BYU professor served as chaplain in Vietnam, Desert Storm


    By Jennifer Mayer

    A memorial dedicated to soldiers from Utah County who died during the Vietnam conflict stands between the state and county buildings in Provo.

    For BYU mathematics and accounting professor Grant Peterson, it is a reminder of camaraderie during war.

    One name on the memorial stands out in Peterson”s mind, Ernest Falkey. While in Vietnam, Falkey stepped on a land mine.

    Peterson said he stood at Falkey”s bedside in an evacuation hospital as an Army chaplain and friend, offering comfort during Falkey”s last moments.

    Peterson and more than 140 members of the BYU faculty and staff served their country. Like many Americans, BYU”s ROTC will honor these heroes during Patriots” Week.

    Although the holiday honors veterans, only recently people have begun to truly acknowledge the service that he and his countrymen gave, Peterson said.

    “It”s a day you can buy things on sale,” he joked. “There is not a great deal of recognition associated with it.”

    Peterson served as an Army engineer in the military in 1963 and three years later entered active duty. He served in Vietnam for a year as an Army chaplain.

    After the Korean conflict, only three members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints remained as chaplains in the military. He was appointed as one of the seven Army chaplains under President Lyndon Johnson. Peterson eventually took the rank of colonel.

    Several years later, Peterson served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm stationed at the primary causality reception station in Germany. It was once a hospital.

    The maternity ward in that hospital was turned into the burn ward.

    “The place where life had begun was now where life would end in excruciating pain,” Peterson said.

    As an army chaplain, his duties included serving on the personal staff of the commanding officer. His primary goal was to be a friend of all soldiers and to instill confidence in them so they could perform well.

    “You are the religious leader of the troops,” Peterson said. “You have to work with soldiers of all faiths.”

    Relying much on his religious beliefs, Peterson learned the value of heeding warnings and going into war with spiritual strength.

    “The church has taught, even though war is to be abhorred, we must respond to the call of our country to defend our homes, our nations and our families, and there is no justification for not doing so,” Peterson said.

    In Vietnam, Peterson served with Catholic chaplain Angelo Liptki, who repeatedly rescued soldiers hit under heavy fire.

    After the war, Liptki received the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery. Later Peterson ran into Liptki, while Liptki was struggling with the grim reality of war.

    “It bothered him so much that he left the military – he even turned back his Congressional Medal of Honor,” Peterson said. “It changes your life forever.”

    Most veterans do not like to share their “war stories,” Peterson said.

    “War is hell – although that term is used very loosely,” Peterson said.

    When Peterson”s son left for training in the Air Force, Peterson shared his war knowledge with him to prepare him for future experiences.

    Otherwise, “I don”t talk much about Vietnam,” Peterson said.

    Most people are unable to comprehend how permanently war changes people”s lives, Peterson said.

    “It is not something you can shrug off,” he said.

    One machine gunner who fired upon a lot of people convinced himself that he had never hit anybody, Peterson said.

    “It was a coping mechanism, but it still happened,” he said. “Of course it happened.”

    Although soldiers who served in Vietnam and other wars until Vietnam had a choice between college and the military, most were expected to serve in the military, Peterson said.

    “It was a grim necessity,” he said.

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