Jenna Hardy joined the National Guard at age 17, and while her high school friends were serving missions, she was serving in the military in Afghanistan. Whether she’s attending her local ward in Colorado or interacting with military personnel from other countries while on duty, she connects with people by finding common ground.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I was raised in Colorado my entire life. I joined the Colorado National Guard when I was 17, right before my senior year of high school. I drilled with the National Guard throughout that year, and went to basic training after graduation. At age 20, I did my first deployment to Afghanistan. I came home, went to college, received a scholarship to become an officer with the National Guard, and was commissioned at the age of 24. This summer, I will be wrapping up ten years in the Colorado National Guard.
I was really young, so I have to think on why I joined. Growing up, I had no intention of joining the military. I was raised as a military brat, so I knew what it meant to have a parent gone from the house a lot. It was hard, and I swore I would never do that to my family. Well, then the Spirit, through personal revelation, made it known to me that this is the path I needed to take. I had an inner desire to serve something with purpose, to have a purpose. The Spirit also gave me insight as to who I could become and the difference I could make if I took that step in my life. So I went ahead. I looked at my parents and said, “I’m going to join the National Guard!”
What’s the difference between active duty military and the national guard? How does your civilian job fit with that?
The main difference between Active Duty and Guard service is the operational tempo, or number of training and deployment days. State National Guard units conduct one weekend (2-4 days) with an additional two to four weeks of training per year. In addition to being a federal asset, National Guard also belongs to the state. This means that we can be called to serve on state assignments or emergencies such as the Capitol riots in January 2021. We serve our communities in addition to our nation.
We do have civilian jobs to maintain when we are not conducting our military duties. We work our usual scheduled hours until the allotted dates/times required to complete our military obligations. Our employers also serve our states and our nation by making accommodations that allow us to complete our military duties and come back to work when all is said and done.
Were you raised in the Church?
Yes, ma’am. My mother was a convert and I was raised in the Church. I have the unique experience of being baptized in the Tabernacle on Temple Square, prior to it being closed. [The baptismal font in the Tabernacle was removed during the building renovation in 2007.] I did not serve a traditional mission. My peers and I were immediately qualified to serve when the Church changed the age limit for missionaries to 19 for females and 18 for males. But while my peers were serving traditional missions, I was on my way to Afghanistan. That experience taught me that there is more than one way to serve and promote the Lord’s plan of salvation. Of note, it is possible to do both. The military makes accommodations for those who wish to serve a traditional mission after they joined the military.
For sure, there is more than one way to serve. How did you promote the Lord’s plan of salvation while in Afghanistan? Was it within your military group or with the people of Afghanistan?
I did not have the experience of interacting with the local people in Afghanistan. We were given set rules to follow when engaging with those who worked on the base and were not permitted to engage with or attempt to promote other faiths with the local populace.
As to promoting the lord’s plan of salvation, I feel I’ve borne my testimony more in uniform than I think I ever could have on a traditional mission. Being LDS, let alone a female LDS soldier – it’s very rare. Those who know I’m LDS have said, “I know a couple of men who are LDS, but you’re the first female I’ve ever met who’s LDS.” That opens a window of opportunity to share my testimony and some basic principles of the gospel. One of the more common windows of opportunity to share is the fact that I don’t drink coffee. In the military, people react, “Are you insane? How do you survive?” Another occasion is that I don’t drink alcohol, though I make an awesome designated driver. When I say I don’t drink, I sometimes get asked, “Are you pregnant?” I consider all of those windows of opportunity to share my testimony, my beliefs, the Church, what the Church focuses on. I’ve noticed that it plants a seed.
I have worked with officers from foreign countries and sometimes have the opportunity to share my beliefs as they do with theirs. Once, when I was working with an officer from Mauritania, we had a discussion about green tea and the Word of Wisdom. I’m not sure if it’s a skill I’ve developed over time, but if you can find a common ground, you can explain a basic principle in a way that can be understood. We disputed over the benefits of green tea and we left at “we’ll agree to disagree.” But I was able to explain my beliefs and perspective in a way that he was able to understand, without causing any offense. Knowing his background and a bit about his culture – that helped build common ground when working with him and explaining a principle like the Word of Wisdom.
I have a funny story about finding common ground with others. When I was in Afghanistan, we had to take turns doing gate guard. A couple of the Afghan men were curious because I was the first female they’d worked with there, and they had a lot of questions. One question was why American men only have one woman/wife. They explained to me that the number of girlfriends and wives they had was dependent upon their financial situation, so it was common for a very wealthy man to have multiple wives or girlfriends. The gentleman I was speaking with had two wives and one girlfriend. I thought about how to answer in a way that would be politically correct and wouldn’t offend. I finally said, “Because American women are very expensive.” I share this story to show that you can find simple ways to explain even in unique situations like the one I found myself in at that time.
Regarding integrating with others who are not of the same culture or the same country, prayer also assists, especially if you’re going to be in a country for a long time. Having gospel knowledge and finding common ground to communicate a basic principle or idea – that’s how you can give better understanding without creating offense.
I used to get upset that I don’t have one of those huge conversion stories that people like to share. Through prayer and personal revelation, I’ve realized that through sharing my testimony while in uniform, I’ve planted seeds that others will help to grow and nurture along the way, should the individual choose to pursue that route.
Finding common ground is in missionary training – the term used is “build on common belief.” Missionaries try to find some way to connect with a person before they start teaching the lessons.
That’s something I’ve really tried to promote within my own wards and social groups. Often, members of the Church find it hard to connect or find a common ground with someone simply because we do not understand. For example, I just got married in January and we went to our new family ward. When we met the Relief Society president, I said, “I’m military so sometimes I’m not going to be here for church activities.” She was so surprised. As we introduced ourselves to others in the ward, the surprise and uncertainty was very noticeable to myself and my husband. It was simply because I am considered an anomaly, almost something foreign that people don’t really know how to compute because as I said, there are very few females in the LDS Church who serve in the military. So, understandably, how does one respond to that?
That’s been a struggle for me for the majority of my career. Not a lot of people understand. It’s not like I’m gruff, rude, crass or anything like that. You’d probably have no idea I’m military unless I told you. Finding people who understand or don’t treat you like you’re this foreign adversary is something I didn’t often experience until I moved to Denver.
Something I’ve noticed within the Church culture – when we meet somebody who breaks the mold or doesn’t fit in, a lot of times, we just don’t know how to find common ground. Working with someone from another country and another culture is almost easier than meeting someone who is different within our own culture or our own society. In our mind, we have a category to put them in. If they’re from a foreign country, we can dismiss anything that might not align with our personal thoughts and feelings because it’s different, it’s foreign. But when you have somebody who is different within your own ward or social group that may challenge your thoughts and feelings, we haven’t quite figured out how to compute that.
Finding common ground and creating understanding – I think that’s what has really helped me speak with people who are outside my own culture. I’ll be honest, I don’t think I even have a culture – I live in both the military culture and the LDS culture. My feet are in two different cultures and I bounce back and forth. Common ground and understanding are how you find a way to communicate your feelings effectively, because while different, I’m a sister just like you.
What are some strategies you use to find common ground?
What I do, and I encourage my soldiers to do, is to ask questions. If you don’t understand, or even if you do understand, get to know the individual, try to find that common ground. Sometimes you won’t. But asking questions to gain a better understanding allows a foundation of friendship and civility. Not everyone you meet is going to be your friend – we don’t always get along with everybody we meet. But ask questions and get to know an individual. Even if you don’t understand them entirely, you can empathize and be a caring friend.
For example, you’re a mother of five kids, correct? I don’t have that experience because I’m not a mother yet, but I can empathize. That is something I’ve struggled with throughout my career. While all my friends were getting married and having babies, I had yet to meet my spouse. I’d love to say that I can understand that experience, but truthfully, I can only empathize with it.
I’m going to use an example of finding a common ground between motherhood and being a soldier, if that’s okay. My best friend has two babies with another on the way. Even though I don’t understand what she’s going through – I can only imagine, three little humans, oh my goodness – I can still try to relate through my own experiences. She was having a hard week this week. She’s in her third trimester. Her kids are toddlers – they want Mom, they want this, they want that. She was venting and said, “I don’t know how to do this!” Well, I’ve had to deal with grown humans so there are a couple of things I can relate to. She’s feeling overwhelmed – what do I do when I’m overwhelmed? I asked her, “When’s the last time you had some self-care time?” When I say self-care, I’m not talking about face mask or mani-pedi. I mean taking time to sit down and reading a book, go for a walk, and take time for herself. She said, “I haven’t!” “Do yourself a favor and take thirty minutes if you can when the kids are sleeping, and do something just for you, okay?”
She said she’d do that, but she has so many tasks in her mind. So I thought, “What do I do when I’ve got so many things in my mind that it’s just scrambling?” I have two planners, one for work and one for personal use, that I use to write things down – the mind tends to make things bigger than they actually are. But if you write it down, it helps you contextualize things better. That’s how I’m able to handle my mountains of tasks between my civilian job and my military job. So I asked her, “Have you tried writing it down?” It worked for her! So as a gift, I sent her a self-care book and a planner.
So even though I don’t have that common ground of having children, I’m still able to relate and empathize, and be a support regardless of the lack of similar experiences.
You don’t have the same experience but you can relate – it’s not “I’m overwhelmed with three kids,” it’s “I’m overwhelmed.” And then you connect over how you deal with the feeling, regardless of the situation around it.
Right. And when you’re listening to someone else, actually listen. That’s another part of finding the common ground. Too many times we listen just to find a response. It’s okay to say, “I’m sorry, I empathize,” or “What can I do to support you?” then leave it at that instead of trying to say, “I had this happen to me.” A lot of times, your experience is not going to equate on the same scale for the individual that you are listening to, especially if you have not been in the same and or similar situation yourself.
To give an example, coming home from my first deployment was a profound experience for me. One of my friends tried to equate it to a three-week firefighting course that she’d done. I was thinking, “No. Those are not the same.” Listening, instead of listening to answer, is another key component to building or finding common ground.
I like that. How do your church membership and military service support each other in your life?
I don’t think I would have made it this far in my career or had as much success in both my military career, civilian career, and even my Church membership, if I didn’t have the constant companionship of the Spirit. Most people think that the crude environment of the military would drive away the Spirit. If anything, it encourages me to draw closer to it. For me as a leader, I have the responsibility and care of soldiers in addition to my duties as an officer. Leadership is a privilege to serve. It’s not a podium to do my own agenda. I’m there to serve.
My biggest fear is to have to make a phone call one day to tell a spouse or a mother that their soldier is not coming home. To make the right decisions, to make the right choices that are taking care of my soldiers and completing the mission in full, I have to have the companionship of the Spirit at all times.
I’ve noticed throughout my career that my relationship with the Lord has conditioned me to rely heavily on Him, and to be very sensitive to spiritual promptings. That took work. It didn’t happen overnight. One of the things I have to do – part of my self-care plan every day – is morning prayer, scripture study, evening prayer, journal. Making sure that I’m always in tune with the Spirit by setting that tone for myself that day. Even if that’s all I get to do, that is enough for me to be able to be sensitive to the Spirit.
There are days that I just feel so disconnected and wrapped up in struggles so I can’t really hear it. But I’ve found that there’s more than one way for the Spirit to make itself known. That is the biggest way that my Church membership has supported my military service.
For military service supporting my Church membership, there are a lot of basic concepts and principles that my military service has taught me that have benefitted my Church membership. For example, resilience is something we often rely on Christ for. As soldiers, we are taught how to maintain resilience, not in a religious focus but from an overall standing. You can find the connection between the two teachings especially when you’re trying to help somebody else because we rely on Christ all the time, but we don’t always have a sound understanding of how we can accomplish what we’re asked to do. Having that knowledge has helped me teach and assist my husband as well as others in the Church.
My military service has also helped me maintain my testimony and stay within the Church. I had a very poor experience with local Church leadership a couple of years ago that almost made me walk away from the Church entirely. The Lord did not make it easy for me to walk away and I’m glad that I didn’t. But being a leader myself, reflecting on the teaching and training from my military career, reminded me to have more understanding and patience, especially when a leader is in the wrong. We’re all human. A question was asked in one of my Institute classes: if the prophet gets it wrong, how can we rely on him all the time? One of the common principles that we are encouraged to follow as soldiers is “trust but verify.” We can always pray and get confirmation of what a Church leader is asking. It builds our testimony and faith in what that leader is sharing, and it builds our relationship with the Lord.
My military service has also taught me how to have a good relationship with the Lord. I got to a point in my last assignment that when I asked my soldiers to do something, they wouldn’t ask questions, “Yes ma’am,” and they’d get it done. It was the result of a good team and work environment. I built that environment first with open communication, which built trust, and trust led to faith. Faith is what got my soldiers to do what I asked them to do, when it needed to be done, without question. When you compare your relationship to the Lord, we like to say, “You gotta to have faith.” Well, you can’t have faith without trust, you can’t have trust unless the communication is there. So having constant prayer builds trust as you build your relationship with the Lord, and when you’re asked to do something, you’re able to jump without question. Of note, I make a point to make sure my soldiers know the “why” of what I was asking them to do. However, the unpredictable, ever-changing environment of the military doesn’t always allow time and the “why” is something that has to wait until after. Ironically, the Lord’s “why” often comes after too.
What is your most important message to share with others?
There’s more than one way to serve. I think I’m an example of that. It’s okay to be different. The one thing that I learned that gave me peace about being different from all the sisters in my local ward was – we know that the gospel is meant to be spread to every corner of the earth. Some of those corners can’t be reached by traditional paths. Being different can help reach those corners and help spread the gospel.
At A Glance
Name: Jenna Hardy
Marital History: Married
Schools Attended: Bachelors in Anthropology, Minor in Military Science
Languages Spoken At Home: English
Favorite Hymn: Because I Have Been Given Much
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Interview Produced By: Trina Caudle