On the first floor of the Joseph Smith Building, there is a room that houses several cubicles. Most look the same, with computers and books spread throughout. However, one has a simple frame and sets the professor who uses it apart from all others in the room.
This cubicle belongs to A. Blake Boatright, an adjunct professor in Religious Education at BYU. The frame displays various medals that represent Boatright’s 35 years in the military, first in the infantry, and after being led by the spirit, a chaplain for 24 years. From landing in Panama under fire to telling families that their love ones have passed away, Boatright said his experiences in the military have changed him forever.
“Chaplains do primarily two things — bring God to the soldier, and the soldier to God,” Boatright said. “The war time memories sear into your memory. They never go away.”
Boatright said his decision to become a chaplain was led directly by the Spirit. While talking with his adviser at the former Ricks College, he felt the Spirit prompt him to look into becoming a chaplain.
“I moped around with that for a few weeks because my opinion of chaplains wasn’t very high and I wasn’t very excited about leaving the infantry,” Boatright said. “However, I prayed and I heard the Spirit distinctly say, ‘Blake, be a chaplain’.”
After receiving this witness from the Spirit, Boatright found out what was required. He graduated in 1985 and was transferred from the infantry into chaplaincy with approval from the Church. He said that he was accepted as a reserve chaplain and lived happily in Marysville, Wash. with his wife and five children.
“Then one day I was driving home, and I felt like Heavenly Father needed me to be on active duty,” Boatright said. “I thought, well, Heavenly Father, if that’s what you want, you’re going to have to tell Miriam. I came home and she was sitting on the couch bawling. I asked her what was wrong, and she asked if I had been praying that we should go back on active duty. I said no, but I was praying that if that’s what the Lord wanted, he would tell you. She said, well, he did. So we held each other and cried.”
Over the next 24 years, Boatright would experience many deployments as a chaplain. Although chaplains are not involved in fighting, he found himself under fire while deployed to Panama for Operation Just Cause. While no board a helicopter that was delivering his infantry company for an air assault mission, they landed and saw their other helicopter had been shot down. About 20 feet away from him, he said he could see red and green tracers. While the red tracers were from American military inventory, the green ones were society ammunition from the enemy. Boatright said he ministered to the dead and dying Panamanian’s at his aid station and read them the Lord’s prayer as they died.
“Those are the things that change you,” Boatright said. “They change you all the days of your life.”
When a chaplain is out in the fields, they live in the same conditions as the soldiers. Boatright said war time service is very difficult because he dealt with casualty ministry and accompany the next of kin notifiers when they visit families of the deceased.
“I call that the million mile walk,” Boatright said. “It’s harder for the family, of course, but for the guy that has to deliver the message — that’s tough.”
Since retiring in 2009, he said he enjoys spending more time with his six living children and 13 grandchildren. Beyond spending time with family, Boatright said he enjoys building historic wooden sailing vessels. From serving a mission in Denmark and his travels throughout the world, Boatright has learned several languages, including Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, French and Spanish.
Boatright was brought to BYU this year to help with the three-year-old chaplain program to help mentor those training to become chaplains. He recommends that anyone interested in becoming a chaplain must do it only if prompted by the Spirit.
“If the Spirit is directing you this way, then by all means, go this way,” Boatright said. “If it is not, don’t even try.”
According to Richard Whaley, the associate endorser on the Military Relations Committee, there are currently 43 LDS chaplains on active duty. He said the numbers are down substantially from the mid-1980s when Boatright joined the chaplaincy.
“I knew him in 1985,” Whaley said. “He has a very good reputation in the military, at least from my experience.”
As part of his duties, Boatright is teaching classes within BYU’s Religious Education. He said that he loves it because he learns from the students every day. Trevor Fugate, a junior from Sandy majoring in English, believes Boatright’s experiences in war enhance his ability to teach
“He has seen firsthand the evils of war, and the blessings that can come as a result,” Fugate said. “The perspective he brings to class every day makes me realize the trials I face probably aren’t as overwhelming as those faced by others throughout the world, but he also helps me to see that just as the principals found in the D&C can help him and the men he serves in the battlefield, they can also help me in my battles.”
Despite all the challenges that come with being a chaplain, Boatright said the paydays are what make it worth it. However, the paydays he referred to weren’t monetary.
“Payday’s don’t usually happen for a chaplain at the end of the month or on the 15th,” Boatright said. “It happens when someone says we were going to be divorced, but we aren’t getting one now because you really helped us turn our marriage around. Or someone says they decided to have a baby or not to kill themselves because I helped them. Those are all paydays — they come at strange times and happen to all chaplains. You really have something that is a source of comfort where no other comfort can be found.”