Friday, September 20, 2013

"Yes, Sergeant Instructor!": Larry Echo Hawk’s Story in Oct 2012 Conference

This story from Larry Echo Hawk’s talk “Come unto Me, O Ye House of Israel” has intrigued me for quite some time, so I thought it was time to post about it, even if it was given two conferences ago..

I volunteered for service in the United States Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. Soon after my arrival in Quantico, Virginia, for basic training, I found myself standing at attention in front of my barrack’s bunk along with 54 other Marine Corps recruits. I met my drill instructor, a battle-hardened veteran, when he kicked open the door to the barracks and entered while screaming words laced with profanity.
After this terrifying introduction, he started at one end of the barracks and confronted each recruit with questions. Without exception, the drill instructor methodically found something about each recruit to ridicule with loud, vulgar language. Down the row he came, with each marine shouting back his answer as commanded: “Yes” or “No, Sergeant Instructor.” I could not see exactly what he was doing, because we had been ordered to stand at attention with our eyes looking straight ahead. When it was my turn, I could tell he grabbed my duffel bag and emptied the contents onto my mattress behind me. He looked through my belongings, then walked back to face me. I braced myself for his attack. In his hand was my Book of Mormon. I expected that he would yell at me; instead, he moved close to me and whispered, “Are you a Mormon?”

As commanded, I yelled, “Yes, Sergeant Instructor.”

Again I expected the worst. Instead, he paused and raised his hand that held my Book of Mormon and in a very quiet voice said, “Do you believe in this book?”

Again I shouted, “Yes, Sergeant Instructor.”

At this point I was sure he would scream disparaging words about Mormons and the Book of Mormon, but he just stood there in silence. After a moment he walked back to my bunk and carefully laid down my Book of Mormon. He then proceeded to walk by me without stopping and went on to ridicule and disparage with profane language all remaining recruits.

I have often wondered why that tough Marine Corps sergeant spared me that day. But I am grateful I was able to say without hesitation, “Yes, I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” and “Yes, I know the Book of Mormon is true.” This testimony is a precious gift given to me through the Holy Ghost with the help of two missionaries and a priests quorum adviser.

This story is remarkable because it demonstrates the power of a simple, yet forceful affirmation of our affiliation with the church and our belief in the Book of Mormon.  Can we doubt that the Spirit testified to the sergeant of the truth of Larry Echo Hawk’s terse words?

I have tried to imagine what it would have been like to be this sergeant and suddenly have a Spirit-filled testimony of the Book of Mormon come at me like this..

“Are you a Mormon?”

“Yes, Sergeant Instructor!”

“Do you believe in this book?”

“Yes, Sergeant Instructor!”

WOW.  It must have been like a bolt from the blue, like a trumpet blast in the face, or a sword to pierce joints and marrow.  It clearly disarmed him and confounded him so that he could say nothing against it.

I don’t think the sergeant was completely ignorant of Mormons or the Book of Mormon because when he saw the book, he knew it was considered scripture.  He knew enough and he was curious enough that he was willing to interrupt his abusive tirade at the Marines and ask a few serious questions and in a more respectful tone.   (We don’t know what exact tone he took; it is possible to put just as much scorn into quiet words as loud ones, but Elder Echo Hawk’s story suggests that it was more respectful, since he calls the tone “whispered” and “quiet.”)  Maybe he had known a few Mormons before.  We don’t know.

But why whisper about it?  Was it out of respect or was it to conceal a departure from the tough image he was trying to cultivate with the new recruits?  I don’t know.

The next question I found myself asking was, “Why is the sergeant looking through Larry Echo Hawk’s belongings?”  It seems pretty rude of him to do that, and the story makes it sound like Larry Echo Hawk was specifically targeted.  But then, that may be part of an act put on to intimidate the new recruits, sending the message of, “You belong to the government now, and so does everything you own.  What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is my own.”   But I have to wonder if this sergeant also looked through stuff belonging to the other recruits.  Brother Echo Hawk doesn’t say, so it could have been either way.  Perhaps the sergeant was just looking for ways to insult and break down each recruit and he found something easily for each recruit without looking through their stuff until he got to Larry Echo Hawk and then somehow he couldn’t find anything, so he decided he had to dig through his belongings.  (Any Marines or former Marines want to chime in and shed light on this?)

I also wonder what Larry Echo Hawk's comrades thought who might have heard this exchange.  It sends an interesting message when one guy escapes getting roasted by the sergeant instructor.  One might be curious and watchful to see what kind of guy the sergeant instructor could not find fault with.

There are several principles taught from this story:
1)   You never know who is going to express curiosity and interest in your religion.  It might be someone you’d never expect (like sergeant instructors who swear like a blue streak).
2)   Own your Mormon-ness without hesitation.
3)   Forceful affirmations of the truth carry just as much spiritual power as extended testimony. 
4)   Testimony can soften hearts, even those of battle-hardened men.
5)   Experiences of staying true to our testimony bring joy throughout the rest of life each time we remember them.

2 comments:

Jocelyn Christensen said...

This was seriously the best story and my favorite of the conference...unforgettable!

Michaela Stephens said...

I know. Every once in a while I would find myself thinking about it again, which is why I decided I had to post on it.