The last thing Bill Nyfeler was interested in when he was accepted at West Point, the U.S. Military Academy on the west bank of the Hudson River in southeastern New York, was religion. But that is what he found.
"I've never been so happy," said Nyfeler, 23.Other cadet converts at West Point tell similar stories. There have been more converts the past two years than ever before, according to Maj. Gary Rhay, an academy instructor and president of the West Point Branch.
"We had 10 baptisms last year," he said. "We've had five this year. We have 11 returned missionaries at the academy, and their willingness to share the gospel has been a good example for all of us. There's a tremendous chance for missionary work and personal growth here."
The West Point Branch is small. Approximately 125 active members - mostly military personnel, with a few civilian families - attend the weekly meetings held in a building on campus. Primary classes may consist of only two or three children; Young Women and Young Men classes are about the same size. The largest group is the elders quorum. "A vast majority of our members are the cadets," Pres. Rhay observed.
That fact presents some unique challenges. "During the week, there are military regulations prohibiting certain things," explained Pres. Rhay. "When I see the cadets in the halls, they call me Major or Sir. And plebes (first year cadets) are not allowed to address upperclassmen by their first names.
"But when we're at Church, I'm the branch president. They are members of the branch. We're just like the other units of the Church all over the world, trying to make the gospel principles and programs work effectively."
In addition to sharing the gospel with friends and colleagues, members of the West Point Branch are staunch supporters of the missionary program. According to Pres. Rhay, an average of five cadets leave every year to serve on missions and each of those missionaries receive a monthly letter from a member of the branch presidency.
"We get three to five cadets back every year, too," the major noted. "Cadets who leave for missionary service have to resign. In our experience, 100 percent of those who have reapplied have been accepted back."
Cadets at the military academy follow a rigorous and strict schedule. Often, weekends offer the only free time, so attending Church meetings shows a real commitment, Pres. Rhay pointed out.
Another commitment most member cadets have made is to enroll in LDS institute classes. Cadets sacrifice one of their few free evenings to attend Tuesday night institute, taught by Craig Manscill of the Yorktown New York Stake.
"We have a broad variety of interests represented in class," Manscill said. "We have new converts, returned missionaries, and even some non-members. Institute is sort of like an oasis. It's an island where the cadets can come and class distinction falls away." As LDS membership has grown at the academy so has enrollment in institute, which is 71 this year compared with 29 in 1986.
Pres. Rhay said, "It's thrilling to see these cadets and other members of the branch share the gospel with their friends and, at the same time, discover and strengthen their own testimonies."