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New General Authority: Value, price of freedom appreciated by retired U.S. Air Force general

Elder Robert C. Oaks, sustained April 1 to the Second Quorum of the Seventy, has spent his life appreciating freedom and the blessings of the Book of Mormon's land of promise.

A boy from Provo, Utah, who grew up to be a general in the United States Air Force, Elder Oaks knows the price and value of freedom.

"I have learned that freedom has a taste; it is a tangible reality," he said. "One of the great blessings of my 35 years in the Air Force was the opportunity to grow to truly love freedom."

His mother, Ann Bonnett Oaks, often read poems and stories that gave him a great appreciation for books and were the cornerstone of his respect for all people, regardless of their station in life. His father, Charles, taught him to work hard, and also took him fishing and hunting. A testimony came as part of his childhood learning.

"I can't ever remember not believing," he said. "I went to Primary and Sunday School and I can tell you what chair I was sitting in when I first heard the story about David and Goliath. I grew up in the total surrounding environment of the Mormon community, and the testimony emerged."

Elder Oaks praised his teachers, most of whom were members of the Church at the local elementary school and Brigham Young High School, where he lettered in four sports. "I had stimulating teachers who would not tolerate my normal childish misbehavior, nor would they ostracize me for it. Rather, they would correct me and send me on my educational way. I value that. I have maintained an excitement to learn all of my life."

He once had aspirations to be an attorney, and even to go into politics, but chose instead to attend the Air Force Academy where he could play football and become a pilot.

He and his wife, Gloria, met in Church as youngsters. She first noticed him when he gave a two-and-a-half minute talk in Sunday School, and they became friends. Robert and Gloria started dating in high school and were married in the Salt Lake Temple after his graduation from the Air Force Academy on June 10, 1959.

Callings and responsibilities in the Air Force often came together for the young officer. In Nevada, he was called to the bishopric of a newly formed ward, and designated as squadron operations officer almost the same week.

"All weekend we, the bishopric, were interviewing people for staffing in the ward, and all week I was re-organizing the functions of the squadron. I found the Church model [of interviewing] extremely useful."

During his military career, the family moved 26 times. "We lived in Japan, Germany and Italy, and in all corners of America, from Rhode Island and Florida to Nevada and Idaho, and a lot of places in between," he said.

Once, while waiting for assignment after he had become a brigadier general, the family stayed at his parents' home in Provo. Finally, a telephone call informed him that he had been assigned to Germany. "I went in to tell the kids. All six of them were sitting around a table — these were high school and grade school children who would have to leave their schools."

He told them they were going to overseas to Germany. There was a long silence, then their 7-year-old said, "Hey — you can get Adidas shoes in Germany for $15."

"The rest said, 'Yea! Let's go to Germany!' We never did find any $15 Adidas, but the family loved Germany."

Despite his transiency, he has always held Church callings, including serving as a Gospel Doctrine teacher 11 times. He not only teaches the importance of freedom, but also that it has a high priority.

"Freedom has radiated out of our country through the military, through our diplomacy, through our moral leadership that we have expressed in so many ways — through our willingness to step forward and sacrifice our lives and our blood to preserve that freedom and the freedom of other people."

Again, he speaks from personal experience. In 1966 he was in Vietnam flying combat missions. One early morning he was awakened and asked to fly in place of a friend who had been drinking.

"I said, 'Sure.' I love to fly." He was the flight leader of four F-100s sent to the Mekong Delta to knock out machine guns hidden in banana trees along the edge of rice paddies. After his first pass, a fire warning light showed on the control panel.

"My wingman came up and said, 'You're on fire. You better get out.' So I headed toward the closest air strip but the wingman said, 'You are burning badly.' I was streaming fire about 20 feet behind the airplane. I didn't want to get out of the airplane where everything was so secure. But then the [control] stick kind of went limp. As soon as you are out of control it is easy, mentally, to eject. So I ejected — a charge exploded under the seat. The parachute didn't open, and I was spinning so violently that I had the distinct feeling that my body couldn't stand this. Then the words of the memorized emergency procedures appeared [in my mind], just like a pull-down screen. I spread-eagled and stopped the spinning. I pulled the d-ring and got the parachute to open."

His heavy emergency kit was supposed to fall free, but it remained attached and he fell on it, and, in landing on hard dirt of a dry rice paddy, injured his back and was briefly knocked unconscious.

When he came to, he saw that "I was immediately surrounded by Vietnamese water buffalo, lowing." He was also surrounded, in the air, by seven F-100s that protected him until his rescue by helicopter a short time later.

"It was a remarkable preservation experience," he said. "I knew God had preserved me in answer to my prayers and our family prayers."

Although he retired from the Air Force in 1994, his new calling brings with it some reminders of his military service, particularly as he awaits a new assignment. He was called on a Thursday, and on Friday, he and Sister Oaks put their home up for sale. That was typically decisive, illustrative of the dedication of Robert and Gloria Oaks, always ready and eager to report for duty.

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