When he completed the Army's officer training course, Jon D. Collins had never traveled any further east of his Ogden, Utah, home than Denver, Colo.
But after completing the course at Fort Ord, Calif., he headed for Germany, where - thousands of miles from his home and family - he developed a commitment to the Church, of which he had been a member all his life."I really believe there is a point for us all, whether we're born in the Church or not, when we go through the conversion process," said Collins, now a brigadier general and deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command. "For me, it occurred in Germany."
After 19 years in the military, he has learned it is a common experience for many Latter-day Saints to find that "conversion" after they leave home.
He and his wife, Anita, members of the Gurnee 2nd Ward, Wilmette Illinois Stake, have heard similar stories told by LDS servicemen stationed at a nearby Navy base.
"I'm impressed as I sit through testimony meetings and priesthood meetings at how frequently a young man will stand up and say he had not listened to his parents and now he can see how important it is to do what's right.
"Maybe for some of us, it takes trying circumstances and difficult experiences to see the value of what we've been taught."
And Gen. Collins has had more than his share of trying circumstances. Many of the experiences that influenced his life occurred during his two tours of duty in Vietnam during the height of the Southeast Asian conflict.
"I'm kind of a prayerful fellow," he reflected. "Having the opportunity to pray and knowing what it means to receive inspiration from Heavenly Father gives you an edge in combat. You're more calm and sure."
On one occasion, he was leading a squadron of tanks and armored carriers with a contingent of 200 soldiers.
"As we were moving into a jungle area," he recalled, "my scouts observed an elephant loaded with cargo going up a trail into the jungle on the opposite side of an open area perhaps 1,000 meters across.
"There was an unanimous feeling among the officers and men of, `Let's go after it,'" he related. "I was strongly impressed not to do that. It was clear to me that it would be a mistake."
His squadron returned to its base camp, and he reported the incident to his comander, who decided to send more troops back to the area.
"We returned to the area at first light in a coordinated operation with 1,000 men and tanks," he said. "We ran into a sizeable enemy force that, had we gone up the day before, would have inflicted severe casualties on my unit."
In another Vietnam experience he related how a young medic had come to him and said, "I'm afraid."
"I said, `I'm glad to know I'm not the only one,'" Gen. Collins said. "As I told him about my fears, I used a different approach."
Gen. Collins shared with the medic his beliefs and how he had received a blessing from Elder LeGrand Richards of the Council of the Twelve, assuring him that he would be all right in Vietnam.
"I tried to reassure him that things would be OK for him, too," he recalled. "The next day we were involved in heavy combat. During that day, I had the opportunity to see that young medic run about the field of battle treating and comforting the wounded. You could see water and mud popping up around him where the bullets were striking. Halfway through the day, he was struck by a bullet in the foot, but despite his wound, he continued to do his duty.
"Here was a young man who had conquered his fear, and his sole purpose was tending to his fellow soldiers."
During his last tour of Vietnam, Gen. Collins served as an adviser. He visited village leaders, where the tradition was to offer strong drink to visitors.
"I wondered how I would get out of that situation without damaging my relationship with the village leaders," he said. "I told them `No, I don't drink because it is against my religion,' and they understood."
One village chief invited him to lunch in a one-room mud and thatch home. Because the chief respected his beliefs, he gave the LDS officer a bottle of root beer, which could only be bought in Saigon at the time.
"The cost of that bottle of root beer was a month's wages to him," related Gen. Collins, who said he's also found that kind of respect for his religious views among those he has served with in the Army.
"One of the challenges we face as members is that our standards were a help to me. Because I'm Mormon, they expect me to be a hard worker and truthful."