June 13, 2007

Young Adventists In A World Of War

Felipe Vielmann wasn’t the sort of kid you’d collar behind the trigger of a BB gun, nor was the Seventh-day Adventist 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. He never imagined he’d join the military.

But toward the end of his junior year of high school the magnitude of the 1991 Gulf War registered on his radar. Suddenly, military service “became an issue I had to wrestle with,” Vielmann recalled.

Vielmann’s Adventist 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,”

“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.”

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, was awarded 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 United States 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 in 2006 served in the U.S. military, virtually all were enlisted as combatants—excepting the 50 chaplains classed as noncombatants by the Geneva Convention—says Chaplain Gary R. Councell, then the associate director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries at the world church’s headquarters.

In many countries joining the armed forces as a noncombatant is no longer a viable option.

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 Sabbath-keeping 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, such as 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.”

Councell worries that many young, career-minded American Adventist enlistees join without giving much consideration to the consequences of their decision. 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.

The Polish church does not advocate military service, he says, but neither does it “press anybody to avoid the army.”

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.”

If you ask Vielmann 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 decision of Desmond Doss, 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.


At the time this article was originally published, Elizabeth Lechleitner served a news assistant for the Adventist News Network of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.