ELIPE VIELMANN WASN’T THE SORT OF kid you’d collar behind the trigger of a BB gun, nor was he a shoot-’em-up video arcade game buff. Instead, Vielmann remembers playing plenty of soccer in his southern California neighborhood and aspiring to be a paramedic much like the Emergency!
television show characters. He never imagined he’d join the military.
But toward the end of his junior year of high school the magnitude of the Gulf War registered on his radar. Suddenly, military service “became an issue I had to wrestle with,” Vielmann recalls. No, he wasn’t bamboozled by military recruiters, nor was he swayed by high school classmates, none of whom enlisted with him.
Having raised him in a solidly Seventh-day Adventist home and equipping him with a “mental arsenal” of decision-making skills, Vielmann’s parents “were unsure of why I was even interested in [enlisting],” he recollects. Assuring them that his decision to enlist marked no spiritual about-face, Vielmann reported for basic training. The next four years, he says, proved to be a “tremendous blessing.”
When he scored in the top 3 percent on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery—essentially the armed forces’ entrance exam—the military offered Vielmann a chance at a career as a military linguist rather than a Marine Corps security guard, as he planned. Despite a new contract and a crash course in Arabic, Vielmann was still classified as a combatant and deployed with a weapon, something he makes no apologies for.
“The question really comes down to why you’re doing what you’re doing,” Vielmann says. “If your rationale for bearing arms is to feel powerful and in control, you’re carrying a weapon for all the wrong reasons. It’s the same with martial arts. When kids [in my church] tell me they want to study martial arts, I ask them, ‘Is it to bully other kids on the playground or to learn something about yourself?’ You’ve got to know what’s behind your decisions.”
Guided by Conscience?
Military service—specifically the issue of bearing arms—has long beleaguered the collective Adventist consciousness, beginning when the church officially organized as a denomination amid the bloody American Civil War of the early 1860s. Responding to the moral conundrum that combatancy quickly became, the church assigned the issue to the barracks of individual conscience. While the church has on numerous occasions advocated nonviolence and committed to peace, it has never required noncombatancy of its members as a test of fellowship.
Traditionally, Adventists have expressed admiration for persons such as Desmond Doss and others who found bearing arms incompatible with Adventist values. Doss, a World War II United States Army medic who refused to carry a weapon, earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for single-handedly rescuing 75 wounded soldiers in a hail of enemy bullets on the Japanese-held island of Okinawa.
But today, many Adventists enlisted in the military are of the Vielmann, rather than the Doss, persuasion: They see carrying—and potentially using—a weapon as an undesirable but inevitable element of military service. Of the estimated 7,500 Adventists who serve in the U.S. military, virtually all are enlisted as combatants—excepting the 50 chaplains classed as noncombatants by the Geneva Convention—says Chaplain Gary R. Councell, the associate director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries at the headquarters of the world church.
The rate of Adventists enlisting as voluntary combatants outside the U.S. has climbed comparably, observes Councell, particularly in such places as the Philippines and certain African countries. In many countries, he explains, joining the armed forces as a noncombatant is no longer a viable option, and where it is, few enlistees have the patience for the detailed process usually required to secure special permission for such status.
In some countries, such as Korea, involuntary military service remains a troubling auxiliary issue. Adventists in these countries face strict conscription laws, opposition to which more often than not lands them in prison, where Sabbathkeeping and adhering to dietary laws is extremely difficult. And then there are countries such as Israel, where citizens are required to serve as reservists subject to call until age 50.
Then again, some Adventists, like Vielmann, don’t believe that combatancy actually conflicts with Adventist values. “For me, it was more of an issue of duty to God and country,” Vielmann explains. “[I got a] sense through the Bible that God always had an army; God always had a group of committed people ready to stand up for what’s right.”
Reinder Bruinsma, president of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands, says he hasn’t found that viewpoint popular among young Dutch Adventists. “I think that the European attitude toward serving in the military in combat roles more reflects Adventist tradition than in the States,” Bruinsma says. “The kind of shift in attitude among Adventists—in which you serve your country by fighting—is largely an American phenomenon.”1
Banking on Culture?
Councell theorizes that slackening attitudes toward active combat may be a symptom of a general shift in the values climate of Adventism—one mirroring current social cultural trends.
Asked if there is a cause-and-effect relationship between a person’s cultural context and their stance on noncombatancy, Bruinsma says the “attitude and relationship toward government may be much different in America than here. Many Europeans wish America didn’t feel compelled to play the role [that it does] in the world.” He allows, however, that “just as American Adventists are part of an environment of reflecting local cultural values, so Europe takes a back seat position, profiling [itself] as having a pacifist attitude.”
Ekkehardt Mueller, a German national serving as associate director of the Biblical Research Institute at the world church headquarters, seconds Bruinsma’s summary. “There has been a conscious effort by the church in Germany to discourage involvement in the army,” he adds. “From my experience as a division and union leader and as a pastor [in Germany], I know of only one Adventist [in Germany] who joined the army as a combatant.”
Mueller also notes that much of the German reticence toward active military service probably stems from the country’s traumatic experience during World War II. According to Bruinsma, that painful memory “may still linger in the collective Adventist European consciousness.”
Culture certainly plays an important role in current attitudes toward military service in the United States as well. But history also plays a part in the American experience—or at least a historical document does.
In the United States, military personnel take an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States and all its listed freedoms, including the freedom of worship. “The oath and the constitutional clause regarding freedom of worship are unique to the U.S.,” explains Richard Stenbakken, retired head of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries and a longtime Adventist military chaplain. “European countries do not have that clause, nor do their military people swear to defend that freedom.” This belief—and oath-taking—may also shape mainstream attitudes on combatancy.
An Academic Decision
Councell is intrigued by the shifting attitudes toward military service that he finds among American Adventists. He believes that current socio-economic conditions—for example, the exorbitant cost of college education in the United States and the government’s promise to help cover it in exchange for military service—are largely responsible for record numbers of Adventists enlisting in the military.
Terry Johnsson, associate pastor of the Sligo Adventist Church in Takoma Park, Maryland, illustrates Councell’s theory. Soon after graduating from an Adventist academy, Johnsson enlisted in the military, hoping to secure a chaplain’s assistant position in the U.S. Air Force. “I really felt called by God to do something,” Johnsson says. “At that point I didn’t want to be a minister, so I thought [military chaplaincy] would be a good way to be involved in ministry.” While he maintains that the military’s offer to help him fund college wasn’t the crucial factor, Johnsson admits it certainly reinforced his decision to enlist.
After a computer data-entry glitch misdirected him to the military’s police academy, Johnsson was selected to serve as a member of the White House Honor Guard. “Our guns didn’t work; they’re more for show,” he says of his service at the Reagan White House, “but [basic training] definitely involved using weapons.”
His take on serving as a combatant? “I don’t recommend [carrying a weapon]. Kind of like FDR’s ‘I have seen war’ speech. I can tell you—based on my experience in the Gulf War—avoid [combatancy] at all costs.”
Johnsson is, however, quick to point out that the military is a vastly “untapped area for witness.” During his years of service, Johnsson reports having led more than 40 fellow enlistees to Christ. “God needs people everywhere, especially here in the military . . . [where] you have people who face death every day, people who are looking for hope beyond the grave,” he says.
More Than a Career Move
Chaplain Councell doesn’t quibble with Johnsson and others over the window for witness that military may open. He does worry that Adventist young adults “no longer wrestle with the ethics of military service,” and may view it as a career decision, rather than a moral question.
Before the Vietnam War, he explains, Adventist educators hammered home the ethical problems of combat through such institutions as the Medical Cadet Corps. The Corps, which from the 1930s through the 1950s trained young Adventists to serve noncombatant roles in the military, attracted fewer candidates during the Vietnam conflict when large numbers of Adventists and other Americans came to doubt the moral value of the nation’s entanglement in Southeast Asia. That—along with the end of military conscription in 1974—Councell says, left generations of young Adventists to fend for themselves in assessing the ethics of combat.2
“The church’s historic position always assumed the pressure of military draft,” says Doug Morgan, an Adventist historian teaching at Columbia Union College. “Prior to the 1970s, the thought of a practicing church member volunteering for a combat role in the military would have been inconceivable to the vast majority of Adventists.” Not so anymore.
Councell has noticed that American young adults—Adventists included—are increasingly likely to view the military as a viable career option. Why? One reason is that it offers stability and a sense of belonging, he says.
Councell worries that many young, career-minded American Adventist enlistees join without giving much consideration to the consequences of their choice. Larry Roth, a former Navy chaplain and Adventist Peace Fellowship member, agrees. “With near zero training on the subject and very few ‘experts’ in the church available to counsel those youth who raise the issue, it is fully understandable why today very few of our youth see combatancy as an issue. They are not getting any counsel on the topic—at school, at church, and probably not at home. It is too late once they sign up with the recruiter.”
Vielmann concurs. “[Adventist] academies can be a safe place to wrestle with heavy issues, and I think military service needs to be one of those issues,” he says, noting that if youth are not fully equipped to make informed, responsible decisions, they will easily be overwhelmed when the “academy bubble” bursts at graduation.
Let’s Talk About It
Because the issue of bearing arms is first of all a matter of conscience and opinions about it are highly nuanced, the topic will undoubtedly continue to trigger debate among church leaders and scholars. There is broad consensus among Adventist chaplains, however, that the issue shouldn’t serve as a wedge between members holding different views, and that the church should fully support young Adventist enlistees, regardless of their position on carrying weapons.
Roman Chalupka, secretary of the Adventist Church in Poland, says of young, career-minded American Adventist enlistees that it is “their decision and their own responsibility.” The Polish church does not advocate military service, he says, but neither does it “press anybody to avoid the army.”
Ekkehardt Mueller also hopes the issue doesn’t become a point of conflict between church leaders. “We as a world church have to listen to one another,” Mueller says. “There are problems in America, and problems in Europe, and leaders [in both places] would do well to listen to other parts of the church and consider what they have to say.”
“We must prayerfully and principally seek moral and spiritual counsel regarding this issue,” advises Councell. “There is room for differences of opinion and viewpoint. We are all finite individuals, and situations are often imposed upon us.” The one unchanging value for all Adventists should be a core commitment to the well-being of humanity, he adds.
Desmond Doss, Anyone?
Few Adventists—Vielmann included—will disagree that the ideal is to protect the innocent nonviolently, much as Desmond Doss did. Or like John Weidner, a Dutchman who organized the Dutch-Paris underground and rescued some 1,000 Jews and other refugees during World War II.
Or more recently, Joel David Klimkewicz. In 2002 the then Marine Corps combat engineer was drawn to Bible studies conducted by an Adventist chaplain aboard his ship. Soon afterward, Klimkewicz joined the Adventist Church and requested noncombatant status for the remainder of his tour of duty. His superiors denied the request, viewing Klimkewicz’s refusal to bear arms as a belligerent disobedience of their orders. The ensuing court-martial and bad-conduct conviction brought Klimkewicz a seven-month jail sentence.
The media coverage that followed quickly drew considerable public and congressional outcry, and an appeal abbreviated Klimkewicz’s sentence and amended his discharge status to a respectable “general.” Since then, Klimkewicz has studied religion at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee. He hopes to return to the military one day as a chaplain, making good on what he calls his commitment to “conscientious cooperation”—not “objection.”
When it comes to the “cooperation” factor, Vielmann is as quick as Klimkewicz to stress that allegiance to God’s plan far supersedes compliance with any obligation to country. Soon after he enlisted, Vielmann’s gunnery sergeant informed him that a linguist’s contract was for six years rather than the four he had initially agreed to. Even though Vielmann protested, his sergeant felt so confident that field experience would prove valuable to the enlistee that he didn’t force Vielmann to sign for the additional two years.
Four years later, the military offered Vielmann incentives, hoping he would extend his tour by as much as four more years. But by then, Vielmann says he “knew God was asking me to move on.” He returned to civilian life and immediately enrolled at La Sierra University, in Riverside, California, where he studied religion.
These days, you’ll find Vielmann serving as a youth pastor at the Chula Vista Seventh-day Adventist Church in San Diego, California. If you ask him about his years in the military, he’ll tell you he felt clearly called by God to serve his country. “Can I stand up and say that [my experience] should be that of every other Adventist? No. Obviously, it’s largely an issue of personal conviction. It’s something between you and God,” Vielmann says. Though his choice differed from the decisions of Doss and Klimkewicz, Vielmann will also tell you that when God’s plan for your life comes in conflict with any lesser expression of loyalty—including carrying a weapon for your country—you surrender all to Him, and trust Him to give you peace in challenges that are certain to come.
1While the possibility of engaging in combat exists when a person serves in their country’s military, it must be noted that fighting is not the only way to serve. According to Richard Stenbakken, former director of American Chaplaincy Ministries for the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, we should “keep in mind that for every single soldier with a rifle, there are 7 to 10 support folks who, although they may carry a weapon, effectively never use a weapon other than on a target range. It is a false assumption to say that everyone in every place is an actual combatant. They may be if there is a necessity to pick up the weapon, but many are in support roles: cooks, clerks, payroll staff, counselors, logistics experts, engineers, drivers, builders, repair staff, etc.”
2According to Stenbakken, the current position of the Adventist Church in the United States on bearing arms grew from the problems that arose for Adventist draftees during the Vietnam War era when they declared themselves to be pacifists and therefore not conscientiously able to serve in any capacity in the military. At the time, the U.S. military would honor the claim only if the official stance of the religious organization to which he belonged was similar. By moving to “recommend” noncombatancy rather than mandate it, the church discovered it was able to support those who were conscientious objectors, those with pacifist views, as well as those who chose to bear weapons. The decision was thus left to the conscience of the individual member.
Elizabeth Lechleitner is a news assistant for the Adventist News Network of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.