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President Russell M. Nelson's experiences in the Korean War fortified his faith in God

Nelson and friends stand in military uniforms in a black and white photo with mountains in the background.
Nelson and friends in a MASH unit in Korea pose for a photo.

In her book, “Insights From A Prophet’s Life,” author Sheri Dew recounts President Nelson’s service in the Korean War and the moments that led to his decision to serve in the military.

In 1951, as the Korean War continued, President Russell M. Nelson’s career as a heart surgeon was reaching new peaks. His pioneering efforts in heart surgery and invention of a compact heart and lung machine allowed the first open-heart operation on a human being, Dew explained in her book. The U.S. Army’s need for doctors increased during the war, and Nelson took it upon himself to enlist in the Army.

Soon after enlisting, Nelson received orders to report to Asia, first to Japan and then to Korea, where he became part of a four-man surgical research team member. In an interview with Heidi Greenberg at the University of Utah in 2015, he said, “I went into the Army in March, and in June I went over to Korea and started out right at the front lines, at the battlefront where cannons were firing.”

Nelson and his fellow researchers visited every M.A.S.H. (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit on the Korean Peninsula. Though faced with challenging circumstances, President Nelson said he was touched by his interactions with his fellow comrades.

He found strength in those he served beside and was blessed with spiritual experiences that shaped him and strengthened his faith in God.

Black and white photo of Nelson smiling in his military uniform.
President Russell M. Nelson served in the U.S. Army for two years.

One instance took place when the M.A.S.H. unit Nelson was assigned to came under attack. Dew explained in her book that Nelson and Dr. Fiorindo Simeone spent most of their night in a foxhole and prayed together that their lives would be spared. Although the two doctors had different religious beliefs, Dew said, “Their combined faith was a boon to both that stressful night.”

On another occasion, Nelson was asked if he would be willing to see a fellow Latter-day Saint young man who had been hit by a bullet in his spine. The young soldier had become paralyzed and would never use his legs again.

As Nelson was introduced to the young man, he thought of what to say to offer some words of comfort. Instead, the words of comfort came to Nelson from the young soldier. The soldier said, “Don’t worry about me, Brother Nelson, for I know why I was sent to the earth - to gain experiences and work out my salvation. I can work out my salvation with my mind and not with my legs.” In his autobiography, “From Heart to Heart,” Nelson said, “The faith of that young man has motivated me ever since.”

In the book “Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle,” by Spencer Condie, President Nelson tells of when he was given the opportunity to share the gospel while serving in the Army. Nelson worked alongside a nurse named Jane S. Poole at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Working closely with him, Poole said she began to wonder what set him apart from the other surgeons.
One day, Poole asked Nelson what Latter-day Saints believe. “She was like a sponge craving water,” he said. “She wanted to know more and more, so I gradually introduced the doctrine and concepts of the Church and suggested reading materials for her. It wasn’t long before she had converted herself, and I had the privilege of baptizing her.”

Poole was a divorced mother with a young son, George, who eventually served a mission in Australia.

To this day, Poole has remained strong in the Church and has continued to periodically send the Nelsons thank-you notes since her baptism more than 50 years ago.

Nelson with a gold medal with flags around the lanyard standing next to Korean Ambassador Ahn Ho-Young and his wife, Seon Hwa Lee.
President Nelson is pictured with Korean Ambassador Ahn Ho-Young and his wife, Seon Hwa Lee when Nelson received a medal of honor for his service during the Korean War.

Marisa Firth, a senior from Utah studying exercise sports science, said she was unaware of Nelson’s military service, but she said she believed his service helped prepare him for a life of service in the Church. She said serving in the military with people from different backgrounds would teach someone a lot about people and how they work. “You would learn how to become a cooperative team member as well as learn how to communicate efficiently amongst each other. I think that ties into the Church organization - a big group of people coming together with assignments and working together.”

Alayna Nichols, a sophomore from California studying graphic design, pointed out the similarities between serving your country and serving God.

She said, “I think war and being in the military is a very human experience. We have several examples of warrior prophets in the Book of Mormon as well.

“Feeling a sense of duty and defending your cause with obedience and discipline [is] an important aspect of being in the military and also in being a dedicated disciple of Christ who’s willing to serve.”