A Mormon at War

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The New York Sun

“WHOOPI PLAYS THE MORMON CARD . . .” is the headline that went up on the Drudge Report this afternoon. It turns out to link to a story on Realclearpolitics.com about how the actress Whoopi Goldberg was attempting a “gotcha” on Governor Romney’s wife, Ann Romney, in respect of Mormons and military service. Ms. Goldberg angled into the subject by saying she believed that “your religion doesn’t allow military service.” Mrs. Romney corrected her with grace and poise and noted that “many members of our faith are serving in armed services.”

This is when Ms. Goldberg claimed that she had read that the reason her husband hadn’t served in Vietnam “was because it was against the religion.” Mrs. Romney, again with remarkable poise, explained that it was incorrect and that her husband was serving his Mormon mission and that her five sons had served their missions and none had served in the military. A smarmier attempted “gotcha” on a possible First Lady we don’t recall seeing, and it took us back a way to one of the most memorable moments in our year of covering combat in Vietnam.

It was one of our first expeditions into the field for Pacific Stars and Stripes, where the job of the reporters was to try to find combat and be there when it happened. We’d gone into northern III Corps, 50 or 60 miles north of Saigon, and, it being quiet that day on the plains, had caught a Chinook helicopter up to the top of a volcanic cone named Black Virgin Mountain. The situation in that part of Tay Ninh province that season was that our side was in control of the plains and also a base atop Black Virgin Mountain, but the sides of the vast volcanic pile were infested with communist soldiers, and a battle was in progress on one of the flanks of the mountain.

From atop the mountain, we were given the chance to follow the action from a radio relay station and to file our story to Stripes. Then we were put up in one of the dozen or so bunkers that had been built into the sandbagged berm around the perimeter of the base. Each bunker had two or three GIs in it, and in our experience the GIs were always friendly and impressive. The bunker we were put up in that night turned out to be lined with books on history and religion. They belonged to the “bunker sergeant,” who’d been a Mormon missionary in Japan before ending up in the Army in Vietnam.

To pass the early evening, we watched an Armed Forces Vietnam Network broadcast of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” we wrote a day or so later in a letter back to the States. Then we tried to get some sleep. But every hour on the berm, there was something called a “mad minute,” in which our GIs would fire their weapons — machine guns and M-79 grenade launchers — into the night-time blackness down the sides of the mountain, lest any enemy forces were creeping toward us. Let us just say, these mad-minutes were loud.

It was after we’d been awakened by one of them that we discovered what a remarkable individual was our bunker sergeant. He was sitting there with a book on his lap and a hand crank telephone that he could use to get through to the international operator in Saigon. The book was a Toronto telephone directory, and the sergeant was picking random telephone numbers in it and calling them. And to whoever answered he would preach the Mormon religon.

We thought of him when we read of the sneers that Mrs. Romney had to endure. What a remarkable fellow this sergeant was. Why our dispatch in Stripes — it ran on March 18, 1970 — failed to mention him, we don’t know. He may have asked us not to write about him, or it might have been a ground-rules issue. Or just a failure on our part to recognize what an indelible moment it would turn out to be. We can’t remember. What we can remember is the astonishing combination of courage and faith the Mormon sergeant showed. It’s too bad Whoopi Goldberg never met him.

The New York Sun

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