transloaded all personnel, vehicles, and equipment to C-17 Globemasters that can land on dirt runways. It took sixty-seven aircraft sorties to move our battalion to Afghanistan. It was the largest airlift of a single Army battalion up to that time.

To suggest that Kandahar Airport was an international airport would be misleading. The airport was very small, had just one runway, and suffered from almost thirty years of fighting and deterioration. When we arrived, it was not a functional airport. The single runway was so badly damaged and cratered that only a few military transport aircraft could land on it. There was no water or electricity. There was nothing except the concrete remains of the runway, tarmac, and three wrecked buildings. The Soviet Army was the last occupying force there.

Beyond the paved areas, the airfield was littered with dozens of wrecked Soviet-era aircraft and helicopters. Our repair mission was intense and difficult. The runway had been built for 1950s-era aircraft, not for the heavy aircraft commonly used fifty years later. The runway required constant work, and it was our lifeline. The only way in or out of Kandahar was by air. Without an operational runway, we would be cut off. Everything we needed came by air, including water, food, ammunition, fuel, repair parts, and construction materials. Our fighting forces would launch their attacks from that runway. Our sick, injured, and wounded were also evacuated using that runway. When the time came for us to return home, we would leave by that runway.

Lieutenant Colonel Stephen C. Larsen, in full battle gear, is standing on the tail of a wrecked Afghan MiG aircraft in January 2002 at Kandahar, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Stephen C. Larsen.Lieutenant Colonel Stephen C. Larsen, in full battle gear, is standing on the tail of a wrecked Afghan MiG aircraft in January 2002 at Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Courtesy of Stephen C. Larsen.

The landscape surrounding Kandahar was devoid of structures, people, and vegetation. It had more in common with the moon than earth. If we didn’t bring it with us, it didn’t exist. Our soldiers lived in tents protected by low walls made of sandbags erected on very rocky soil we had cleared of landmines and unexploded ordnance. Anything not paved likely contained those deadly devices. The little electricity available to us came from small, tactical military generators we flew in. The tent city, as we called it, grew increasingly large as more military forces arrived. Despite its austerity, some facets of normal living became more common. Military folks on deployment are generally a pretty religious bunch. There is nothing like the possibility of soon meeting one’s maker to cause you to think of him often. Almost immediately, our allied service members began conducting Christian, Muslim, and Jewish services in tents or in the open on the appropriate religious days.

At Kandahar, the 92nd Battalion was part of an allied military group under the command and control of the 101st Airborne Division, the famed “Screaming Eagles.” Our engineer force included reservists from New York and National Guardsmen from Wisconsin. We were also blessed with military engineers from the 101st Division as well as Canada, Norway, and Jordan. We even had Croatian explosive detection dog teams helping us. It took all of us to make that airfield work.

Living conditions were Spartan in the extreme. In our remote location, we all felt very isolated. But no matter what our nationality was, we provided each other some respite from the loneliness of our situation. The value of receiving mail from home cannot be overestimated. When a soldier received a package from home filled with goodies, they would typically share it with everyone nearby. Cards and letters of support from complete strangers were common and important in boosting our morale.

To remember home and express pride in our national heritage, most units erected a flag. Within a few weeks, there appeared a sea of American flags above the tents. There were also the flags of our allies and their units, most notably the large and colorful flag of the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. There were also two special flags flown from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which lost many employees when the World Trade Towers collapsed. Those two flags were white with black silhouettes of the Twin Towers on them. They served to remind us why we were there. So there we were—men and women, Christians, Jews, and Muslims—flying flags of the free world and conducting appropriate Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious services deep in the heart of Taliban country.

On most nights enemy forces launched mortar and rocket attacks on our position. Their fires were not well aimed and did not produce any casualties that I remember. We believed the enemy did that to prevent us from resting, in the hope that in our fatigue we would make mistakes they could exploit. As part of Operation Anaconda, soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and many Special Forces soldiers assembled at Kandahar and Bagram to fight Taliban and al-Qaeda forces gathered at Sha-e-Kot, a remote mountain area at an extreme altitude. The mountains were too high for the workhorse UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to reach. Dozens of CH-47 Chinook helicopters accompanied by AH-64 Apache attack helicopters flew infantry to the mountainous battlefield and supported them throughout the lengthy combat operation.

There was no infantry left to guard the Kandahar airfield. Our engineers were reorganized as infantry and ordered to guard the perimeter for the next three weeks. At the same time, we were still responsible for keeping the airport operational. We did so and were proud of our ability to perform as infantry and engineers.

Aviators and ground crews received little rest, yet some Church members were able to pause and hold weekly sacrament meetings in a tent. We kept on our body armor but took off our equipment and laid down our weapons. We broke crackers for sacrament bread and drank from bottled water caps. One Sunday, a Chinook pilot came in still wearing his flight suit. He looked very tired. It was clear he was giving up an opportunity for sleep in order to renew his covenants. We were all humbled by his presence and his choice.


Neil McMullin served as a trauma surgeon assigned to the 8th Forward Surgical Team at Forward Operating Base Shank in Afghanistan. He was then assigned to Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Trained in plastic and reconstructive surgery, he is currently serving as a lieutenant colonel. Raised in Texas, he has been a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints his entire life. Neil has held numerous Church callings, including bishop and high councilor, and served as a missionary in the Brazil Curitiba Mission. He is a happily married father of five.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Whenever an American soldier dies in combat, they are sent home from their duty station with a hero’s salute. All the medical personnel line up and send them off, saluting their great and final sacrifice. Tonight, we sent off two such heroes.

This was one of the single most surreal moments in my deployment to this date. Imagine a moonless night in an area where there is no ambient light. You can see stars that you never imagined existed; the Milky Way galaxy stretches from one horizon to the other. All of the soldiers are lined up shoulder to shoulder, forming a corridor to the helicopter pad. The guards who will carry the bodies turn on their red headlights. It is so black that you can only see faint shadows of the person next to you. Just over the wall, a loud cannon report makes you jump, and you are glad that the darkness covered your uneasiness. The cannon shot is followed by a hollow “whump” as the round explodes into a brilliant yellow flare, casting a candlelight glow on the company of soldiers. A flare slowly dances to the ground and goes out, like the lives of the fallen soldiers, leaving everyone in darkness. The guards carry the flag-draped bodies to the helicopters, and with a final salute, they are carried away to their friends and families at their final resting place.

Dr. Neil McMullin waiting for the arrival of a Medevac casualty flight. Courtesy of Neil McMullin.Dr. Neil McMullin waiting for the arrival of a Medevac casualty flight. Courtesy of Neil McMullin.

The chaplain spoke a few words afterward, but I could tell he wasn’t the best orator or the most observant of fellows. Had he seen what I saw there, he would have spoken of the many symbols of man and the eternal nature of man’s soul. Looking up in the night sky and seeing so many stars testifies to the eternal grandeur of our spirits. Our natural lives are like the cannon shot and flare, burning brightly but for a few moments, only to eventually return to the dark. This is the second of such ceremonies I have seen, and I hate it all the same. Tonight a wife, a mother, and children will learn that their loved one will never be coming home from this barren wilderness. There will be flowers, eulogies, speeches, flags, and rallies, but in the end, life will have to go on for these people. It makes me grateful for my wife and children. It makes me want to hug my children tighter and kiss my wife longer, and it makes me value the greatest commodity we have—time. This night makes me grateful for the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the hope for a resurrection, as well as the knowledge of the eternal nature of the spirits of mankind and the sealing blessings of a temple marriage.

To all who to read this: Tonight, go outside and look at the stars. Spend a special moment with those you love, and render your own hero’s salute.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The past forty-eight hours have encompassed some of the lowest and highest moments of my deployment. I share these experiences so that you can see the contrast and what I have experienced. Hopefully, you will draw some lessons of your own.

A hospital scene showing Dr. Neil McMullen (second from left), his surgery partner (on the right), a translator (center), a patient, and his brother. Courtesy of Neil McMullen.A hospital scene showing Dr. Neil McMullen (second from left), his surgery partner (on the right), a translator (center), a patient, and his brother. Courtesy of Neil McMullen.

It began Thursday morning with casualties arriving around 0430 [4:30 a.m.] after a brief interlude for lunch (that was considerate of the Taliban). A soldier arrived in extremis [near the point of death] after sustaining an extremely severe injury. He arrived and coded in the ATLS [Advanced Trauma Life Support] area. We were able to get a heartbeat back, and, after consultation with our neurosurgeon in Bagram, we decided that his only chance was an aerovac [aeromedical evacuation] to Bagram, where he would need to undergo massive brain surgery. At this point, his chances of survival were slim, but we loaded him on a helicopter in a desperate attempt to save him. Due to his tenuous condition, my CRNA (anesthesiologist) and I flew with him. Three minutes into the twenty-five-minute flight, his heart stopped again, and we coded him again. I did chest compressions for the next twenty-two minutes until arriving at the ER in Bagram, where he was pronounced dead. I resolved that I was not going to call him during the flight, and we would get him to Bagram. We did everything we could do, but it just wasn’t enough.

Upon returning to FOB Shank, I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I just wanted to be alone with my thoughts and my own prayers. It wasn’t the soldier but the physician who needed healing at that moment. I finally got to bed around midnight, and an hour later, we started taking casualties again. We were busy all night, and I was able to get back to sleep around 0600 [6:00 a.m.]. After a few hours of sleep, we were told that there were more casualties. Three soldiers were coming in, all with gunshot wounds. One was quickly deteriorating, and the other two appeared stable. My partners took the severely wounded soldier while I took care of the other two. Of my two, one was stable. The other had a nasty femur fracture. After looking at their x-rays, I ran into a chaplain. The chaplain asked me if I was Major McMullin.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Are you a Mormon elder?” he asked.

“Uh, yeah.”

He proceeded to tell me that one of the soldiers under my care was a Mormon and wanted a priesthood blessing from a Mormon elder. It was the soldier who was minimally injured. However, he was the one who watched two of his buddies die and performed lifesaving care for the soldier now in the operating room. There in the middle of the ICU [intensive care unit] and amidst the chaos, I was able to give my patient a priesthood blessing. It was a very spiritual experience. After the dust and chaos settled down a bit, the local service members’ group leader and I were able to administer the sacrament to him. I will never forget how grateful he was to get that priesthood blessing and how grateful I was that I was worthy to place my hands on this faithful brother’s head and pronounce a blessing from his Father in Heaven upon him. I rededicated myself to always living worthy to be able, at a moment’s notice, to be an instrument in the hands of the Lord to bless his children.

That evening as I sat by his bedside, we talked about Captain Moroni from the Book of Mormon, who led his people during a time of war against the Lamanites. How was it that they were able to maintain their spirituality during that time of strife? They did so to such a degree that Mormon was able to decree that “there never was a happier time among the people of Nephi” (Alma 50:23). We talked about Moroni, who witnessed the destruction of his people. Many times we overlook that this likely included brothers, sisters, and maybe a spouse and children. Yet he was able to carry on and perform the important work that the Lord had for him. The Book of Mormon was written by warriors.

This experience was one of the high points of the past several weeks. Being able to serve that brother helped me overcome the sadness from the previous night. I am so grateful for that opportunity.


Keith Moon was a full-time course manager for the 640th Regiment Regional Training Institute at Camp Williams, Utah. He earned a bachelor of arts in intelligence studies with an emphasis in terrorism and a master of arts in management. He has served in the Young Men presidency in Eagle Mountain, Utah. He attended the Defense Language Institute, for formal training as a French interpreter, and Fort Huachuca’s Counterintelligence school. During his assignment in Afghanistan, he served as a group leader in Sharana, Paktika Province, at a provincial reconstruction site.

As a young man during my mission, it never occurred to me that joining the military was a path I should take. During a phone call home on Christmas Day from Angoulême, France, I spoke with my younger brother, Nathan, who was months away from graduating high school. He told me that he planned to sign with the Utah Army National Guard in the 1-211th Aviation unit. I told him he was crazy for even considering it, but it was his life, and if it made him happy, then it was his decision. After I returned from my mission, I saw my brother briefly at Christmas as he completed schooling in his military occupation specialty. Shortly after that, I left for my first semester at BYU–Idaho, and Nathan left to serve a mission in Taiwan.

Over the next four months at school, I felt that something was missing from my life and that it just wasn’t going in the right direction. After much scripture study, prayer, and contemplation, I knew that BYU–Idaho was not the place for me. I went home to Centerville in Davis County, Utah, for the summer and applied for school at Dixie State, receiving a full scholarship. My parents suggested that I speak to SFC [Sergeant First Class] Watkins, my brother’s recruiter, to see if I would be interested in pursuing a military profession. I reluctantly accepted, knowing full well that I would never join the military. After speaking with SFC Watkins and still not feeling impressed to join, I planned to continue my schooling in Southern Utah. My mother insisted I pray about my decision before I decided not to join. Following the advice of my mother, I did so. Much to my surprise, I received a confirmation that joining the Army National Guard was the path I should take. I had received my answer, and it was now my responsibility to show obedience to it. I joined the Utah Army National Guard on April 30, 2001.

* * * * *

Keith Moon (left) posing for a photograph in Afghanistan. Courtesy of Keith Moon.Keith Moon (left) posing for a photograph in Afghanistan. Courtesy of Keith Moon.

During the first few days of basic training, everyone received a generic haircut, numerous shots, and our battle dress uniforms. We were all made to look alike, but I soon learned that as a member of the Church, it would be impossible to blend in with my counterparts. The most obvious difference at first was the holy garment, which I wore underneath my uniform. Since we all had to dress and undress in the same room, it was quite apparent that I was different. The first general reaction was, “Whoa, where’d you get those?” and “Where can I get some?” When they found out I wore them for religious purposes, I started to get some weird looks from the others. I explained they were symbolic of promises I made to God, and they helped me to keep those promises. Gradually, other privates began to ask me questions. They noticed that I didn’t swear like everyone else. They asked how many wives I had, whether I had to shave my beard to get into the Army, and what it was like living without electricity. Some of the questions I was asked just made me laugh, but after explaining more about the Church and why we do the things we do, I began to gain respect from my fellow soldiers.

As I studied the scriptures, others began to feel comfortable speaking about their own religious beliefs. Many privates in my room began to read the Bible, and a few began to read the Book of Mormon. Often, other privates would ask questions about what different scriptures meant. I became known as the preacher.

I’d like to share with you an experience I had with one private in particular. His name was Private Lawson. He seemed to be questioning many things concerning religion and the Army. He didn’t affiliate himself with any particular denomination. All he knew is that he believed in God. He had joined the military in hopes of creating a better life for a future family that he planned to start soon after he arrived home. Since I’d been named the preacher by my platoon, other soldiers would come to me with religiously related concerns. Private Lawson came to me one night with a concerned look on his face. He said, “Moon, if you had to pull the trigger to kill someone during combat, would God be mad at you?”

I spoke to Private Lawson about Captain Moroni. A young man our age was fighting thousands of years ago, just as we are today. Then I spoke to him of the causes for which we fight as American soldiers: “Nevertheless, the Nephites were inspired by a better cause, for they were not fighting for monarchy nor power but they were fighting for their homes and their liberties, their wives and their children, and their all, yea, for their rights of worship and their church” (Alma 43:45). I told him of soldiers who died firm in the faith of Christ.

In our eighth week of training, we were scheduled to leave our barracks and tough it out in the cold Missouri weather. Unable to attend regular Sabbath worship the day before leaving, four privates, including Private Lawson and myself, retired to a back room of the barracks to hold an hour of worship. Each of us were from different faiths, but we all believed firmly in a living Christ. We each knelt and prayed, asking for strength during our upcoming week in the field. We shared our testimonies and prayed again.

The morning we were to depart on our field training exercise, our platoon leader was fired from his position, and the responsibilities of our platoon landed on the shoulders of Private Lawson. During our marches, he confided in me his fear of letting us down. He asked my feelings on how he was doing and asked if the platoon was responding to his leadership. During one of the most difficult days, after seventy-two hours of rain in freezing temperatures, Private Lawson grabbed my shoulder, and we knelt in the mud of our encampment. It was time to pray. We prayed fervently for the welfare of our platoon. Our bodies were worn and tired. I remember not being able to feel my toes, but the warmth of the Spirit burned fervently in our hearts. As I had these experiences, I remembered the words of my father in a blessing I received just prior to leaving. He spoke of a particular private who would need a true friend, someone who I needed to reach out to. Private Lawson was that friend. No matter our age or where we are, I will hold a bond with him that is unbreakable. My new friend had learned the power of prayer, a principle I had learned serving God on a mission and confirmed once again in a time of need.

* * * * *

In 2003, as a member of the Utah Army National Guard, it was my privilege to be given one of the greatest trials of my young life. I received a call indicating that I was to be activated and deployed to the Middle East. I reported to my unit the next day and received orders indicating I would be serving for eighteen months in deployment to Iraq. My wife was a pillar of strength. Her strong testimony and steadfast and immovable faith sustained me through some of my darkest days. Upon arriving at Fort Bliss, Texas (my premobilization station), I remember feeling quite awkward and unsure about being deployed to a war zone. That first night, I knelt at the side of my bunk in our large bay and poured my soul out to my Heavenly Father. I made a promise to him that I would strive to maintain my prayers and scripture study, and I promised that if he gave me missionary opportunities I would act upon them.

Near the end of this four-month training period, we received word that a small number (about thirty to forty) of our large two-hundred-person group would be reassigned to serve in Afghanistan. This was exciting news to me. My younger brother Nathan had been deployed with the 1-211th Aviation from the Utah Army National Guard to Afghanistan a few weeks before me. I hoped for the chance to serve in the same combat zone as my younger brother. The day finally arrived when a determination had been made concerning who of the large group would serve in Afghanistan. One by one, each soldier from Utah was called out of the formation. My name was called. My Heavenly Father sent me there with a purpose and mission to accomplish. I thanked my Heavenly Father for the blessing of having a family member in my area.

Keith Moon and fellow soldiers set up a temporary camp in Afghanistan. Courtesy of Keith Moon.Keith Moon and fellow soldiers set up a temporary camp in Afghanistan. Courtesy of Keith Moon.

After arriving at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, I searched for Camp Albert, where my brother was staying. I found the quarters in which he resided, and when I saw him, we embraced as only brothers do. I gained a new appreciation for the power of the family. Here in the outer reaches of the world, I felt a little more at home.

I had the opportunity to attend Latter-day Saint church services before I was assigned to serve in a remote province on the Pakistan border. Before leaving Bagram Airfield, I met with Chaplain (Major) Allison—the presiding Church authority in Afghanistan at the time. He asked me to serve as a group leader so that we could conduct Sunday services with the three or four members stationed in that area.

Upon arriving at our new location, we came to understand that the site had not actually been constructed yet. The army engineers were still in the process of surveying for an appropriate site. We were told that we should find a tent and put it up because that would be our home for the next six months.

The second night, we laid out our sleeping bags on dirt covered plywood and prepared to go to bed when a combat medic came over and introduced himself as Brett. After learning that a few of us were from Utah, he asked if we were “Mormon.” We answered affirmatively, and he proceeded to tell us that he had written a book report a year earlier in his high school English class regarding the Mormon religion. I learned that this medic was an active Baptist at home in Iowa. We learned that not only did this medic devoutly follow the Baptist faith, but he had also chosen not to smoke, drink, or swear, unlike many of his counterparts. For a young specialist living with the infantry to choose not to do those things was a rare phenomenon.

The Spirit impressed upon me that, given the opportunity, I needed to share the gospel with this young man. In the next few weeks, I shared the six missionary discussions with Brett. He accepted the challenge to read and pray about the Book of Mormon and shortly thereafter chose to be baptized. It was a marvelous experience to share my testimony with Brett. Often we would have Church services, just the two of us. It made testimony meeting very interesting. After the sacrament, I would bear my testimony to him, and he would bear his testimony to me.

Although our numbers were few, the Spirit was as strong as I’ve ever felt in any chapel. Using a satellite phone, Brett was able to contact the missionaries in Iowa and inform them of his plan to get baptized during his leave in December. The missionaries, believing the call was a prank from other elders in the Iowa mission, were surprised when Brett arrived at their doorstep in December. They gladly accommodated his request to get baptized. The next time I saw Brett, in January, he was an Aaronic Priesthood holder.

* * * * *

I asked my parents to search for copies of the Book of Mormon in several languages native to that region of Afghanistan. They sent Dari, Arabic, and Turkish. I thought the copy of the Turkish Book of Mormon was an odd addition since it was not a language spoken in Afghanistan, nor was it Arabic based. My mother later told me that she felt prompted to include it with the other copies of the Book of Mormon. Just a few days after receiving my mother’s package, Brett approached me and asked if I had a Turkish Book of Mormon. Surprised, I asked who it was for. Brett explained that one of the interpreters had seen him always reading his copy of the book and asked for a chance to read it. At the interpreter’s Afghan school, he had been taught only in Pashto and Turkish. Since there was no Pashto Book of Mormon, Turkish was the only Book of Mormon that he would be able to read.

* * * * *

One month when my team leader was on leave, I was left with the responsibilities of ensuring the safety and success of the team and our mission. We had been asked by our commander to accompany his convoy on a particular mission. Normally, we would go on every mission, but I had the distinct impression that I shouldn’t go. I couldn’t think of a good reason not to and accepted his invitation. The day before leaving, one of the members of my team insisted that I should let him go so that I could run our mission at the base. I allowed him to go while holding back our American interpreter and one other team member to limit those of our team who were going on the convoy mission. The next morning the convoy left, and they arrived at their destination without a problem. I decided I must have been a little paranoid.

The next day, as I entered the tactical operations center for the base, I heard calls come over the radio indicating that the convoy had just come under attack. Suddenly, I realized that the admonition I had felt to not go on this particular mission had been a warning from the Spirit. My thoughts were now with those members of my team who were in the convoy. Radio transmissions streamed in. One soldier down. Two soldiers down. Three soldiers down. Soon we realized that one soldier had been killed and two were seriously injured. I pled with the Lord to protect my team. Immediately, I felt the comfort of the Spirit. I knew that my team would be protected from the ambush. We concentrated on sending air support and helping our soldiers get out of the kill zone. After about an hour, the names of the fallen soldiers came over the radio. One soldier, a nineteen-year-old young man named SPC [Specialist] Kearney, was killed by gunshot. Another lost his arm, and a third had serious burns from his torso to his legs.

That evening, Brett came to my tent. I could see he had shed tears of sorrow for his comrade who had fallen. He expressed to me a thankfulness for the gospel plan outlined by a loving Heavenly Father that gave a promise of hope for all of us, especially SPC Kearney.

During the ambush, rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47 fire, and a sniper were used to attack the convoy. By a very real miracle, the convoy was able to push past the kill zone, losing only two vehicles in the process. Equipment and personnel were cross-loaded, and the convoy drove to the nearest American firebase. After my team arrived at our base the next day, I learned that out of nine vehicles in the convoy, theirs was the only one without a bullet hole. The Spirit confirmed to me again that it was the protection of God that allowed my team to return safely from the mission. Despite being in a dangerous land and fighting a tenacious enemy, I knew if I put my life in the hands of the Lord that all would work out for the best.


Anne Marie Oborn has painted over 120 portraits of soldiers who have died and given them to their families as part of Project Compassion. She is a signature member of Plein Air Painters of Utah and the Alliance of Covenant Artists and is a founding member of the Inspirational Art Association. She attended ROTC at Idaho State University and is now married with four children, who are grown and married. Anne has held several Church callings, including Young Women president, nursery worker, Primary president, and stake primary counselor.

Anne Marie Oborn standing by one of her paintings of a fallen soldier. Courtesy of Anne Marie Oborn.Anne Marie Oborn standing by one of her paintings of a fallen soldier. Courtesy of Anne Marie Oborn.

Anne Marie Oborn’s paintings of PFC Marion Adam Lee from Mount Airy, North Carolina (on the left), and Specialist Sean Anthony Brook from Detroit Lakes, Minnesota (on the right). Courtesy of Anne Marie Oborn.

Anne Marie Oborn’s paintings of PFC Marion Adam Lee from Mount Airy, North Carolina (on the left), and Specialist Sean Anthony Brook from Detroit Lakes, Minnesota (on the right). Courtesy of Anne Marie Oborn.Top and Bottom: Anne Marie Oborn’s paintings of PFC Marion Adam Lee from Mount Airy, North Carolina (on the top), and Specialist Sean Anthony Brook from Detroit Lakes, Minnesota (on the bottom). Courtesy of Anne Marie Oborn.

Anne Marie Oborn’s painting of Sergeant Benjamin Patrick Johnson from Alamogordo, New Mexico. Courtesy of Anne Marie Oborn.Anne Marie Oborn’s painting of Sergeant Benjamin Patrick Johnson from Alamogordo, New Mexico. Courtesy of Anne Marie Oborn.

My participation in Project Compassion is emotionally rooted. I believe James Cawley was one of the first soldiers from Utah to die from wounds sustained in the Iraq War. James and his family weighed heavily on my mind. I was so moved by his sacrifice. Alone, I wanted his funeral, hoping I could in some way bring comfort to his family. Later, I attempted to contact the family, yet wavered, in respect for their privacy. As time passed, I lost sight of my initial feelings.

Not long afterward, while reading the Deseret News, I came across an article about a woman called the “Goat Woman.” Her name was Kaziah Hancock, from Manti, Utah. Kaziah had painted James Cawley for his family. I admired her forthright manner in contacting the family, obtaining photographs, and completing the painting to comfort a grieving family.

Time passed, and I soon laid my emotional thoughts aside. Months later, while demonstrating my painting skills at the state fair, I was approached by a woman who, over my shoulder, asked, “Would you like to paint soldiers who have died in Iraq for their families?” A warm feeling came to me, and I asked, “Are you the artist who painted James Cawley?” At that very moment, I witnessed the warm smile of a “comrade-in-compassion.” Having met her only once, I witnessed Kaziah’s love and trust. For soldiers, I feel great love and deep appreciation. As I paint, spending many hours looking into their faces, I experience an emotion difficult to describe. Many times, I feel as though I am enlightened by their presence and encouraged by the faith of their families. It satisfies my soul.

In painting these portraits, I wish to fill the hearts of the grieving family members, giving them as much love as possible. It humbles me to serve in this manner. Initially, I had my mind set on painting just a few portraits; yet as time passed, the promptings in my heart have led me to continue painting as long as I am needed. To date, I have painted over 120 portraits. I am not as concerned about the end as I am the journey. In this process, I have developed friendships and have gotten to know so many honorable families of these fallen heroes. These soldiers stepped forward to make the ultimate sacrifice. I am grateful for the honor of painting their beautiful faces.


From 2002 to 2019, Chris participated in several combat rotations—six to Afghanistan, one to Iraq, and one to Colombia in addition to conducting special operations throughout the world. He served as an infantry platoon leader, company executive officer, a Special Forces operational detachment alpha commander, a Special Forces company commander, a Special Forces operations officer, and a Special Forces battalion commander during that time. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point and the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, California. He served as a missionary in the Argentina Buenos Aires West Mission from 1995 to 1997 and has served in many Church positions, including elders quorum president, high councilor, and first counselor in a bishopric.

War is such a powerful experience! One’s initial thought is that suffering and evil can be the only result of war; admittedly, there is much of that. For me, though, it has proven to be much more—a profound teacher and instructor of the gospel and the plan of our Heavenly Father.

I am a Special Forces (Green Beret) officer. I have had so many personal experiences in my months of deployed time that I could write volumes. However, I would like to share with you one experience in particular in which I clearly saw the protecting hand of our Heavenly Father. I was leading a thirteen-man “Special Mission” convoy from Camp Vance to the Gardez area in Afghanistan in August of 2007. It was a little after midnight as we were passing through the southern half of the Logar Province, about three kilometers north of the village of Qal’eh-Ye Seyyedan, when fifteen to twenty enemy fighters initiated a complex ambush against my small, fast moving formation of four vehicles. They occupied a seventy-five to hundred-meter-wide field on the west (right) side of the road between clusters of buildings. There was about a thirty to forty-foot standoff distance between the fighters and the convoy, making the situation very dangerous.

They initiated a near ambush with a small IED, RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], and automatic weapons fire, all of which was directed at the convoy’s lead vehicle. This vehicle sustained a hit to its rear right side tire with the IED, destroying the rear right quarter of the truck. Despite the damage sustained, the vehicle was capable of continuing forward movement, however at a much slower pace! We returned fire as best we could, but our first priority was to clear the ambush’s kill zone.

Captain Christopher O’Gwin outside a village in southern Afghanistan in spring 2006. His unit was conducting operations against suspected Taliban forces in the area. Courtesy of Christopher O’Gwin.Captain Christopher O’Gwin outside a village in southern Afghanistan in spring 2006. His unit was conducting operations against suspected Taliban forces
in the area. Courtesy of Christopher O’Gwin.

As the convoy commander, I ordered the convoy to continue movement south in an effort to gain control of the situation, assess the damage to the vehicles, and call for a recovery element. We continued movement south for about 800 meters when five to ten additional enemy fighters occupying positions amongst several buildings on the east (left) side of the road reengaged the convoy with RPGs and small arms fire. I ordered a continuation of movement through the kill zone of the second ambush. Simultaneously, we engaged and killed several enemy fighters.

Owing to the damage sustained by several of the vehicles, I ordered our continued movement south to find a suitable location to stop and request support. We traveled an additional four to five kilometers through several small villages that lined the route south. At that point, I ordered the convoy to halt, as we suspected that the convoy’s second vehicle had sustained severe damage to the radiator and engine area as it was beginning to operate sluggishly. However, the convoy was immediately reengaged by RPGs and small arms fire from five to ten additional fighters located on the west (right) side of the road. We returned fire and continued movement out of this third kill zone.

Captain Christopher O’Gwin (left), Senior Airman Joe Culbertson (center), and Chief Warrant Officer Dennis Guy taking a rest outside a small village in southern Afghanistan during April 2006. Courtesy of Christopher O’Gwin.Captain Christopher O’Gwin (left), Senior Airman Joe Culbertson (center), and Chief Warrant Officer Dennis Guy taking a rest outside a small village in southern Afghanistan during April 2006. Courtesy of Christopher O’Gwin.

I had ascertained that my first two vehicles had both sustained significant damage and would not move much farther. We traveled south for another three to four kilometers when the second truck stopped working altogether and shut down. I exited my vehicle and looked over to my right. I saw several Afghan men of fighting age sitting on a high mud wall about fifteen feet away. As it was dark, and I was looking through my night vision goggles, I could not tell if they had weapons or not, so I leveled my weapon and demanded—in English—if any of them could understand me. One did! I asked him if there were any American bases near, since I was very unfamiliar with the area. I was unsure how close I was to the small outposts that dotted the route. It turned out that those Afghans were Afghan National Army soldiers guarding the front gate of a small American outpost located there. I remember shaking my head in disbelief when I realized that the damaged truck died, literally, at the front entrance of an American compound. We were able to recover to the compound with the aid of the infantry unit stationed there. As we were doing this, I began our usual postcombat readiness checks and discovered that aside from the truck damage, we had sustained no casualties.

The next morning we returned to the area where the ambushes had occurred. I realized at the time of the ambush that the situation was serious, but I had no concept of how large an enemy force we had faced. The litter of combat was everywhere, including several mangled RPG rounds, attesting to the close proximity of the enemy positions. The RPGs had hit our trucks and bounced off before they could arm and detonate.

Captain Christopher O’Gwin operating a tactical all-terrain weapons vehicle during a raid on a village in southern Afghanistan in summer 2006. Courtesy of Christopher O’Gwin.Captain Christopher O’Gwin operating a tactical all-terrain
weapons vehicle during a raid on a village in southern Afghanistan in summer 2006. Courtesy of Christopher O’Gwin.

Looking back at it now, it is clear that the Lord preserved us that night. Thirteen men against forty is never good odds—even for Special Forces soldiers. Enemy weapons did not function properly. Damaged trucks remained operational until the last possible moment. An American outpost was found at the exact spot where one of the vehicles died. And our convoy received no casualties. I had understanding and presence of mind, as a leader, to stay in the fight even when nothing made sense. I do not attribute any of that to my own prowess but to the gentle guidance of a loving Heavenly Father when I needed it most.

I dearly love Alma 62:41 in the Book of Mormon, which states that “many had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the war; and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility.” It is a reminder to me to remain humble and teachable, even in hardship and trial. I am grateful for these experiences and to a Heavenly Father who has preserved and protected me when the situation seemed impossible.


Layne Pace served in Kuwait as a U.S. Army Apache helicopter pilot, platoon leader, and Latter-day Saint group leader. He served in Afghanistan as an Apache pilot, safety officer, airfield manager, and Latter-day Saint group leader from December 2003 to April 2005. He works for the Orem Department of Public Safety, Fire Division, as a battalion chief. After returning from Afghanistan, Layne was called as the bishop of his ward. He is the oldest of eight. He is married to Teresa Robinson. They have five children and many grandchildren.

As president of TAO [The Afghanistan Orphanage] Project, I recently traveled to Chicago to give a presentation to a group of college students who wanted to do a fundraiser for us. After my presentation, I was approached by a professor who made a few targeted comments. I wasn’t offended, but it did get me thinking. She struggled with the idea of attack helicopter pilots wanting to create an orphanage. She thought that was a paradox.

Aren’t soldiers just taught to pull the trigger? She was confused about why we wanted to help. She wanted to know what my real motives were for coming to Chicago to give this presentation. My response was something like this: Only those of us who experienced what we did could fully understand our motives and why we are attempting something this big. We were deeply affected by what we saw and the conditions those people were living in. I was in sensory overload for the full year I was there. My life was forever changed.

An Afghan girl and her parents are pictured following her cataract surgery. Courtesy of Layne S. Pace.

An Afghan girl and her parents are pictured following her cataract surgery. Courtesy of Layne S. Pace.Top and bottom: An Afghan girl and her parents are pictured following her cataract surgery. Courtesy of Layne S. Pace.

Yes, our unit had a primary mission of flying helicopters and supporting the war effort against those who still wanted to keep Afghanistan under the bondage of a fundamentalist Islamic Sharia law. I was told many times by local tribal elders that they appreciated us (American soldiers) being there, and if we had not arrived to help, they would still be “under the bondage of the Taliban.”

Our adventure made a huge turn when several of us decided that we wanted to make a real impact on the lives of these people by providing humanitarian assistance where possible. To make a long story short, we delivered hundreds of tons of humanitarian supplies to the Egyptian Hospital, Korean Hospital, Alauddin Orphanage, an orphanage north of Bagram, the village of Jegdalek, and the village of Mohamaday. Our commander preferred that we just do the jobs we were sent over to complete. He was afraid that our extracurricular activities would jeopardize our primary task. In the end, he supported our efforts “off duty” as long as they did not distract us from our primary mission.

We eventually sponsored over a dozen children and two adults for surgery in the United States, as well as two more children for open heart surgery (to correct a ventricular septal defect). All of this from an attack helicopter unit that did not have any responsibility for providing civil affairs support. We did it because we deeply cared for the civilian population who had nothing to do with the bad things being done by bad people.

When it was time to come home, we were exhausted. We had definitely gone above the call of duty by not only doing our aviation jobs but more. Ahmad Shah, an Afghan-American working as a translator, approached us and asked if we would help him build an orphanage. We knew him from his travels with us to remote villages, and we trusted him. We agreed without fully understanding the magnitude of his request.

After we returned to the States, most soldiers just melted back into their previous lives and forgot about Afghanistan. Several of us couldn’t do that. My memory was permanently seared with what I had seen and experienced. Many people in Afghanistan literally had nothing, and I came home to everything. I felt guilty about what I took for granted.

Five or six of us decided to honor Ahmad Shah’s request and started a 501(c)(3) to make a difference. One side of me just wanted to forget about it and live my old life; however, the other side of me wouldn’t let this rest. My wife is usually frustrated when I take on so many responsibilities; to her, my full-time career as a fire department battalion chief, aviation career with the military, and now efforts to build an orphanage are sometimes too much to keep up with.

Nothing can change that I was a combat helicopter pilot doing my job and falling in love with the local innocent people just trying to live outside of war. Sometimes it does irritate me when others make me feel like I need to apologize for being in the military or for being deployed. Unless they walk a few steps in my boots, I feel they shouldn’t criticize. What we want to do is real and life changing.

Scott P. Pace

U.S. Army Captain “Scottie” Pace attended Brigham Young University and graduated from the United States Military Academy (Class of 2005) with his brother, Rick, who was a member of the same class. After completing flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama, he served with the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade at Fort Drum, New York. He served two tours in Iraq before being stationed in Afghanistan. He died June 6, 2012, at Qarah Bagh, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when his helicopter crashed after being hit by enemy gunfire. He was serving in the 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, at the time of his death.

There is a dilemma I face every Sunday at church in Afghanistan. As I take my seat on one of the benches in the chapel, I have this question: Where do I put my rifle? I don’t know how many other soldiers ponder this at church on Sundays, but I’m searching for an answer.

I have tried leaning my musket against the bench in front of where I sit, with the muzzle sticking up in the air. The problem is that the muzzle extends well above the top of the bench. Those sitting on that bench can extend or rest their arms on the top of the bench and knock my rifle to the floor, creating an unnecessary racket during the meeting. There is also a tradition in the Army that if your rifle falls to the ground, you drop with it and do push-ups. Can you just see me there in sacrament meeting? Some chap sitting in front of me stretches his arm out and knocks my rifle to the ground. Then, after disturbing the meeting with the banging of the rifle, there I am doing push-ups in the middle of sacrament meeting!

There is the alternative of putting it on the dirty ground, then suffering the consequences of cleaning it later. Not a bad alternative, but which way do you point the muzzle? Toward the pulpit? Or toward those seated behind you? I guess it might depend on the speaker that day—just kidding!

The last option is placing it on the bench beside me with the rifle extending to the side; however, I think that’s a sign that you want to be left alone. When you want your personal space, there’s nothing that says it better than having your rifle take up the next couple of seats next to you with your muzzle pointing at whoever would sit next to the rifle. I guess they’ll know if I’m having a bad day. One day, I may have an answer.

* * * * *

It was a couple of days before Christmas and most people were spending their spare time gearing up for the various barbecues that were planned. Between the barbecue gatherings and planning Santa’s activities for the big event, my team had a very secret and dangerous mission to fly. Our mission was to fly to various grids (given to us by the infantry) throughout the province, confirm or deny the presence of water treatment facilities, and bring back pictures.

While Captain Scott P. Pace, a U.S. Army aviator, was attempting to drop candy to Afghan children from this helicopter, the bag got stuck on his left .50 caliber machine gun. Courtesy of Scott P. Pace.While Captain Scott P. Pace, a U.S. Army aviator, was attempting to drop candy to Afghan children from this helicopter, the bag got stuck on his left .50 caliber machine gun. Courtesy of Scott P. Pace.

On this particular mission, I was flying with Sasha, who loves to fly heavily armed. In addition to our normal weapons load, he is known for bringing lots of smoke grenades and candy bombs. I am not sure what his infatuation with smoke grenades is all about, but you’ll even see him walking around with four or five smoke grenades on his vest. Our commander has told him to cease the practice and has threatened to pull the pin on one of the grenades if he doesn’t stop walking around with them. As for the candy bombs, this day we were rushed and were only able to put together two before takeoff.

Searching for the water treatment facilities was reminiscent of Easter egg hunting. The facilities weren’t exactly at the location given to us, but with a little searching we usually found them and took the appropriate pictures. After about our sixth water treatment facility, we saw some kids hanging around outside of a house on the outskirts of the village. They were very animated and were jumping and waving at us as we passed overhead, so we decided to drop them a candy bomb. We circled back around to set up our “bombing run,” and as we got within range of the kids, I threw the bag out the door.

We spun around to see if the kids had seen us drop our package. They were still looking at us and had not started running to the candy. Bewildered, I looked back again and noticed that the candy bomb was perched perfectly where our .50-cal machine gun attaches to the aircraft. I wish that I could claim that as a skill, but I don’t think I could ever repeat that toss. Sasha laughed and then proceeded to yank and bank the aircraft to try and get the candy to fall off its perch.

However, it was cozy where it was and did not want to leave. Sasha made about five or six orbits around the house in his futile attempt at banking the candy free. While we were focused on getting the bag unstuck, we did not notice what was going on below us. The parents of these kids had become a little nervous with two U.S. aircraft circling their house. So they had ushered their children inside, but surprisingly the parents remained outside. All three of the adults stood defiantly with their arms crossed, looking up at us.

Fortunately, we still had our second bag and flung that one out the door without incident, then moved on. We turned around a minute later and saw the kids running to the second bag and jumping up and down once they had recovered the candy. Unfortunately, we had probably startled those parents much more than we intended to, and then to top it off, we got their kids all hopped up on sugar. I bet they love us.

We continued on our hot pursuit of the water treatment facilities, and when we arrived at our refuel point to take on more fuel, I hopped out and retrieved the bag that was still sitting nicely on top of our .50-cal. We are continuing to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis—well, at least their children.

* * * * *

This is an excerpt from a sacrament meeting talk Captain Pace gave on May 27, 2012, to a gathering of Latter-day Saints at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. It was Memorial Day weekend back home. He was killed in action ten days later.

U.S. Military Academy cadets Rick Pace (left) and his older brother, Scott, celebrate after receiving their officer branch assignments at West Point. Rick was branched in the infantry, and Scott was assigned to aviation. Courtesy of Rick Pace.U.S. Military Academy cadets Rick Pace (left) and his older brother, Scott, celebrate after receiving their officer branch assignments at West Point. Rick was branched in the infantry, and Scott was assigned to aviation. Courtesy of Rick Pace.

I am a Kiowa pilot, and I am the commander of the Kiowa and Apache helicopters. When you see the Kiowas and Apaches flying in and out of Bagram, those are my guys. I was asked to speak on “how to stay in tune with the Spirit.” The topic took me back in time to October of 2009. I was returning from Iraq, and I had a strong desire to better recognize and, more importantly, understand the promptings of the Spirit in my life.

Sitting here in Bagram, I asked myself, “How do you approach this topic while at war?” There are plenty of moments where the fog of war can cloud your judgment. How can you realistically teach people who are participating in the atrocities of war about keeping the Spirit? I thought about myself and my own experiences. . . .

This past February, you may recall the riots that took place here at Bagram and throughout the rest of this country. At ECP 1 [entry control point], an estimated group of two thousand people showed up to protest. They had broken through one of the gates and were trying to break through the final barrier. The rioters had also started multiple fires, trying to light the barrier on fire. As my team and I showed up on station, all the protestors raised their hands in unison to flip us off. There is nothing like a warm greeting! We were then asked by the ground force to find all the fires that had been set around the airfield. We had not yet made it to the northern end of the airfield when we heard over the radios that there were rioters who had successfully broken through the final barrier and were pointing AK-47s at our MPs who were standing within the base. The MPs stood in a line with their riot gear, including their shields.

As we came back around, the MPs asked us to set up on an attack run. Now, I knew if the rioters crossed the fence line, they would most likely overrun and kill the fifteen MPs that were standing in riot formation. If those rioters successfully busted through, you’d have two thousand unruly rioters all over the Bagram base, causing tons of destruction. I also knew that if they struck our MPs, I was going to open fire on them. While all these thoughts were running through my head, another thought was simultaneously crossing my mind: “You can’t open fire on these protestors before they hurt the MPs. How would you report that to your Heavenly Father? That you killed these people because they feel like we burned their holy book? Use flares; that should work.” So we set up on our attack run as requested by the ground force and used flares instead of rockets and our machine gun.

The crowd immediately moved back. The MPs were able to quickly put the wall back up and extinguish some of the fires. When we landed, we had some explaining to do. The reports of our actions made headlines around the world before we even landed. We find ourselves in these situations often, and some would ask, “How can you expect to have the Spirit?” I ask in return, “How can you not plead for the Spirit ahead of time?”

How can we find the Spirit, especially in trying circumstances? As Frank Sinatra sang, “We must begin at the beginning.” When we partake of the sacrament, we are making a covenant with our Heavenly Father to obtain the Spirit. The prayer specifies what is required on our part. It says that we “witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that [we] are willing to take upon [us] the name of thy Son, and always remember him, and keep his commandments which he hath given [us]” (Moroni 4:3). According to this, we must take upon ourselves the name of Christ, which, in essence, means to follow Christ’s example. Then we must always remember Christ; if we are always remembering Christ, it is much harder to stray, and we are constantly focused on how Christ would want us to live. Finally, all of this adds up to keeping the commandments. If we keep the commandments, we shall not fear (see Doctrine and Covenants 38:30). . . .

Consistency is the key. We must be consistent in praying, reading the scriptures, attending church, fulfilling our callings, serving others, keeping the commandments, and living a Christlike life. This consistency will allow us to feel and recognize the Spirit more readily. By doing these things, we place ourselves in the proper position to receive revelation.

During this deployment, it has not been easy to attend church. On one Sunday, about an hour before church began, I received a FRAGO [fragmentary order, a quick or partial military order often given under time-limited or difficult situations] stating that my troop had to give up some of our assets. This was going to cause a major shift in my operations at a heavy cost. My battalion commander, XO [executive officer, second only to the unit’s commander], and S3 [operations officer in a battalion staff who plans military operations, movements, and general tactical strategies] started filling up my email with suggestions about how to plan for this order from higher up and what I needed to take into consideration.

The three of them were emailing back and forth and started talking about how I needed to sit down with them as soon as possible to figure this out. Their emails were actually causing confusion and stress rather than presenting a solution. I knew there was an answer, but I knew it wasn’t found in this frenzy of emails. I really wanted to postpone this meeting and go to church, so I decided I would ignore their emails for now and attend church services.

As I sat in the back of the chapel, listening to the sacrament meeting speaker and pondering the situation back in my office, my mind became filled with a plan, how to articulate it, and to whom I should propose it. At that very moment, the brigade commander was in my command post, as he was flying our QRF [quick reaction force, kind of like a military SWAT team] mission that day. When I returned to my office after church, I briefed the brigade commander on the plan. He approved it immediately, and I was then able to notify the three men who had earlier been emailing me, telling them of the plan that had been approved. Obviously, I am in a unique situation with my brigade commander, so I don’t recommend going above your first higher commander. That day I could’ve skipped the church meetings and gotten bogged down in planning meetings. Instead, I was able to attend church, and there I was blessed to receive the answer in the form of a plan with instructions regarding the way in which I should present the plan. . . .

When we receive promptings, do we write them down? Do we ponder them and ask if we understand correctly? And do we ask if there is more that we are to receive? Sometimes, promptings come in a form we don’t want to receive. A couple of months ago, I received a spiritual prompting right before I was going to fly. I thought to myself, “I have to fly; I can’t just walk away from this flight.” This time, I asked the Lord, “Please help me understand what this feeling is about.” We launched the first time and had no issues. Two hours later, we walked out to the aircraft again. I remembered the feeling I had before the first flight and thought to myself, “Whatever bad thing that was supposed to happen didn’t happen on the first flight. You need to be careful and alert on this flight.”

As I went to crank the bird, the engine temperature spiked. I was able to catch it fifteen degrees before the engine burned up. Burning up an engine in our line of work is horrible. I was extremely grateful that I had been warned ahead of time to pay extra attention and not to take things for granted on that flight! As with all things, we must remember to be grateful for the guidance and insight we receive from the Spirit. Since receiving this speaking assignment a few weeks ago, I decided to try and seek the Spirit more consistently throughout the day, which required extra effort on my part. As I did this, I received promptings to do certain things that benefited my life and the lives of others as well.

Then things changed. Soon, I found myself working extremely late and rising earlier. As I grew more tired, I found it was much more difficult to process and act on the promptings I had received. I learned that as we get out of balance in life, whether we are tired, angry, or experiencing a host of other negative issues, it becomes more difficult to focus on the Spirit. However, during those days when I actively pursued the Spirit, it was much easier to feel the Spirit’s promptings. It is that consistency of living a Christlike life and seeking the Spirit that will help us develop our spiritual senses.


David Padronserved as a weapons squad leader with Delta Company 2-12 Infantry during his deployment in Afghanistan. He has served in the Church as a Sunday School teacher for the twelve- and thirteen-year-old class, Young Men second counselor, Boy Scout assistant Scoutmaster, and Scoutmaster for eleven-year-old Scouts. He also served as a drill sergeant at Fort Benning.

This experience happened during my deployment in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010. After a mission that lasted thirteen hours, we returned to our combat outpost, COP Michigan, in the Kunar Province on the bank of the river at the mouth of the Korengal Valley [in eastern Afghanistan]. We refitted our equipment and settled down to rest. A few minutes after I had laid down, our COP came under enemy fire. We repelled the attack, and after four hours we returned to our bunks to finally get some rest. About an hour later, we received information regarding a [Taliban] cell leader we had been looking for. He was in our area, and we had to move immediately to try and capture him. As we all hurried out the gate, we were unorganized. Everyone was thrown in separate vehicles; teams were not kept together. As we approached the town at about 2:00 a.m., orders came over the radio to meet at a certain location and begin moving. As I began to exit the vehicle, I had the distinct impression that I should not go. I was reluctant to stay as my men were to be on the ground, and if I did not go, I would be neglecting my duties. The feeling was so strong, though, that I stayed put and did not go.

Soldiers sometimes adopted stray dogs or cats during their deployment in Afghanistan. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.Soldiers sometimes adopted stray dogs or cats during their deployment in Afghanistan. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

As the mission progressed, we heard the chaos over the radio. The cell leader was found, but he had a large number of insurgents with him. The cell began to attack our forces. The town was located on a mountaintop about nine hundred meters high. The vehicles had no sight of the soldiers on the ground, and we could not support them with our machine guns. All we could do was listen to the radio. The commander on the ground made the decision to withdraw with the men they had detained. As they began their withdrawal, the enemy was heard calling men from nearby villages to join in the attack. They came armed with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and heavy machine guns.

As the American forces moved down the mountain with their prisoners, we heard them saying over the radio that they were receiving fire from three sides and had wounded men with them. By this time, it was 7:00 a.m. The men on the ground ran out of water at 4:00 a.m. and had been moving fast and hard since 3:00 a.m. They were exhausted, without water, and running out of ammunition. As they ran out of ammunition, they called back, telling us that there was now a sniper in the area, and they were pinned down in a dry riverbed. A few minutes later, we lost communications with them.

Improved communication capabilities on the battlefield saved the lives of many coalition soldiers. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.Improved communication capabilities on the battlefield saved the lives of many coalition soldiers. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

About twenty minutes after that, right in front of my vehicle, three American soldiers came out from the side of the mountain. I ran to them to find out more information. It turns out they were with the element that was in the lead. They said that the rest of the unit was about four hundred meters into the dry river bed they had traveled through. I gathered as many able men as I could—a total of seven, and asked one of the newly arrived soldiers to take me to where the men were pinned down. He was exhausted but after a few minutes told me where they were and that he would lead me back. He explained that there was a bend in the riverbed to the right side. The rest of the soldiers were about fifty meters beyond that point.

I took the lead, and everyone else followed. I must have been moving fast because after a while I could not hear anyone behind me. I knew they were following, but I had moved ahead quite a distance. As I came to the bend, I heard someone behind me calling my first name. I stopped and looked behind me but found no one. I was still a good distance ahead of everyone. When I turned back to continue, suddenly there was a small cloud of dust on the wall next to me about an inch from my head. The sniper had taken a headshot at me. The voice was clear as day. It was not shouting nor whispering, but I know it was the Holy Ghost calling my name. The rescue mission was a success, and we all made it out alive. That day the Holy Ghost prompted me to stay put in my vehicle. He called me by name and saved my life as well as the lives of my friends. I often think of that experience and the great blessing it is to be guided by the Holy Ghost.


Jon Petty was a captain in the U.S. Army at the time of his deployment to Afghanistan. He fought with the 10th Mountain Division in both Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as serving a fifteen-month tour to South Korea. In Iraq, he commanded a military intelligence company in the 10th Mountain Division. He served in various callings during his time in the military, including elders quorum president (in Alaska and Georgia) and bishop in the Utica New York Stake. He grew up in San Diego, California, and joined the U.S. Army while at Brigham Young University in 1994.

After September 11, 2001, all our lives changed forever. Watching planes fly into those buildings filled me with emotion—not a hatred for the terrorists but a strong feeling of censure toward them. I felt that those who planned this operation needed to be brought to justice, as well as anyone who engaged in acts of random, senseless violence toward innocent civilians.

At home our lives changed as well. I remember how it took three hours to pass through all the security checks put up around post at Fort Wainwright the first week after the attacks. Every critical building was circled with concertina wire, and we were issuing live ammo to soldiers to protect the barracks. My wife and children watched all this firsthand. My wife knew it would mean deployments, more separation, and turbulence at home created by the demands of the military. There was something more, though. I think we both felt a sense of purpose in what we were trying to do. The mood during our meetings in the Fairbanks Second Ward became very somber that September. I’d say about 60 percent of the elders were active duty soldiers. We all knew each would get his turn to go.

* * * * *

The next unit I was assigned to was the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), in upstate New York, known for its freezing cold winters and frequent deployments. My brigade, 1st Brigade, was the most frequently deployed brigade in the entire U.S. Army as of 2006. Our 2nd Brigade was second.

Jon Petty was serving as bishop of his New York ward when his unit received orders to deploy to Afghanistan. Courtesy of Jon Petty.Jon Petty was serving as bishop of his New York ward when his unit received orders to deploy to Afghanistan. Courtesy of Jon Petty.

Everyone, I believe, had been affected by the Global War on Terrorism, but with New Yorkers, there is an extra sense of patriotism and determination. I felt it right away after we moved there. By the time I arrived in 2003, the 10th Mountain Division had already fought in Afghanistan, returned, and had deployed there for a second time in just two years. I joined them in Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom within thirty days of reporting to Fort Drum. I left my wife, five young children, and my new home under construction. Through it all, my wife, Tamara, ran our busy home and supported me without complaint.

Thus started an extremely busy period in my life while assigned to the 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. It included a rotation to Afghanistan in 2003–4 and another full year in Iraq in 2005–6, with a little over a year at home in between those two deployments. During that short fifteen months at home, I was called as the bishop of the Watertown Ward.

* * * * *

Jon Petty receives a last hug from his son Ryan prior to deploying to Afghanistan. Courtesy of Jon Petty.Jon Petty receives a last hug from his son Ryan prior to deploying to Afghanistan. Courtesy of Jon Petty.

I remember many times conducting ward business by cell phone from the field, from Louisiana for training, from Arizona for school, or even from San Diego during a family emergency. The Lord always provided a way for me to be at the right place at the right time. I was greatly blessed to work closely with many other faithful families and soldiers. With two wonderful counselors and an outstanding executive secretary, we somehow made it all work. The Utica stake president regularly made the two-hour drive to Watertown to counsel and direct us in our efforts. He was not in the military but was very sensitive to all his members, including his soldiers deployed all over the world and their families back home. We all appreciated the efforts the ward and stake made to take care of our families. He did not want anyone to leave for a deployment without a personal blessing by his hand, if possible.

* * * * *

Soon after the Iraqi invasion, a family member sent me a Saints at War video. It was right before I deployed to Afghanistan. As I watched the video at home, I immediately felt a kinship with the Latter-day Saint service members who served in World War II. It felt like they were speaking directly to me. While the conflict was different, the lessons were all the same: Stay close to the Lord. It was a generation of Latter-day Saint service members passing on the lessons they had learned to the next generation. The Spirit filled me with a sense of the past and future all at once, and I felt a bond with them—as church members, as priesthood holders, and as soldiers. I will never forget the feelings I had watching Saints at War. That was soon going to be me out there! I had better listen up and pay attention to what they had to say.

I watched the video several times. One member said that his group had decided to meet together often during World War II. His unit had had a lot of extra time! The guys had loved to get together, so they decided to meet much more often than just on Sunday. His words stayed with me.

* * * * *

When I arrived at Kandahar, Afghanistan, the Latter-day Saint service member group met twice a week: Sunday mornings for church and Thursdays for family home evening. I don’t know why we held it on Thursdays, but we did. We met in a building we called the Powerhouse. It was our makeshift chapel—an old mud building built to house the generators that ran the Kandahar Airfield during Taliban rule. It was also the chaplain’s quarters. There was free food on the table next to us during our meetings. It was not uncommon to be giving a talk on Sunday and have half of the group munching on something at the same time. We called it the Powerhouse because it gave us the power to resist temptation—which was unfortunately everywhere you turned in the form of the DVDs, movies, magazines, tobacco, gambling, and bad language that occupied most soldiers during their free time. Later as we returned to our family wards, we often lamented the fact that there was nothing to munch on during church meetings.

Based on stories from the Saints at War documentary I had watched, I suggested we meet together more often. No one objected, so it became official: Sunday morning we held church at the Powerhouse. Those who did not have other duties after church ate Sunday brunch together. Sunday nights we met to study the Book of Mormon together. Men usually had a lot of extra time on Sundays. Tuesday was game night in the MWR [morale, welfare, and recreation] tent. Thursdays was still our family home evening.

* * * * *

We had the best time on Sunday nights for those who chose to come. We formed a Book of Mormon study group. There is something extraordinary about studying the Book of Mormon in a small group of men in a combat zone. Someone usually brought a care package from home they couldn’t finish alone. Study group meetings generally worked like this: We said a prayer. We each read five verses. Comments were interjected between verses. We allowed any newcomers to pick one chapter, and we would read and discuss it at length. One brother remarked to me, “Tonight, I realized I have never truly studied the Book of Mormon. I have only read it. I had no idea it could be this powerful of an experience.” He was anxious to do the same thing with his future family. Some of those same men patrolled daily outside the wire in Afghanistan. They knew that they could be taken at any time. Others worked inside the wire. But we all had watched fellow soldiers come back in coffins draped with American flags. Our motto was “Put on your garments. Put on your body armor. Say a prayer and go.” We trusted in the Lord. Fortunately, we did not lose anyone in our service member group in Afghanistan.


Ahmed Qureshi grew up in Saudi Arabia in the Islamic world. His mother was a convert to the Church after the Second World War in Europe. He joined the Church at age eighteen but has been exposed to the Church most of his life. He served in Afghanistan for almost two years as a naval officer but started his military service in the Army.

My faith helped me when I had to leave my family as a reserve officer called to active duty shortly after 9/11. I left my home for almost two years. The first theater I served in, part of the Afghanistan War, dealt with having to interview and talk to captured prisoners of war. It was interesting to talk with individuals we had captured and learn a little bit more about what they believed. I wasn’t necessarily learning about Islam as a faith, but I was learning more about the captured individuals political ideology, what they were after, and their goals and aspirations.

An American soldier kneels to give a lollipop to an Afghan child. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.An American soldier kneels to give a lollipop to an Afghan child. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

As I was studying the Book of Mormon at the same time, I finally understood why the Lord placed all of the warfare chapters in the Book of Mormon. I truly believe he was trying to show us that in the last days that we would face similar types of Gadianton robbers. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are like the Gadianton robbers in the nature and structure of their organizations. What they’re after—power and authority—and what they will do to get those things—wreak havoc—are the same. The Book of Mormon came alive to me, and my testimony that it truly was an inspired book of scripture from the Lord grew. I knew that he wanted us to have it in the last days.

My father is a Sunni Muslim born in British India and raised in Pakistan. I grew up in Saudi Arabia. My mother was a convert to the Church after the Second World War in Europe. I joined the Church when I was eighteen. As a soldier and later a sailor, it was helpful for me—from a language, cultural, and religious perspective—to have an understanding of the Arab and Islamic world. I was able to apply that knowledge I had been raised with to the battlefield and find those people from the Arab and Islamic world that were truly on our side. They are people who did not want the so-called al-Qaeda in their own homelands. My goal was to be able to work with them to achieve the same goal: to rid their country and their homeland of those Gadianton robber–like individuals.

With hot summer weather in many parts of Afghanistan, soldiers welcomed any shade available. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.With hot summer weather in many parts of Afghanistan, soldiers welcomed any shade available.
Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

Most people, when they hear my name, Ahmed Qureshi, say, “You don’t look like an Ahmed Qureshi.” I usually must dive into my family background, explaining that my father is a Sunni Muslim, and my mother is a Latter-day Saint Christian from Norway. It just takes them off guard. They say, “Oh, you’re not who I would have expected.” For me, I am who I am, and I go forward. I’ve always felt it was important to serve in the military.

On 9/11, I was in Cedar Hills, Utah. My wife was yelling from the basement, “Ahmed, we’re under attack! We’re under attack!” I remember waking up, running downstairs, and watching the television. I asked my wife, “Where’s the other tower?” She said, “Well, it’s behind the other tower.” I said, “No, it’s gone.” Then we saw the other tower collapse. I soon received a phone call from my work. I was running international operations for a company, and we were stopping some marketing and sales operations that were going to take place in the Middle East. We were pulling marketing and arranging for the safety of the individuals we had overseas.

Even though Afghanistan has known only war for several generations now, many people remain resilient and optimistic about their future. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

Even though Afghanistan has known only war for several generations now, many people remain resilient and optimistic about their future. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.Top and Bottom: Even though Afghanistan has known only war for several generations now, many people remain resilient and optimistic about their future. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

During the next few weeks, I watched the buildup, and as a reserve officer, I knew my time would come. This is why I had chosen to serve in the reserves: to be called upon when I was needed. When President Bush gave his speech to the nation, he basically said, “Get ready, Reserves. You’re going to go to war. It’s time to defend your nation.” It was a trying time for the whole nation, but I knew I had to stay in the military. Because of my background and being able to speak Arabic and understand the religious and cultural issues of the area, as well as having grown up there, I felt that I might be useful down the road. Since 9/11, I have had the opportunity to serve both during the Afghanistan conflict and also in Iraq during the ground war and in the early phases of the occupation there.

My wife, bless her heart, had to really take care of things as I was gone for almost two years. We initially thought it would be just twelve months, and I was focused on doing the mission I needed to do. My wife knew she was going to have to be both mother and father while I was gone. We also had great support in our home ward in Cedar Hills. All the members of the ward took good care of my family. I’m very grateful for a great bishop and many others in the ward who took care of my family, but my wife, Juliet, was the strongest. On 9/11, she said to me, “Now I understand why you’ve stayed in. You need to stay in. You need to be able to be part of this and help because of your background.”

We know from the scriptures that there will be wars and rumors of wars until the Savior comes. If we get caught up in how bad those things will be and feel terrible and give up, we won’t do the best we can. You endure to the end. If you’re righteous and you’re doing the right things, you’ll be saved. I think it’s our responsibility to serve and do the best job we can in the kingdom of God and favorably impact as many people as we can. You’re not going to save everybody, but when we do our own little part, the Lord will recognize that and protect us and our families.


During the campaign against terrorism, Rebecca Ramage was deployed once to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan. She served as a junior enlisted mechanic and recovery operations specialist. Later she was an instructor for deploying soldiers, then went on to become a supply sergeant. In March 2009, she was working as the Battalion S4 (logistics) noncommissioned officer-in-charge. After returning from overseas, she was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. She grew up in a small town in west Texas and traveled abroad with the Army before returning there in 2007. She was baptized as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on January 25, 2009.

My conversion and baptism didn’t start in Afghanistan; they didn’t even start in the military. They began many years ago. I was raised in Spur, Texas, and attended the Church of Christ with my parents. I also went to the White River Youth Church Camp every summer from ages nine to seventeen. At the age of twelve, I decided that I wanted to be baptized. After studying with the camp counselors and the minister, I underwent what I believed at the time to be the ultimate choice and dedicated my life to God. My parents were happy. I had done exactly what was expected and went forward with my life.

Rebecca Ramage was baptized on January 25, 2009, at Forward Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.Rebecca Ramage was baptized on January 25, 2009, at Forward Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.

That year my grandfather died—a man I loved and respected. That was also the year I started to realize my individual perspectives were changing. My mother, who had battled chronic mental illness, really lost control, and I watched as my world started to crumble. By age fourteen I was drinking and smoking. By sixteen I was promiscuous, and by eighteen I was doing a variety of drugs. At the age of seventeen I had joined the Army Reserve and left for basic training after high school graduation. When I returned, I started college at Lubbock Christian University. However, I did not commit myself to the curriculum I had chosen; instead, I placed my life on a one-way path to destruction. I started to battle depression and ever-decreasing self-esteem. I blamed God for everything bad that happened in my life and the lives of those I loved. I turned more and more to worldly pleasures and alcohol to numb the pain. When that didn’t work, I found even more self-destructive avenues. I completely walked away from the morals and values I had been taught.

Finding I couldn’t deal with the guilt I felt, I tried to run away. I signed up for active duty in the Army and found myself stationed in Germany. By that time, I decided I didn’t even believe there was one true God. Instead I dabbled in every religion from paganism to witchcraft. Each left me feeling empty and wanting.

As time went on, I started to realize something was missing, and I searched for it. Yet I couldn’t find the answer. Somewhere in the back of my mind, something kept prompting me to search for the deeper meaning of things. Relationship after relationship failed, and I had pushed my family away because of anger, hurt, and fear of rejection. With a heavy heart and weighed down mind, I decided, after spending eight years in Germany, that it was time to return home. I reenlisted for Fort Hood, Texas. I bought a house and started to spend time with my parents and sister. I got to know my adorable niece, and I met someone I felt connected with. Life was starting to look up.

American soldiers enjoy a brief rest during a search mission. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.American soldiers enjoy a brief rest during a search mission. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

Within a year and a half, I was part of a unit that was on a plane for Afghanistan. Prior to deployment, the relationship I was in had reached a point where we were considering living our lives together and deciding which direction we should take. Though it seemed like my life was going well, I still felt something was missing. Monica Pitman, a work colleague of mine, and I had interacted with each other on a limited basis up to that point—mostly business-related matters. We had never discussed religious preferences. She had never mentioned her church, and I had never asked such personal questions. Shortly after arriving in Afghanistan, I needed some help with supplies. Monica had a vehicle, and we both had supplies to pick up, so we met and headed to the warehouse. Over the next several days, we found our jobs were accomplished more easily by helping each other with various tasks. We ended up spending most days in each other’s company and shared most meals together.

One day, as we were eating lunch, we started to discuss luck. Monica said she believed that things happened for a reason, not so much because of luck. I responded with, “What could be the reason for something bad happening to someone? How could God allow these things to happen to good people?” At the time, I was not trying to pursue a conversation on religion so much as on philosophy. However, I could tell that my friend was choosing her words carefully. She stated that she didn’t believe it was so much God’s presence as his absence in a situation that allowed bad things to happen. This aroused my curiosity. Where was she coming from? Even though she didn’t get specific or go into details, I could understand what she was saying, and it felt right. I asked Monica what religion she was, and she simply stated “Mormon.” The conversation ended there, yet I continued to think about it long after.

Soldiers rely upon each other for their security. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.Soldiers rely upon each other for their security. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I found I could not get that conversation and the ideas it prompted out of my mind. The more I talked with her about the Church, the more I realized each conversation left me with more questions. I finally got the courage to ask her one day if she would mind if I went to a church service with her. She said that she wouldn’t mind at all, and I set aside time the next Sunday to attend. At the time, I was terrified. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and a million doubts and questions plagued my mind. Would I like it? Was it right? How could I consider it after all the times I had walked the other way? Would I be able to deal with the feelings and emotions I knew would be the result of my attendance? I decided this was something I needed to do, even if I realized I never wanted to attend again.

That Sunday, as I sat and listened to the messages, I knew I had finally found my place. Never had something felt so completely right. A comforting feeling washed over me, and I knew that somehow I had to find a way to make this work. Little did I know the changes that this would bring about in my life and lifestyle. I made it a point to attend as often as possible after that first Sunday. It was like the void inside of me was being filled, and I couldn’t get enough of talking about the Church and the beliefs of my friend. I also realized that if I was truly going to commit to this, it meant some major changes in my attitude, outlook, actions, and my overall life. It also meant confronting a lot of past mistakes and learning that I would have to let my past go.

At some point, I realized that I needed more than anything to kneel before God and ask for guidance. That was one of the hardest things to do. It was difficult for me to accept that even though I had turned my back on God, he had never turned away from me. The first time I knelt in prayer after years of disservice brought tears to my eyes. I was so ashamed of everything and completely at a loss. I could tell from the moment I started to ask for help that the Lord still loved me and was ready to accept me back.

I began to study with the Church leadership and learn gospel principles. Each of the lessons brought more understanding and hope into my life. I often joked with Monica that it was crazy that this was happening now, in Afghanistan of all places. She held true to her belief that everything happens for a reason. My friendship with her is certainly no accident. Without it, who knows if I would have learned of the Church and found my way back to the Lord?

Around that same time, I started to have serious issues back home. My relationship was slowly starting to fall apart, and my finances were in distress. My faith, however, was growing stronger. The next difficult step was to forgive my past and realize that God would forgive me of my sins and transgressions after baptism. I had many discussions with Monica and other members of the Church concerning how it was possible that I could be forgiven for my past mistakes. No matter how many times I asked, the answers to my questions were the same. It took time for me to accept this. Though I did not fully understand why, I could not mistake the feeling of knowing the choices I was making were right. At some point, I determined that I needed to take my R&R [rest and recuperation] leave earlier than planned to find resolution for the situation at home. I knew I had to make a decision.

Once I returned home, I realized that my feelings were not the same. My former relationship came to an explosive end. It seemed that all aspects of my life were in chaos. I put my life in as much order as I could and returned to Afghanistan only to find that there was more drama for me there. Days before I left, I had been moved to a higher staff position with no time to do a good handoff to my replacement, who, as it turned out, was Monica. She had taken over, and apparently there were some property accountability issues. Everyone was in an uproar, and I was not in the area to answer questions. It seemed that my life would once again take a turn for the worse. However, this time I was determined not to allow this setback to deter me. Instead, I embraced each moment and leaned on the Lord for help. I had decided that I wanted to be baptized as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many times over the next three months before my baptism, my conviction wavered, but I believed this to be the true Church.

I was finally baptized on January 25, 2009. The day of my baptism, I was so nervous that my hands shook. Yet I knew without a doubt that it was the right choice. I stood in a metal box in the middle of Afghanistan handing my life to God and accepting his gift of love and acceptance. The emotions that overtook me as I came out of that water cannot be explained. They took my breath away. I finally felt at peace. Later that day, I was given the gift of the Holy Ghost, and I knew I had found what I had been searching for. My emptiness was filled, and my heart was full. I have so much to be thankful for, and I know the Lord will continue to bless me as I follow his will and word. The greatest choice I have ever made was when I decided to accept God back into my life. I look forward to the day that I can help others to find that same life-altering conclusion.

My life is full of hope and peace because of the Lord. There is no doubt that I made the right choice—the only choice. Each day is a gift, and though I know there are many trials to come, I am confident that even though I may make mistakes, I will hold true to my faith. I have learned from this experience that truly nothing is coincidence or luck and that God will find a way to work his will in your life if you let him in.


“Clint” Romesha received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Kamdesh, Afghanistan, in 2009. During his Army service he was deployed four times—to Kosovo, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan. On October 3, 2009, he was assigned to the 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, at Combat Outpost Keating in eastern Afghanistan. When three hundred Taliban insurgents attacked his outpost, he led the counterattack, directed close air support, and provided suppressive fire to protect wounded soldiers in an aid station. Even though he was wounded, he fought during the entire twelve-hour battle. He left the Army in 2011 and worked in the North Dakota oil industry. He received the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama on February 11, 2013. His award citation is below.

Medal of Honor Official Citation

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded in the name of Congress the Medal of Honor to

Staff Sergeant Clinton L. Romesha

United States Army

First Lieutenant Andrew Bunderman (left), Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha (center), and Sergeant Brad Larson. Sergeant Romesha was one of two soldiers who received the Medal of Honor for their actions at Combat Outpost Keating in October 2009. Courtesy of DoD.First Lieutenant Andrew Bunderman (left), Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha (center), and Sergeant Brad Larson. Sergeant Romesha was one of two soldiers who received the Medal of Honor for their actions at Combat Outpost Keating in October 2009. Courtesy of DoD.

Staff Sergeant Clinton L. Romesha distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a Section Leader with Bravo Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, during combat operations against an armed enemy at Combat Outpost Keating, Kamdesh District, Nuristan Province, Afghanistan on October 3, 2009. On that morning, Staff Sergeant Romesha and his comrades awakened to an attack by an estimated three hundred enemy fighters occupying the high ground on all four sides of the complex, employing concentrated fire from recoilless rifles, rocket propelled grenades, anti-aircraft machine guns, mortars and small arms fire. Staff Sergeant Romesha moved uncovered under intense enemy fire to conduct a reconnaissance of the battlefield and seek reinforcements from the barracks before returning to action with the support of an assistant gunner. Staff Sergeant Romesha took out an enemy machine gun team and, while engaging a second, the generator he was using for cover was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, inflicting him with shrapnel wounds.

Members of Red Platoon, 3-61 Cavalry Regiment, including Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha (front row, second from right) pose for a picture in 2009 shortly after arriving at Combat Outpost Keating in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan. Courtesy of DoD.Members of Red Platoon, 3-61 Cavalry Regiment, including Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha (front row, second from right) pose for a picture in 2009 shortly after arriving at Combat Outpost Keating in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan. Courtesy of DoD.

Undeterred by his injuries, Staff Sergeant Romesha continued to fight and upon the arrival of another soldier to aid him and the assistant gunner, he again rushed through the exposed avenue to assemble additional soldiers. Staff Sergeant Romesha then mobilized a five-man team and returned to the fight equipped with a sniper rifle. With complete disregard for his own safety, Staff Sergeant Romesha continually exposed himself to heavy enemy fire, as he moved confidently about the battlefield engaging and destroying multiple enemy targets, including three Taliban fighters who had breached the combat outpost’s perimeter. While orchestrating a successful plan to secure and reinforce key points of the battlefield, Staff Sergeant Romesha maintained radio communication with the tactical operations center. As the enemy forces attacked with even greater ferocity, unleashing a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and recoilless rifle rounds, Staff Sergeant Romesha identified the point of attack and directed air support to destroy over thirty enemy fighters. After receiving reports that seriously injured soldiers were at a distant battle position, Staff Sergeant Romesha and his team provided covering fire to allow the injured soldiers to safely reach the aid station. Upon receipt of orders to proceed to the next objective, his team pushed forward one hundred meters under overwhelming enemy fire to recover and prevent the enemy fighters from taking the bodies of their fallen comrades.

President Barack H. Obama awarded former Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry in Afghanistan during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on February 11, 2013. Courtesy of DoD.President Barack H. Obama awarded former Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry
in Afghanistan during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on February 11, 2013. Courtesy of DoD.

Staff Sergeant Romesha’s heroic actions throughout the day-long battle were critical in suppressing an enemy that had far greater numbers. His extraordinary efforts gave Bravo Troop the opportunity to regroup, reorganize and prepare for the counterattack that allowed the Troop to account for its personnel and secure Combat Outpost Keating. Staff Sergeant Romesha’s discipline and extraordinary heroism above and beyond the call of duty reflect great credit upon himself, Bravo Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division and the United States Army.


Major Brent Russell Taylor graduated from Chandler High School and served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Maceo, Brazil. He enlisted in the Utah Army National Guard in June 2003 and later joined the Army ROTC program at Brigham Young University. He served two voluntary deployments to Iraq (in 2007 and 2008, and two in Afghanistan (2011–12 and 2018). He held political science degrees from Brigham Young University and the University of Utah. Additionally, he served as the mayor of North Ogden, Utah, before his final deployment. He and his wife, Jennie, are the proud parents of seven children. Brent was killed in action on November 3, 2018, during an insider attack. Jennie has inserted notes in italics.

From Brent’s personal journal entries

I always wanted to be a soldier. Like most boys who grew up when I did, I loved to play soldiers with my friends. I loved history, and I loved to read. I spent untold hours as a child reading about great military heroes from the past, and I used my strong imagination to see myself campaigning by their side. I read and looked up to men like George Washington, Douglas MacArthur, Alexander Hamilton, Captain Moroni, Mormon, [and] Alma. . . . I was inspired by their honor, their bravery, and their courage. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to fight for my country and fight for what was right. I wanted to show courage when other men would show fear, and I wanted to be a leader of men and to earn their trust and respect. I wanted to be a soldier.

Major Brent Taylor unfurling an American flag on a mountain top in Afghanistan during the summer of 2018. Courtesy of Jennie A. Taylor.Major Brent Taylor unfurling an American flag on a mountain top in Afghanistan during the summer of 2018. Courtesy of Jennie A. Taylor.

I enlisted in the Utah Army National Guard in June of 2003—three days after proposing to my wife. Shortly thereafter, the Supply Sergeant issued me a uniform and a pair of boots. I brought them home and wanted to put them on right away, despite the fact that drill was not for a few weeks. I put on my new uniform, with its American flag sewn on and with the name tapes “U.S. Army” above the left breast pocket and “Taylor” above the right. The first time I put on my uniform was a tremendous experience, and I had underestimated how emotional this would be.

After completing basic training at Fort Leonard Wood and the advanced individual training course for military intelligence at Fort Huachuca, Brent returned to Provo and was part of the Army ROTC program at BYU in 2005 and 2006.

One of the neatest experiences during my ROTC time was the memorial we did for a BYU grad [William W. Jacobsen Jr.] who was killed in Iraq. He was an ROTC grad who was a captain at the time he was killed in the suicide attack on the DFAC [dining facility] at FOB Diamondback, Mosul. The ROTC did a twenty-four-honor guard at the BYU flagpole (by the admin building), in one-hour shifts. Then the next day there was a ceremony to add his name to the “Wall of Honor” on campus. I did a shift at 2:00 a.m. or so. It was an honor and a special experience to do something small to honor a fellow BYU ROTC cadet who fell in the service of our country.

About a dozen years later, Brent’s name was added to that same “Wall of Honor” after he was killed in action while serving in Afghanistan.

Major Brent Taylor “flying” an American flag in a container of American soil. Courtesy of Jennie A. Taylor.Major Brent Taylor “flying” an American flag in a container of American soil. Courtesy of Jennie A. Taylor.

In 2007 and 2008, Brent served two consecutive deployments to Iraq before returning to his National Guard M-Day (Reserves) status for the next three years. In 2011 he was again headed to the Middle East on a deployment, this time to Afghanistan. While on the plane headed overseas, he again found himself contemplating his reasons for serving his country—especially when that service required him to be frequently so far away from his family. He describes what he felt as he boarded that plane.

I gave my wife and kids one last hug and walked onto the plane. Leaving them like that never gets easier; it is heart-wrenching every time I do it. So why do I go? This is my third tour in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and all three were voluntary deployments. I go because of how I feel about our country. I go so I can hold my head up among my proud forebearers who fought for our country. I go to do my part to keep my country and my family safe. I go to fill a critical position that was vacant and to honor the thousands of Americans who have given their lives in these wars. They will not have died in vain from my perspective. I go because I cannot stay when my country is at war. I would go even if I knew I would die. I am honor bound to go and serve.

When Brent deployed to Afghanistan in 2018, he was serving as the elected mayor of North Ogden, Utah. Announcing his deployment to city residents, he said the following:

There are three great loyalties that have guided my life and everything in it: God, family, and country. While I am far from perfect in any of these respects, I have given my life to serve all three of these loyalties whenever and however I can.

Military service involves the entire family, and my family is proud to be a military family. My good wife has supported my military service since the moment we walked together into the recruiting office to enlist in the Army three days after our engagement almost fifteen years ago. Together with our seven children we are looking forward to this opportunity to again join the thousands of other Utah National Guard families and hundreds of thousands of American families who have honorably sent a service member on deployment. For us, ours is a small sacrifice compared to what so many throughout our nation’s history have done and given to keep this, the land of the free and the home of the brave.


Jennie Ashworth Taylor is the proud wife and widow of Major Brent Russell Taylor, who was killed in action while serving in Afghanistan in November 2019. Before starting her family with Brent, Jennie taught history, government, and psychology classes in Spanish Fork, Utah. She served as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Santiago, Chile, and is a graduate of Brigham Young University and Utah State University. Brent and Jennie have seven children and value family and freedom as great gifts from God.

Jennie Taylor at the casket of her husband, Major Brent Taylor, who was killed in Afghanistan, in November 2018. Courtesy of Westbroek Studios.Jennie Taylor at the casket of her husband, Major Brent Taylor, who was killed in Afghanistan, in November 2018. Courtesy of Westbroek Studios.

“They killed him on a ruck march?” I heard myself say. It felt as if I weren’t the one speaking.

I began pacing the room and running my hands through my hair while trying to process what I had just heard. My husband had been killed on a ruck march (a hike!) by one of the Afghan soldiers he had been assigned to train on a base near Kabul. This was his fourth combat deployment during fifteen years as an American soldier, and now he was dead.

It was Saturday, November 3, 2018, and I had just spent the night in Provo with my college roommates. I was caught off guard by an early morning phone call from my mom, who was at my house with my kids. She was the one who had really encouraged me to get away for the weekend.

She told me I might want to sit down, that there were two military officers on my doorstep. My stomach hit the floor. and a hot wave of shock began to run through my body. I hoped I’d misheard her when she told me they were in full dress uniform, because that can only mean one thing.

“Brent might be dead,” I said out loud to the only other roommate already awake.

In an instant I gathered my things, and we scrambled to her van, heading to meet the two military officers, who were only authorized to deliver their message to me face-to-face.

Jennie Taylor, widow of Major Brent Taylor, receives the U.S. flag that draped her husband’s casket from Major General Jefferson S. Burton, the Adjutant General of the Utah National Guard, in November 2018. Courtesy of Westbroek Studios.Jennie Taylor, widow of Major Brent Taylor, receives the U.S. flag that draped her husband’s casket from Major General Jefferson S. Burton, the Adjutant General of the Utah National Guard, in November 2018. Courtesy of Westbroek Studios.

It was a long and frantic ride. I sat in the passenger seat and pulled out my journal and a pen. One thought hit me with full force, and I immediately wrote it down, “If Brent is dead, I cannot fall apart. The kids matter too much.”

We arrived at the Utah National Guard headquarters building in Draper, were quickly greeted by the state chaplain, and then escorted into the building. The atmosphere was incredibly somber. The few other soldiers we saw were standing stiffly at attention, and no one was smiling or making eye contact with me. It was an agonizing wait for the designated officers to arrive, and at one point, a young soldier joined the chaplain in giving me a priesthood blessing. The words of the blessing were vague and brief, as the chaplain reminded the young soldier that I had not yet been given any official news.

After what felt like hours, two Army officers in full dress uniform arrived. I don’t remember their exact words, but they told me Brent had been killed that morning while on a ruck march with his Afghan troops, and that the rogue soldier who fired the fatal shot had also been immediately killed.

Time stood still while simultaneously rushing all around me. Memories of our first date, our wedding day, family vacations, and Sunday dinners all came flooding into my mind. And just as quickly, my thoughts turned to every shared hope, dream, and goal that now seemed shattered.

For fifteen years Brent and I had worked together to accomplish our goals, and we saw many of our dreams realized. We were married in the Salt Lake Temple and welcomed seven precious children into our home. Brent was elected to the city council and then to the office of mayor, and he voluntarily served four Army deployments to the Middle East.

The details we had envisioned for our lives had changed over the years, but the principles we committed to remained the same. There were many times that we lived physically separated by his military assignments, yet we always remained spiritually and emotionally united.

Now, again, I find myself physically separated from Brent, this time for much longer than before but not forever. Our separation is still only temporary, and the family we have built together remains strong and intact, even as he and I now work together from different sides of the veil.

The family of Brent and Jennie Taylor, December 2017. Courtesy of Westbroek Studios.The family of Brent and Jennie Taylor, December 2017. Courtesy of Westbroek Studios.

Almost daily, I am caught off guard with an overwhelming wave of grief, and my heart swells in anguish as the reality of Brent’s death seems to hit me again for the first time. But every day I am also strengthened by my faith, and in my greatest moments of personal sorrow, I call upon the greatest source of immeasurable strength.

My greatest anguish, of course, is for our children. I sat with them gathered around me while the officers told them that their father had been killed in action. I reached to embrace the two children closest to me, and my mind frantically cried, “What can I do? I don’t have seven arms!” My own father died when I was ten years old; never in my wildest dreams did I envision raising my own children without their father by my side.

Though I do not know the details of how I will raise our children in the years to come, I am certain I will do so with the guidance of a perfect, loving Heavenly Father and with the influence and example of their earthly father.

My faith is simple but strong. I know my Savior is always there for me, and I can recognize a strength far greater than my own helping me to face the demands of each new day. Such strength sustained me on the flight line of Dover Air Base as I received Brent’s body back onto American soil and in the arena where his viewing and funeral services were held.

On more than one occasion, I have spent emotional hours inside the holy temple, reflecting upon my faith in God, my love for Brent, and the covenants that tie us all together. On one particular visit, I was clearly reminded that my purpose as a covenant daughter of God has not changed in the months since Brent was killed. Likewise, Brent’s eternal purpose as a son of God and his divinely appointed role as my husband and as the father of our children has not changed. The overall purpose of our eternal family has not changed and neither have the eternal principles upon which Brent and I originally built our lives together. Only the details have changed. And since God is in the details, I choose to trust the changes.


Carol Thompson accompanied her husband, Doyle, to Afghanistan, where he worked in a partnership project for Kansas State University to rebuild the engineering department at Kabul University. Carol helped by running the copy machine, taking inventory of textbooks, and teaching English. While in Kabul, she served first as the branch Relief Society president and then as the first district Relief Society president in the Kabul Afghanistan Military District.

When I think of Afghanistan, I think of people. Before I went, when someone said Afghanistan to me, it was like saying the end of the world. It was a foreign place that I knew nothing about, and I didn’t ever expect to know very much about it. Now, I think of a people who are very kind, generous, loving, and who desire peace and educational opportunities.

Doyle and I arrived in Kabul on August 29, 2008, a Friday. Doyle’s brother Garthg and his wife picked us up at the airport, and we headed directly to church. We had taken a break in our flights at Dubai, so we weren’t totally sleep-deprived, but I was overwhelmed by entering this culture that was like nothing I had ever seen or experienced before. That Sunday, we were introduced into the Kabul Branch, and I felt very uncomfortable because I was in traveling clothes. I hadn’t dressed up at all and felt like I was dirty. But I loved being there, and I felt an instant camaraderie and acceptance. I was asked if I would speak in sacrament meeting the next Sunday, and I agreed. Before I had a chance to speak the next Sunday in church, I was asked if I would be the Kabul Branch Relief Society president. I accepted that calling and served from September until March.

We left Kabul and returned home in December. While we were home, I received an email from the district president, Gene Wikle. I clicked on it and noticed that it said “Called to Serve.” I thought, “Hmmm. Another message. Some inspirational thing. I read it, and it asked me to serve as the Afghanistan Kabul District Relief Society president. When we returned in the middle of March 2009, the first Friday we attended church was also the first Kabul District Conference, and I was sustained as the Relief Society president for the Kabul Afghanistan Military District.

This is the first photo taken of the Kabul Military Branch Relief Society. From left to right: Daffney Scherer (who is armed), Margaret Owens, Bonnie Anderson, Libby Brown, Kyoko Wilson, Carol Wilson, and Barbara Thompson. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.This is the first photo taken of the Kabul Military Branch Relief Society. From left to right: Daffney Scherer (who is armed), Margaret Owens, Bonnie Anderson, Libby Brown, Kyoko Wilson, Carol Wilson, and Barbara Thompson. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.

I was the first Relief Society president to serve in a district of the Church in a war zone. When I received the call, I thought, “I wonder what that’s going to be like. What will I do? How will I accomplish this?” When I had a chance to get further instruction from President Wikle, he outlined some things I should do that he felt were essential. He wanted me to send a weekly message to every sister in the district, and he wanted me to send a monthly visiting teaching message to every sister in the district.

Serving in a war zone where I personally could not move about and travel, I often received information about sisters who were coming into the country or moving from one location to another. It was always reassuring to me that in most places they went, there would be priesthood brethren who could administer the sacrament, organize sacrament meetings, be there as a support, and give blessings. It has meant everything to me in terms of the way I can serve to know that my sisters were being taken care of. Occasionally, there were a couple of instances where sisters have moved to a place where there was no priesthood holder who could do those things. Those are the sisters I worried about the most. A few times, there were sisters who have needed blessings or needed priesthood assistance, and I have been so grateful to my Heavenly Father and to those priesthood holders who I could call on in those situations. I would write to them and say, “I just received a letter from this sister. She’s ill. She needs a priesthood blessing. Is there someone who can get access to her?” Within a matter of hours, it would be taken care of.

As I served as the district Relief Society president in the Kabul Afghanistan Military District, I was aware I was making history. When you serve with President Wikle, you don’t forget it because he reminds you of every new thing that’s happening. It is a sobering fact. I don’t know that I am doing anything differently than I would otherwise except that if I weren’t the first Relief Society president, I would have someone else’s example to follow. Without that example to follow, I have to rely on the Spirit to guide me. When I write to newly called Relief Society presidents to orient them to their calling, I tell them that it’s different in Afghanistan serving as a Relief Society president and that the best advice that I can give them is to focus on the purposes of the Relief Society and to pray about how they, as a Relief Society president, can accomplish the purposes of Relief Society within the limitations of their location and situation. Even though we are in a military district and most sisters share many things in common, the Kabul Branch is different than the Kandahar Branch. The composition of the branch is different, and the stresses are different. The Relief Society president in those situations has to devise programs, plans, activities, or whatever else is needed to meet the needs of the sisters that they serve. It has to be done through the guidance of the Spirit because it is outside of the organized guidelines.

Leadership of the Kabul Afghanistan Military District (left to right): John Oravis, district clerk; Winn Noyes, first counselor; Gene Wikle, district president; Robert Horner, second counselor, and Carol Thompson, district Relief Society president. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.Leadership of the Kabul Afghanistan Military District (left to right): John Oravis, district clerk; Winn Noyes, first
counselor; Gene Wikle, district president; Robert Horner, second counselor, and Carol Thompson, district Relief
Society president. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.

Before I went to Afghanistan, I had been a member of the Church for a long time, had served in many different capacities, attended church regularly for years, and went to sacrament meeting and partook of the sacrament. Being in Afghanistan, the sacrament has taken on a deeper significance through the example of other people there taking the sacrament. Seeing how important it is to them helps me reflect on it myself. One sister I’m thinking of in the Kabul Branch was involved in extremely difficult and stressful work, and she would come to church meetings when she could come. Sometimes, in the middle of the meetings, she’d come in and then have to leave suddenly. I watched her, and it was amazing. If she had come after the sacrament had been passed, she would ask if they would prepare the sacrament for her afterward. It made me think about how important that is. I could see how important it was to her, and I knew many of the sacrifices she had made in her life to be a member of the Church. Because of her example, I have a deeper appreciation for that ordinance.

Saturday afternoon in Kabul—June 13, 2009

I am sitting in my office at Kabul University. I have come to love being here. It is a private place. As I hear the planes outside, my thoughts are drawn to my sisters—twelve at Bagram, five at Kandahar, and others scattered in lonely outposts—who may not be in harm’s way but who most assuredly are hot and dusty. Unlike me, they are in this country to fight or to support those who fight. I am here to fight a different war, one of ignorance and lack of hope. I wonder if my sisters have seen the district conference DVD yet and whether it affected them like it affected me. I hope it did. I hope they will write. I hope they are safe.

District president Gene Wikle (front row, right) and district Relief Society president Carol Thompson with members of the Kabul Military Branch. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.District president Gene Wikle (front row, right) and district Relief Society president Carol Thompson with members of the Kabul Military Branch. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.

Many forces within Afghanistan are at war. There is the obvious battle between good and evil—peace and terrorism. There is also a battle, much more subtle, between factions for the power to rule and control. Beyond that, there is a battle between the status quo and change. I am presently reading a book about Leonardo da Vinci set in the 1400s. So many things from that time are like life in Kabul—repression of women, petty tribal rivalries and jealousies, lack of sanitation, hand-to-mouth food production, primitive medical practices, overwhelming poverty, rampant illiteracy, and ironfisted, immoral rule by the presiding religious body.

As the breeze stirs the trees, I hope for rain to break the heat, wash the air, and settle the dust, but I expect only a dust storm that will add more layers of grit to the already grimy surfaces. I washed the inside of my windows this morning and washed the sheers that hang in our room. I also changed out the plastic bags that I hope block the ingress of the mosquitoes who have been adding to my discomfort lately.

I feel that everything I had done in my life prior to being called to serve in Afghanistan had prepared me to fill this calling, and I am grateful—both for the preparation and for the opportunity. I was astonished by how strong the Spirit is in this brutal place and by the calm reassurance I received daily as I tried to serve and make a difference. Both impressions sustained and guided me and continue to do so. I am grateful to the Lord for the abundance of these blessings for me and for all those in harm’s way.


Dr. Blaine Tuft (left) at Hamed Hilal’s bedside with Hamed’s uncle while he continued to receive care at Craig Joint Theater Hospital. Courtesy of Blaine Tuft.Dr. Blaine Tuft (left) at Hamed Hilal’s bedside with Hamed’s uncle while he continued to receive care at Craig Joint Theater Hospital. Courtesy of Blaine Tuft.

Blaine Tuft was deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan, as a pediatric physician. Due to the overwhelming need, he served as a hospitalist for pediatric and adult patients at Craig Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram, Afghanistan. He took care of war wounded of all kinds, from children to soldiers to captured enemies. His family resided in San Antonio, Texas. His specialty at home is pediatric gastroenterology. He has served in many Church callings, including high councilor, elders quorum presidency, and various callings in the Young Men program at the stake and ward levels.

Dr. Blaine Tuft, an Air Force lieutenant colonel pediatric physician, with fellow physicians at Craig Joint Theatre Hospital on the Medevac Blackhawk Helicopter flight line at Bagram, Afghanistan, in September 2010. Courtesy of Blaine Tuft.Dr. Blaine Tuft, an Air Force lieutenant colonel pediatric physician, with fellow physicians at Craig Joint Theatre Hospital on the Medevac Blackhawk Helicopter flight line at Bagram, Afghanistan, in September 2010. Courtesy of Blaine Tuft.

I felt an overwhelming gratitude to have both the gospel of Jesus Christ and the opportunity to serve my brothers and sisters as a missionary as well as a medical provider. I was touched as I listened to the interaction between a humble farmer and his son who came from a poor village, twenty miles outside Jalalabad. His ten- or twelve-year-old son, Hamed Hilal, was injured severely in a bomb, or IED, blast and was flown to Craig Joint Theater Hospital. I have been taking care of him for two or three weeks. The injuries Hamed sustained included a traumatic amputation of his left hand, a partial amputation of his right foot, multiple penetrating fragments through his left foot, damage to his eyes, and several other injuries.

When Hamed was flown in by helicopter, his father accompanied him as his escort. Visibly worried and with hesitancy in the strange American hospital environment, he stood off to the side as his son was resuscitated and rushed off to surgery. The father—a relatively tall, thin man with a stooped gait—was dressed in traditional but dirty Afghanistan clothes with a shawl and a turban. He had a long beard with streaks of gray and a kind but weathered face. In another setting, he may have seemed intimidating, but here he was quick to show a grateful smile and a firm handshake, placing his hand across his heart in thankful response.

Hamed Hilal, an Afghan boy who received significant injuries from a bomb or IED blast, is pictured being loaded on a helicopter for his flight home in October 2010. The photo shows Lieutenant Colonel Blaine Tuft, Hamed, and his nurse, Lieutenant Nita. Courtesy of Blaine Tuft.Hamed Hilal, an Afghan boy who received significant injuries from a bomb or IED blast, is pictured being loaded on a helicopter for his flight home in October 2010. The photo shows Lieutenant Colonel Blaine Tuft, Hamed, and his nurse, Lieutenant Nita. Courtesy of Blaine Tuft.

When I first spoke with the father, his main concern was whether we could save his son’s eyesight. Almost as much as his concern over his son’s life was his concern that he wouldn’t be able to see. We were honest with him that his son had sustained severe injuries and that he may never see again. Following a brief moment of obvious disappointment, the father quickly expressed his gratitude for all that we were doing. Over time, I watched as this father lovingly spoke to and tried to meet the needs of his broken son while never feeling quite comfortable in the hospital setting. He would sleep on a mat on the floor next to his son and offer Muslim prayers five times a day in one of the small hospital rooms. He was happy to receive the food our facility provided—never demanding and always grateful.

For the first few days in our ICU, Hamed stayed intubated on a ventilator. He had bandages covering both eyes. After a few days, his sedation was weaned, and he was allowed to wake up. Scared and in pain, Hamed woke up and gradually began to speak more and more to his father, initially with a high-pitched scratchy voice that became clearer every day. One of our translators reported that even in the early days of his injury, as the boy was coming out of sedation, he would tell his father “not to worry” and that, even if he was blind, he would be OK.

Lieutenant Colonel Blaine Tuft, taking care of a severely malnourished child in the intensive care unit at Craig Joint Theatre Hospital in Bagram during September 2010. Courtesy of Blaine Tuft.Lieutenant Colonel Blaine Tuft, taking care of a severely malnourished child in the intensive care unit at Craig Joint Theatre Hospital in Bagram during September 2010. Courtesy of Blaine Tuft.

Later, I learned that the boy continued to offer words of comfort to his father and tell him how sorry he was that he had to be here taking care of him while the other children were home. Reportedly, his father has ten other children at home and is a farmer. The translators have commented that the family is extremely poor and lives in a rented hut. One translator was moved enough to give the father a watch and some money to enable him to return home. The boy is incredibly mature for his age and very smart. Over time, I noticed that even though he couldn’t see me, he would meet me with a chipped-tooth smile and repeat my greetings back to me in English. I was touched to see how tenderly he cared for his father despite being the wounded one. There must be an incredible amount of love in his home.



Robert Valentino joined the U.S. Army Infantry in July 2002. He served as a grenadier in Operation Enduring Freedom for ten months and then served as a squad leader in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He married his wife, Elysa, before deploying to Afghanistan and had a daughter, Elliana, before deploying to Iraq. He has served as a Valiant teacher in Primary, a counselor in the elders quorum, and a group leader at Camp Liberty, Iraq.

Afghan children often befriended coalition soldiers. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.Afghan children often befriended coalition soldiers. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

I joined the infantry in the summer of 2002 and was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division. I deployed to Afghanistan in 2003 for ten months, and then served a year in Iraq as a squad leader. I have had many experiences, from having sacrament service with just three of us at an FOB [forward operating base] to sharing the gospel with my best friend. I also had the opportunity of teaching the gospel to two Iraqi interpreters who were Christians.

One of the most spiritual experiences I have had occurred in Afghanistan. I was on a quick reaction force, and we were alerted that a helicopter delivering school supplies had been shot down. Two individuals who were trying to better the lives of children had lost their lives. I felt such frustration and anger as we arrived at the scene of the attack. I was tired of the little progress we were making at the time, and it seemed that the enemy was ruthless and unwavering.

The following morning, I was full of emotion during the two hours that we rode back to camp. I felt prompted to wave at the children we passed. This was something I usually did, but that day was different. As I started waving, their smiles pricked me deep within my soul. The more I waved, the more I felt as if my entire body was filling up with something I can only describe as spiritual water. A young boy with crutches came running out just to wave back at me. I even waved at the men, who usually glared at me, to find them sending back huge smiles, as if no one had ever waved at them before.

With American soldiers on patrol behind him, an Afghan father and his son pass through their lines. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.With American soldiers on patrol behind him, an Afghan father and his son pass through their lines. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

By the end of that two-hour ride, I had been changed. It was as if my spirit lifted to a new level and the whole world became new. I saw my role as a soldier in a completely different light. I learned the power of love and the effect it has on people. As I continued to serve the people of Afghanistan, my love grew to its greatest capacity. It is through service that we develop love. Service is the means by which we give of our love. Love is our greatest weapon in this war.

* * * * *

I had a wonderful missionary experience in Afghanistan. It was near the holiday season, which is always a rough time for deployed soldiers. My unit was sent up north for a month to conduct a very large mission, “Mountain Resolve.” This was the hardest mission I did on that deployment, both physically and spiritually. The last day I was there, I was able to attend the Latter-day Saint service member group. There was a wonderful brother leading it. He talked about the hard times soldiers go through and how much they need a friend. He encouraged each of us to listen to the Spirit and bear our testimony with someone who is hurting. Right then, I knew who I needed to help.

Afghan children greet American soldiers visiting their village. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.Afghan children greet American soldiers visiting their village. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

There was a new guy in my squad who I got along with but didn’t really know. His wife recently had a baby, and he was having a hard time. I accepted the call to help. I shared my testimony and invited him to church. The next Sunday he came with me. It was fast and testimony meeting. I bore my testimony that Sunday, for my mind was very weary from the things I experienced during the last month. The Spirit was so strong in the little “power ministry house” where we held our meeting. One of my friends felt the Spirit so strongly that he told me afterward that he wanted to get up to bear his testimony too, but he was afraid. He continued to come to church with me and started reading the Book of Mormon. I saw his entire countenance change before my eyes. A few months later, when friends would ask him about going to church with me, he would tell them he was a Mormon.

We had many great experiences together, from game night to scripture study to holding sacrament just with three of us at a little FOB [forward operating base]. He grew with such strength. Everyone commented how happy and different he was. He was a totally new guy. On returning home, he and his wife started taking the discussions with the missionaries. They came to church with us on a few occasions. They have not yet entered into baptism, but I believe that they will. They are my dear friends. I will never forget this experience. My testimony grew so much watching my buddy change before my eyes.


Gene Wikle is a retired U.S. Air Force officer who served in Afghanistan as a senior civilian adviser to the Afghan Air Force. In spring 2007, Elder William K. Jackson, an Area Authority Seventy, set him apart as the senior service member group leader for the entire country of Afghanistan. In 2008, he was called to serve as the first president of the Kabul Afghanistan Military District for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Prior to July 1, 2008, the Church was organized in Afghanistan as service member groups, as part of the Church’s Asia Area that was headquartered in Hong Kong. Those groups had anywhere anywhere from four or five members at forward operating bases to forty, fifty, or sixty members at some of the larger military bases in Afghanistan. The problem with the service member groups, though, is that they did not provide the country with the keys of a judge in Israel; the ecclesiastical authority for the Church in Afghanistan resided in Hong Kong. Additionally, General Authorities who were part of the Asia Area Presidency could not travel to Afghanistan because of very real security threats. From the time that our military first deployed into Afghanistan in October 2001 through June 2008, there was no ecclesiastical authority in the country. Church members were only able to have sacrament meeting and sometimes a Gospel Doctrine lesson, but that was really the extent of the organization of the Church.

Brother Abraham (left) was the first Afghan member of the Church to reside in his native country. He faithfully served in the Kabul Military Branch elders quorum presidency. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.Brother Abraham (left) was the first Afghan member of the Church to reside in his native country. He faithfully served in the Kabul Military Branch elders quorum presidency. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.

When General Authorities, under the direction of the First Presidency, decided to organize a military district in Afghanistan, the decision was made to take Afghanistan out of the Asia Area and create a new area called the Middle East/Africa North desk, which was administered by two General Authorities in Salt Lake City. Afghanistan was one of nineteen countries under that Salt Lake administration. What this meant to Church members is that now they had a district president who was set apart by General Authorities and given ecclesiastical keys, who could serve as a judge in Israel for service member groups throughout the country. At the same time, it allowed the district to organize military branches throughout the country and several were created. It meant you had branch presidents who also received ecclesiastical keys to serve as a judge in Israel. It further allowed us to organize elders quorum presidencies, Relief Societies, and all the normal functions you would enjoy in a branch or ward in the United States or anywhere else in the world.

Now, because we were in a combat zone, we didn’t have Primary, Young Men, or Young Women organizations. But we had all the functions that we needed to issue temple recommends and administer the affairs of the Church. We did not collect tithing there because the members’ membership records continued to reside in their home ward or branch, wherever that might be throughout the world.

District president Gene Wikle (in white, left) baptized Rodney Broome (in white, right) in Afghanistan. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.District president Gene Wikle (in white, left) baptized Rodney Broome (in white, right) in Afghanistan. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.

As a district presidency, we could not freely travel around a country (that’s about the size of Texas) because we’re in a war zone. For obvious security reasons, we could not get in a car and visit another branch or service member group. Everything we did to administer the affairs of the Church was done primarily by email, occasionally by cell phone, but rarely in person because of the security situation. What I was called to do, with the approval of the General Authorities, was to reach out and communicate with members of the Church throughout Afghanistan by email. This required that when I extended a calling, be it to a branch president, a counselor in a branch presidency, an elders quorum president, or a district council member, I had to send them a set of personal priesthood interview questions and ask them to respond. Then the district presidency prayerfully considered their response. When we felt so inspired and directed by the Lord, we then emailed a response back extending a Church calling to them. I have called brethren to be elders quorum presidents, branch presidents, and district council members whom I had never met and would not meet during their deployment in Afghanistan. So how do we set those individuals apart? When I was in a position to travel by military aircraft to set an individual apart, I did so. On a recurring basis, Latter-day Saint chaplains were assigned to Afghanistan. In addition to their military duties, they were called to serve as members of the district council. By assignment from me, these chaplains would visit military bases to set apart members who I could not personally visit. (During my service as district president, there were seven Latter-day Saint chaplains who served in Afghanistan. There were some periods of time when there were no Latter-day Saint chaplains in the entire country.)

Regarding sharing the gospel in Afghanistan, a Church policy letter was issued by Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander and Elder Bruce D. Porter of the Middle East/Africa North desk that spelled out the guidelines about how we could share the gospel in Afghanistan. There was also a military general order for Americans in Afghanistan that listed guidelines about sharing religious beliefs. Specifically, as members of the Church we were prohibited at that time from actively proselytizing Muslims in their native land. This meant we could not give them a Book of Mormon, and we could not share the missionary discussions with them. They were also not allowed to attend Church services.

What we could do, and what we were encouraged to do, is be a positive example of the gospel to the good people of Afghanistan. We lived our religion. We lived the Word of Wisdom. We lived righteously. We set a positive example and let our lights shine so that they would want to learn more at a future time when we can share with them. We could not actively proselytize non-Muslims either, but our fellow soldiers and comrades-in-arms could approach us. If they wanted to attend church and learn more about the Church, then they could be invited, at that point, to receive the missionary discussions. I was also set apart to serve as a mission president. I could grant permission to give the missionary discussions, interview prospective members for baptism, and conduct baptisms for non-Muslim members. We had several convert baptisms in Afghanistan involving American citizens who chose to join the Church.

* * * * *

The Muslim holy day in Afghanistan is Friday. That’s when they officially worship in their respective religions. Most of the Latter-day Saint service member groups and branches met on Sunday because the U.S. military still recognized Sunday as our Sabbath day. However, in Kabul, Afghanistan, because of the work environment with the Afghan government, the Kabul Military Branch met on Fridays for a sacrament service and Gospel Doctrine meeting.

Most of the branches in Afghanistan were military branches comprised of military servicemen and servicewomen as well as civilians who were working in Afghanistan. They generally had a two-hour block meeting, which was composed of sacrament meeting and a Gospel Doctrine meeting or combined priesthood/Relief Society meeting. The service member groups traditionally only had a one-hour sacrament meeting each week, with one talk or a very short Gospel Doctrine lesson.

Branches met at well-established military bases where the U.S. government had built a nondenominational chapel, where Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant meetings were also held. Most of the branches also used the nondenominational chapel for family home evenings. Some of the branches held more than one sacrament meeting to accommodate as many members as possible. Many of them held evening meetings, such as Sunday evening sacrament meetings or Wednesday evenings. Family home evenings were held throughout the week to accommodate the schedules of military members who worked around the clock. Many of the branches had a branch or a group dinner night when they all met together in their dining facility to share a table, friendship, and fellowship while eating.

A large number of Church members worked for the U.S. government, particularly the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. We had several married couples serving together in Afghanistan. We had a lot of civilians who worked there with nongovernmental organizations and aid organizations, who helped in different capacities, such as providing humanitarian relief to rebuild Afghanistan.

* * * * *

Kabul Afghanistan Military District presidency in 2009. Left to right: N. Winn Noyes, first counselor; Eugene J. Wikle, district president; and Robert L. Horner, second counselor. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.Kabul Afghanistan Military District presidency in 2009. Left to right: N. Winn Noyes, first counselor; Eugene J. Wikle, district president; and Robert L. Horner, second
counselor. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.

In April 2009, I had the opportunity in Salt Lake City to meet with Elder Neuenschwander and Elder Porter, the General Authorities of the Middle East/Africa North desk. We discussed the idea of holding a district conference, which seemed complicated by the fact that general authorities could not travel to Afghanistan at that time. So I proposed having a district conference prerecorded both in Salt Lake and in Afghanistan that could then be put on a single DVD. I knew that all of the members in Afghanistan would then be able to watch it. We could, in essence, have 100 percent participation because they could watch district conference at their office, on their computer, or on their personal laptop. I returned to Afghanistan and during April we recorded the Afghanistan portion of the district conference. It included the sustaining of General Authorities and district officers, as well as presentations by myself and the district Relief Society president, Sister Carol Thompson. We mailed a copy of our talks to Church headquarters.

The Salt Lake portion was then recorded at the Conference Center with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland presiding and military personnel from the Utah National Guard in the congregation. Elder Neuenschwander, Elder Porter, and Brother Frank Clawson (a U.S. Air Force retired colonel who served as the Church’s director of military relations) spoke, as did Sister Julie B. Beck, the Relief Society general president. The Church’s Audiovisual Department combined all of the talks into hour-and-forty-five-minute DVDs, which were sent to me and distributed to Church members across Afghanistan. The demand and response from the members in our district were strong. They felt the Spirit. The messages were directed not only to the members serving in Afghanistan but to their families at home. The decision was made, with the support of the Church, that additional copies would be made so that district members could mail a copy of the DVD to their family members. All the members serving in Afghanistan and those who arrived later to serve in Afghanistan, together with their family members, could receive a copy of that first and historic district conference in Afghanistan.

Members of the Kandahar Military Branch visiting with District President Gene Wikle (sixth from left) on October 18, 2009. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.Members of the Kandahar Military Branch visiting with District President Gene Wikle (sixth from left) on October 18, 2009. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.

I received many emails from district members expressing how important it was to them. They realized that the Lord, the General Authorities, and the Church recognized their service. They appreciated that we reached out to them, cared about them, loved them, and cared about their families. It lifted their spirits and their morale. It told them that they could make a difference in Afghanistan. It told them, as Elder Holland said in his talk, that there would be angels attending them on their right side and on their left side and that they would be blessed as they served and as they sought to live righteously in Afghanistan. They were making a difference. It told them that the organization of the district in Afghanistan was a very historically significant piece of Church history.

I heard from many members that it made a difference in their lives, and we were all blessed for it. I received emails from spouses, from mothers, and from fathers who shared how much it touched their lives. They realized how well organized the Church was in Afghanistan, what we were trying to do for their family members, what the Church was trying to do for them back home, and how much of a difference it could make for them. It boosted their morale. It helped them understand that the Lord was watching out and caring for their husbands, sons, daughters, and wives in Afghanistan and that the Lord was watching out for family and friends at home as well.

* * * * *

When we first organized the district, we recognized that our sisters were in need. We live in a world where there are women serving in combat zones, something that was uncommon or on a much smaller scale in previous wars. We recognized that we needed to have an organized Relief Society in each of the branches in our district. Some of the branches had as few as five sisters; others had as many as fifteen to twenty sisters. We wanted them to have a functioning Relief Society, the opportunity to meet together as sisters, and to serve as visiting teachers and in other callings. But I felt that was only part of it. We were still missing something. If we only had Relief Society in the branches, what about sisters who were serving in service member groups, or the sister who was serving in a remote location and was the only member of the Church at her military deployed location? Those sisters would not have the blessings of partaking and receiving the sacrament, having a home teacher, or having access to the priesthood. I was inspired by the Lord to organize a district Relief Society presidency. So we organized and called a district Relief Society president. She couldn’t travel and visit sisters throughout the country, but each week she could send a weekly devotional message to every sister in the country—something she could share with them that is related to the gospel and being in Afghanistan. Every week she sent out a weekly devotional email and gave me a report on the letters and exchanges she had with sisters in Afghanistan. Each month, she sent out a visiting teaching message. (The district presidency also sent out a devotional message to all of the Church members in Afghanistan each week.)

The weekly Relief Society message was one of the greatest bonds that tied us together as a district of five hundred members throughout Afghanistan country. It helped people know that we were thinking about them, that we were sharing the gospel together, and that we cared about them. I got numerous responses from members throughout the week who said, “That’s what I needed to lift my spirit.”

* * * * *

I have never had a conversation with any Afghan where there has been any disrespect for religious beliefs. I’ve had many Afghans approach me and other members of the Church throughout the country who say, “We would like to come to your Church services. Can we come?” At this point in time, we can’t do that, and it’s always been very hard to say no to them. We very kindly explain that it’s not by our choice, but because of the circumstances we live in. We also want them to understand that their lives would be in danger if they attended Church services with us. But there is a sincere, genuine desire by many Afghans to want to learn more about Christianity, about the gospel, and about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

* * * * *

First Kabul Afghanistan Military District presidency (June 2008). Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.First Kabul Afghanistan Military District presidency (June 2008). Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.

In the year 2000, while the Taliban was still reigning and ruling over Afghanistan, a young man, whom I’ll refer to as Brother Abraham [not his real name], decided to flee from the country of Afghanistan. He left his parents, brothers, and sisters behind. He was, at that time, about nineteen years of age. When he arrived in the United Kingdom, he was penniless and could not speak English very well. He lived there for seven years under asylum. In Britain, he learned to speak English and took odd jobs in order to support himself. While there, he met an Afghan woman who had also fled Afghanistan with her family, and he subsequently married her.

In the first year of their marriage, Latter-day Saint missionaries who were out knocking on doors in London came to their apartment. When Brother Abraham answered, he felt a special spirit tell him to let these men in. Although Brother Abraham had been born and raised as a practicing Muslim, he felt a desire and an interest to let the two missionaries into his apartment. For the first time, he learned about Christianity and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He had a burning desire to learn more.

His wife was adamantly opposed to him learning any more about Christianity or the Church. She told her parents what he was doing. As a result, his mother- and father-in-law, brother-in-law, and wife all threatened to kill him if he pursued his interest in the Church any further. And yet he told them, “I want to know more.” After which his in-laws proceeded to assault him. They broke his nose and physically harmed him to the point that he had to flee for his life. He left his wife and life in London and fled to Hamburg, Germany. He was now bound and determined to learn more about the Latter-day Saints.

Kabul Afghanistan District and Branch presidencies. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.Kabul Afghanistan District and Branch presidencies. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.

Using the Internet, he found the Church’s website and where the Church was located in Hamburg. He attended a Church service and announced that he wanted to learn more about the gospel. In 2007, he received the missionary lessons, and in August 2007 he was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hamburg. In early 2008, he decided to return to his native land of Afghanistan, well aware that his life would be in danger because he had converted to Christianity. After returning home to his native land, his parents, who resided in Afghanistan, found out that his wife had left him because he had chosen to become a Christian. The village in which his family resided heard the same information. They forced his parents to leave their home and flee for their lives. His parents disowned him. He was back to his native country penniless, without family, and without friends.

Fortunately, one of his old classmates allowed him to live in his apartment. His friend did not know he had converted to Christianity. While residing there, his friend said, “The Americans are hiring translators. Because you speak fluent English, you should apply for a job there.” Brother Abraham applied and was called in for an interview.

A member of the Church who had arrived in Afghanistan only a day or two before was told he was going to do a job interview for a translator applicant. During that interview, Brother Abraham was inspired by the Holy Ghost to blurt out, “I am a Mormon!” Of course, the interviewer was taken aback by an Afghan blurting out, “I am a Mormon!” After the interview, he pulled Brother Abraham aside and said, “You said you were a Mormon. Are you saying that you are a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?” Brother Abraham said, “Yes, I am.”

The member asked, “When and where were you baptized?,” and he recorded all the relevant information. The Latter-day Saint interviewer contacted me immediately and said, “I think we have an Afghan member of the Church.” With the information I received, I contacted Church military relations to ask if he, in fact, was a member of the Church. They replied the next day and said, “Yes, he is a member of the Church.”

Now I had an interesting situation on my hands. What should I do with an Afghan member of the Church in Afghanistan? At that time, we were still part of the Asia Area, so I emailed Elder Daryl Garn, the Area President, and explained what was transpiring. I asked, “Do we have permission to allow him to attend military Church services in Kabul?” I also went to the command chaplain, who was not a Latter-day Saint, explained the situation to him, and asked for his permission as well. Everyone said it was my decision whether he attended church or not, but they would approve if that was what I wanted to do. I prayerfully considered the question and made the decision to allow him to attend Church services with us in Kabul. He regularly attended church and later faithfully served as second counselor in the elders quorum presidency.

* * * * *

One of the things I tried to do was travel around the country to visit Latter-day Saints. One month I traveled to Kandahar Air Base in southern Afghanistan to perform a professional military assignment in support of the new air corps base we were building in Kandahar. An Afghan colonel was accompanying me so we could inspect the new base and do future planning. While visiting, I wanted to visit members in the Kandahar Military Branch. I also wanted to travel to Camp Leatherneck, which was a forty-five-minute flight west of Kandahar, to set apart new branch and elders quorum presidencies who had been called the week before.

Camp Phoenix service member group with Eugene Wikle, district president (front row, left). Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.Camp Phoenix service member group with Eugene Wikle, district president (front row, left). Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.

I was traveling with a team of five other fellow professional mentors. We had scheduled a C-130 aircraft to take us from Kabul to Kandahar. We arrived at the Kabul military airfield, but our flight did not. We were subsequently told that the flight had been canceled, and we would probably not be able to travel that night. I knew the mission was critically important for both my professional duties as Church responsibilities. I stood in the parking lot of the air passenger terminal and humbly prayed that means would be made available so I could travel and carry out my assignments.

About half an hour later, while we were still waiting at the terminal, the passenger terminal agent came running out and said, “We just had an unscheduled flight arrive. It is a Marine Corps C-130 going to Kandahar. Anyone who wants to go to Kandahar, get on that plane now!” As I walked out to the flight line, the Spirit told me that the plane came to pick me up because of my prayer. The C-130 had its engines running and ready to go. I observed that there were no passengers or cargo being offloaded.

When we boarded that plane, we learned that we were the only passengers going to Kandahar. I was able to set those good people apart at Camp Leatherneck as well as visit the members in Kandahar. I knew the Lord had done it. The experience taught me, again, that when you put your trust and faith in the Lord and righteously determine you’re going to carry out an assignment for the Lord, he’ll provide a way for you to complete it.

* * * * *

I had a Danish soldier in Helmand Province serving by himself as the only member of the Church in his combat unit. He sent me an email that said, “President Wikle, today I killed an enemy in combat. How do I stand with the Lord?” The man was grieved. He was heartbroken. He had been trained to be a combat soldier, but now he’d been put to the ultimate test and had to take another life. He wanted to know if he was OK with the Lord. It was my responsibility to reassure him, through email, that what he did was right with the Lord. He had done what he was required to do.

There are many Church members who were in similar situations and who experienced a lot of combat stress. They have taken life in a combat situation, or they have seen the cruelties of war. They saw people—fellow comrades in arms, enemy combatants, or innocent civilians—who were maimed and killed. They also saw the destruction that took place around them, which affected them. This was one of the greatest challenges I had as district president, especially because I couldn’t reach out to them personally, put my arms around them, and console them. I was able to reach within the depths of my heart and mind to prayerfully ask the Lord for the right words of comfort and counsel to offer. I wanted to say the right things to reassure and help them when they were in the depths of despair.

* * * * *

Elder Bruce A. Carlson (second from right), a General Authority Seventy and retired U.S. Air Force four-star general, visited Church members in Kabul, Afghanistan, in March 2011. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.Elder Bruce A. Carlson (second from right), a General Authority Seventy and retired U.S. Air Force four-star general, visited Church members in Kabul, Afghanistan, in March 2011. Courtesy of Eugene Wikle.

In 2009, we had four convert baptisms, including two sisters. They were active duty Army soldiers in two service member groups. They wanted to learn more about Christianity and the gospel of Jesus Christ. They were introduced to the gospel through the friendship and fellowship of Latter-day Saints at their duty stations. They gained permission to receive the missionary discussions and subsequently desired to be baptized. One of the Protestant chaplains and his assistants actually built a baptismal font (out of some aluminum siding) outside of the nondenominational chapel on their installation so that our members could conduct a baptism. The chaplains attended the baptismal and sacrament service and participated as part of the congregation.

In May of 2009, I was invited to perform the first baptism for an American civilian in Kabul, Afghanistan. He had also sought out the gospel. His baptism took place in the swimming pool at the United States Embassy compound. When I conducted his baptismal interview, I asked who he would like to perform the baptism, and he asked if I could baptize him. Of course, I was honored and was happy to do so. He became an active member of the Kabul Military Branch.

* * * * *

Fifty-eight members of the Church from the Kabul Branch and four nearby service member groups—along with invited guests including the Headquarters, International Security Assistance Force chaplain—attended a meeting to hear Elder Bruce A. Carlson (seated, third from left) speak. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.Fifty-eight members of the Church from the Kabul Branch and four nearby service member groups—along with invited guests including the Headquarters, International Security Assistance Force chaplain—attended a meeting to hear Elder Bruce A. Carlson (seated, third from left) speak. Courtesy of Eugene J. Wikle.

During my tenure as the senior priesthood leader in Afghanistan, starting in May of 2007, there were several Latter-day Saint service members killed in the line of duty. When I was made aware of their deaths, it was my responsibility to notify the Church military relations office, which in turn notified the First Presidency.

Although I did not know any of those Church members personally, each time I felt like I lost a member of my own family. I tried to learn as much as I could about them. It’s just a sad, sad state of affairs that we live in a world where mankind seeks to kill one another; however, I am grateful that those members fought and served valiantly. Although they did not return home to their family members in this life, they returned home to their Father in Heaven with honor. I am grateful for their service.

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Being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints means having the gospel in my life. Even though I’m in the middle of a war zone, I can have the Holy Ghost bring a spirit of peace and understanding. I can know who I am, why I’m here, and where I’m going. I do not feel lost in a war zone. I feel a spirit of peace even though numerous times I have been under attack and have been concerned for my immediate safety. I have always felt sustained, and I have seen the difference in the lives of those who do not have the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost. There is fear and uncertainty in their lives.

Even in the most trying times I’ve experienced in Afghanistan, even when I felt lonely and weighed down by the mantle of responsibility I have been given in that war zone, I am able to get down on my knees and pray to our Father in Heaven for guidance, for comfort that I know I would not have if I was not a member of the Church.

I have the scriptures. When I read the Book of Mormon, I am reading about many of the kinds of events that are taking place in Afghanistan today. If I want to know what’s going on in Afghanistan, the effects and the outcomes of war, all I have to do is read the Book of Mormon. It gives me guidance, direction, and a sense of purpose.

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The following was excerpted from an August 27, 2009, interview between Gene J. Wikle and the author.

We have a wide variety of Church members in Afghanistan. For example, we have a husband and wife who are serving together in Afghanistan. The wife has been a member of the Church all her life. She serves as an Army officer right now, and she recently got married in December of 2008 to a nonmember who is a helicopter pilot. They’re stationed at Kandahar in the heart of a combat zone directly involved in combat operations. So we have a husband and wife who are experiencing their first year of marriage together in a combat zone and who actively, faithfully attend church together. The husband joined the Church and is now an ordained priest. Just last month, I interviewed him in preparation for advancement to the office of elder. We’re helping them prepare for a temple marriage when they return from their deployment in April 2010. What a unique situation this brother and sister are in! His first year of membership in the Church and his first year of marriage are really being put to the test in the middle of a combat zone. They can’t even share a room or a tent together. They live in separate quarters. They are really being tested in terms of their faith, their love, and their commitment to each other. I think how blessed they will be when their year is over and they go forth to enter the house of the Lord to be sealed together for time and all eternity.

I think about another brother who is from Estonia, who at the age of twenty-one became a convert to the Church. Four months after his baptism, he was called to be a branch president in his native country. He has been serving for the past seven years as first counselor in the district presidency in Estonia. He is now serving as a military officer in Kandahar, but he was not released from his calling in the district presidency. Just as I do, he continues to communicate by email with his district president and counselor in carrying out the affairs of the Church in Estonia. While he was serving in Afghanistan, he also served as second counselor in the Kandahar Military Branch presidency. Where else in the Church can you simultaneously be a member of a district presidency in one country and a member of a branch presidency in another country? But that’s how the Lord works. Both the members of the Kandahar Military Branch and the members in Estonia were blessed by his service.

Currently there are members of the Church in Afghanistan from thirteen countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Australia, the Philippines, and, of course, the United States. [3] They are military members or civilians. It is a worldwide church that is actively residing in Afghanistan, helping to bring security, as well as helping to rebuild that country.


During Operation Enduring Freedom, Aaron Wolfley served as a lieutenant in the Marine Corps (3rd Battalion, 7th Marines) from 2011 to 2013. He was assigned as an infantry platoon commander in the Helmand River Valley in southern Afghanistan and later as an Afghan National Army advisor. He has held several Church callings, including service in elders quorum and Young Men presidencies. His wife is Chelsea Wolfley.

Frequent patrols were necessary to secure as much of the Afghan countryside as possible. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.Frequent patrols were necessary to secure as much of the Afghan countryside as possible. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

I was stationed at small patrol bases in austere living conditions. Due to the operational tempo and the area where I was deployed, I never heard from the Church or had the opportunity to attend church. There was only one other active member of the Church in my battalion, and he was stationed far away. I saw him only three times the entire deployment—as we passed in vehicles during operations. The lack of Church contact did not bother me. It made me rely on my service member scriptures and the Ensign magazines my mom regularly sent to me. As the only Church member in my unit, I was asked many questions, which gave me a great opportunity to talk and teach about the gospel.

What a lot of people don’t understand about war is that most of it is very boring. To fill the time, I read a lot. I focused on the scriptures and words of the prophets. Although we did very little fighting, we still saw how terrible war can be. Prophets and the scriptures helped me get through many rough days and nights. They also helped me avoid temptations, which enabled me to make better decisions on the battlefield.

Afghan men wear several different distinctive kinds of headdresses depending on their ethnic affiliation and location. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.Afghan men wear several different distinctive kinds of headdresses depending on their ethnic affiliation and location. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

Late one evening we were tasked with raiding a compound several miles away from my patrol base. The intelligence indicated there were guns and bombs in the compound that the occupants were planning to use. As the trucks pulled up and the doors opened, we all jumped out and kicked the compound doors down. Inside were three men, one woman, and six children between the ages of six and twelve. We quickly separated everyone and started to search for weapons. When we could not find them, I turned to the men and started to question them about the location of the weapons. I could feel their hate toward me. The absence of the Spirit was so clear that it was startling. Here I was trying to find the weapons, keep my Marines and the Afghans safe, and all I could think about is how terrifying it was to feel the absolute spiritual void.

A barefoot Afghan girl scurries away from American soldiers who were patrolling her village. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.A barefoot Afghan girl scurries away from American soldiers who were patrolling her village. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

The hardened terrorists would not tell us where the weapons were hidden. Instead, they kept asking me to slit their throats. They begged us to murder them—not because we were going to hurt them, but rather because they truly believed they were doing God’s work. They refused to give us the weapons. In a last-ditch effort, I announced we were arresting the father of the family. It was the most difficult decision I have ever made. Six beautiful, innocent children came pouring out of their mud house. All of them ran to me, grabbed me, and cried for their father’s release. The girls screamed at the top of their lungs, and the oldest boy dropped to his knees in front of me and begged. I could tell it was pure love. It took everything I had not to break down. All I could think about was Samuel, my perfect twelve-month-old baby boy at home.

In a scene that still haunts me, I had to fight off the children, knocking them to the ground, and pushing the older ones with the butt of my rifle to keep them off the Marines and myself. Then, I roughly arrested their father and put him in the back of the vehicle. Shortly after arresting the father, we found the weapons. I was greatly relieved. We had accomplished our mission, and all the Marines and Afghan soldiers were going to return safely to our base.

Soldiers check their vehicles prior to leaving their base. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.Soldiers check their vehicles prior to leaving their base. Courtesy of J. Joseph DuWors.

When asked about the father, I felt impressed he should be let go. As we cut the zip ties off his hands and told him to go home, I could see something different in him. He no longer wanted to kill me. He was thankful. I watched him return to his family and felt the overwhelming feeling of the Spirit testify to me about families and how special they are. Sadly, that feeling was short lived. Within minutes, we were attacked by rocket fire, and I no longer had any time to think about anything other than survival.


During his military service, Bob Wright served as a platoon headquarters gunner and reached the rank of corporal. He served with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, 1st Battalion, from 2003 to 2006. Robert served as the assistant ward mission leader in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, before his deployment. While deployed, he served as second counselor for the Latter-day Saint service member group in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He married Brandi Wright on February 4, 2003. He has also served as a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The morning I left for overseas was cold, as it often was that time of year in Edmonton, Alberta. My wife, Brandi, had planned a large breakfast with all my favorites. We had stayed up late the night before, talking and making plans for the future and reminiscing about the past. I guess the morning was that much colder when I realized I had slept in and my ride was already out front, waiting. I scrambled around the room, grabbing at uniform pieces and the last of my kit bags. I kissed my wife goodbye, touched our small child on the head as he slept, and left.

Taking a break—Robert Wright with camels. Courtesy of Robert Wright.

Robert Wright and Ryan Hearty on patrol looking for Taliban caves close to the Pakistan border in 2006. Courtesy of Robert Wright.Top: Taking a break—Robert Wright with camels. Bottom: Robert Wright and Ryan Hearty on patrol looking for Taliban caves close to the Pakistan border in 2006. Courtesy of Robert Wright.

I was a convert to the Church and never missed an opportunity to say I’m the product of someone’s good missionary work. Shortly after I was baptized, I met my wife and was married. I knew I needed a career that would provide for my new family, so I did what my father had done and my grandfather before him. I joined the Army, selecting to serve with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI). I quickly learned I was the only Latter-day Saint person in my platoon, company, and battalion. So I did what any good Latter-day Saint service member does and began to preach the gospel to anyone who would listen. Soon after, I baptized my bunkmate. What a great blessing that was for both of us! I only wish we could have gone overseas together, but it was not meant to be, so I set off for Afghanistan, alone in my convictions and beliefs. My wife and I prayed that in some way I’d have contact with the Church and be able to keep my newly acquired testimony growing and strong.

We had been stationed at the Kandahar Airfield for about two weeks when my platoon of thirty men was selected to replace an American infantry group as the QRF [quick reaction force]. That assignment came with some pros and cons. We were taken away from the main battle group and placed at the mercy of the task force command to be flown anywhere at any time in response to TIC [troops in contact] reports, mine strikes, and anything else that went south on them. On a bright note, I was given a tent by the airfield runway, which allowed me some privacy to read and pray, as well as a cement bunker just outside my door to take cover in when the artillery rounds started to fall. Not long after that, I began to have my prayers answered.

As I sat in my bunk one day, reading the scriptures, a friend walked by and hesitated. He saw the Book of Mormon and said something to the effect of “Are you still doing the God thing?” I replied yes and laughed. He then said something that got me very excited; he asked if I would be attending my church group on Sunday. At first, I thought he was talking about a multifaith service, but then he told me he had seen the word Mormon in the service announcement. I jumped and ran to see for myself. The next day, I found myself sitting in the airfield chapel with Saints from all over the world. We were only about ten strong, but as far as I was concerned, these ten men would become as close as family for the next several months—my lifeline to my faith. When I told my wife, I think she was more excited than I was. It was truly an answer to our prayers.

Robert Wright (right), Brad Lowes (left), and Brian Kelly (behind) on a foot patrol in AfghanistanRobert Wright (right), Brad Lowes (left), and Brian Kelly (behind) on a foot patrol in Afghanistan

One of the first things I can remember committing to memory as a new member was something Gordon B. Hinckley said. It was that a testimony was as elusive as a moonbeam and that if we wanted to keep ours, the two simplest things we could do were scripture study and prayer. When I couldn’t attend the airfield service, I carried my service member Book of Mormon in my rucksack next to the several mortar rounds and spare ammunition for the machine gun.

One night, as I sat in my bunk reading, a signal was given that required us all to run for the airfield and prepare for an emergency deployment. We sat on the side of the runway, carrying everything needed to wage a small war. I can remember the sun setting as our warrant officer briefed the platoon, telling us that twelve U.S. Special Forces personnel holding a small compound were in danger of coming under a major attack from the enemy and needed to be reinforced immediately. As the helicopter lifted off the ground into the night sky, I bowed my head and prayed that my Heavenly Father would see me through the night.

Robert Wright (left) and his friend Josh Morris. Courtesy of Robert Wright.Robert Wright (left) and his friend Josh Morris. Courtesy of Robert Wright.

The chopper hit the ground, the ramp dropped, and we ran as fast as we could out into the night. We didn’t know where we were, but we did know that the helicopter was one heck of a target for the enemy. The helicopters lifted off, leaving us and a cloud of dust behind. We were met by a few U.S. soldiers who led the platoon a few hundred yards to a small compound. They told us that some two to three hundred enemy troops were beginning to take up positions around the FOB (forward operating base) and that they expected to be hit any time now. As I checked my gear, I thought to pray again, and that’s when a man by the name of Josh Morris came up to me. I knew Josh to be a Christian, so I wasn’t overly surprised when he asked if I would pray with him. What did surprise me was the feeling that came over me when we prayed. We went to a corner out of sight, stood, and bowed our heads. We were both accustomed to praying differently but made it work as we took turns asking Heavenly Father to watch over and protect us. The feeling of comfort I received was almost hard to accept, knowing the peril we were in. I can remember trying to lay down and close my eyes next to a reinforced sand wall.

Bagram Latter-day Saint branch assembled in front of the chapel annex after church services at Bagram, Afghanistan, in July 2009. Courtesy of Richard Belcher.Bagram Latter-day Saint branch assembled in front of the chapel annex after church services at Bagram, Afghanistan, in July 2009. Courtesy of Richard Belcher.

I must have been exhausted, because the next thing I knew, I was awakened by a large explosion on the other side of the wall. I opened my eyes, and the night sky was filled with red tracer fire going in every direction. As I reached for my weapon, a friend came running across the compound, yelling that we were in the thick of it and almost surrounded. I followed a group of ten of my fellow soldiers out of the safety of the compound into the night to meet the enemy. As we ran past the last gate, I could hear another explosion behind me and the sound of large mortar rounds and .50-caliber machine guns being fired. I kept moving, not really knowing where the warrant officer wanted me to go, the whole time wanting to pray but not knowing what to say. I felt a hand reach out and grab me, stopping me from following the men in front. It was the warrant officer. He yelled at me to go into the mortar position and prepare to fire. As I ran to my right, the warrant ran forward to the next position. I could see dirt being kicked up around our feet as we ran. Indirect machine gun fire fell on our position. We slid into the mortar pit and prepped the tube. As we waited for the order to fire, we continued to see tracer fire fly through the night sky, with an occasional RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] or mortar round explosion. Without warning, the position in front of us was hit, and the radio went silent. The next thing I heard were voices calling for a medic, except it wasn’t over the radio. It was close, the next position up. We couldn’t see who or what, but between the gun fire and explosions were the screams of the wounded.

The fight would eventually be won by the Americans and Canadians but with a heavy toll. Two dead and five wounded, the warrant officer was among them. I still think about that night, wondering what would have happened had I followed those men to that position. What if the warrant officer hadn’t stopped me? What would have been my fate if those two missionaries had never taken the time to teach me how to pray to a loving Heavenly Father, leading me to the truth that only this Church knows?

I met with Josh several times after that night, often getting together to do scripture study. We would take turns preparing a lesson and teaching each other, engaging in thought provoking discussions about love and life. I attended service when I could, and when I couldn’t, I’d find some bread in a ration pack, bless it, and give myself the sacrament, never forgetting the words of the prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley.

Months later, I would return home to my wife and family just two days before the birth of our third son. The prayers of my family, friends, and others helped me return in the same condition as I had left. I will never forget the peace those moments of prayer brought to me in difficult times, or the way I always seemed to find something I needed to hear in the scriptures as I read. The experience as a whole, through the good and the bad, truly strengthened my testimony.


[1] Editor’s note: The combat outpost under attack was COP Keating. See the Medal of Honor citation for Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha in this section.

[2] Augmentees are U.S. military members assigned to fill a personnel shortage, usually in a time of conflict.

[3] At the height of Operation Enduring Freedom, there were over 1,200 members of the Church from sixteen countries serving in Afghanistan.