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Soldiering on

Armed by three decades of combat duty, retired Lt. Gen. William Boykin takes on Washington’s culture battles

Soldiering on

William Boykin (Associated Press/Photo by Ed Andrieski)

WASHINGTON, D.C.—In his 36-year military career, William Boykin captured a Panamanian dictator, chased a Colombian drug lord, tracked Bosnian war criminals, and hunted El Salvadorian kidnappers.

He also attempted to rescue American hostages in Iran and helped free trapped U.S. citizens in Grenada and Sudan.

That’s a military resumé perhaps worthy of a movie trilogy. But the two-time Purple Heart recipient and retired Army lieutenant general may be tackling his toughest challenge yet: Washington bureaucracy.

Last year, Boykin, 64, became the new executive vice president of the Family Research Council (FRC), the D.C.-based group that has been promoting a Christian worldview in the public policy arena since 1983. It’s a task made more warlike as the nation’s capital becomes enemy territory for social conservatives.

Boykin handles day-to-day operations as the organization’s second-in-command, interacting with lawmakers, managing interviews with the press, and serving as a public face. Going into an environment where his group is considered an outcast is not a new task for Boykin, an original member who became commander of the Army’s elite counterterrorism group Delta Force.

It also isn’t Boykin’s first time patrolling Washington politics. As a deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence under then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Boykin endured a year under the political microscope. Memories of what turned into an ordeal a decade ago led Boykin to turn down the job offer from FRC President Tony Perkins initially. But God had other plans.

Boykin grew up harvesting tobacco on his grandparents’ North Carolina farm. But he dreamed of wearing a military uniform like the ones worn by his dad and four uncles during World War II. His father earned a Purple Heart in the Allied invasion of France on D-Day. Piloting a landing craft toward a Normandy shore heavily defended by the Nazis on June 6, 1944, Boykin’s father lost sight in his left eye after a shell blast knocked him unconscious.

When Boykin attended Virginia Tech in 1966 on a football scholarship, he also joined the school’s Corps of Cadets.

Boykin’s mother also influenced him. A devout evangelical, she took him to church every Sunday. According to his autobiography, Never Surrender, the young Boykin was unsure about religion, but God put people of faith in his life, including two football coaches who combined discipline with charity.

Stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., the new soldier Boykin struggled with a deep discontentment, opened a Bible he had packed, and remembered the examples that led him to begin a deeper personal relationship with God at about the same time he began his military journey.

Through the next three decades, Boykin says he often would be tempted to rely on himself—in leading some of the most harrowing U.S. military missions. But each time he would be brought to greater dependence on God.

After stints in Korea and Vietnam as an Army Ranger, the military in 1978 invited him to try out for a new secret unit. The final phase of training included a solitary 40-mile march to a series of checkpoints spread along the frigid mountains of North Carolina. Boykin finished it in 11 hours and 27 minutes—and out of 118 soldiers who started the course, he became one of the first 19 members of Delta Force.

“Every job I have ever had has required more than I could provide,” he said. “The difference was made up by God.”

His unit embarked on a 1980 mission to rescue 52 Americans held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, a mission aborted in the Iranian desert: Eight of its members died when an evacuating military helicopter collided with a C-130 transport aircraft.

The death toll could have been higher. Boykin witnessed the explosion and prayed as men escaped the burning wreckage.

Three years later, Boykin again prayed for his team as they prepared to invade Grenada to prevent the spread of communism to an island within striking distance of the United States and to rescue Americans trapped there after a military coup. As they approached their target, rounds from .50 caliber machine guns tore through the floor of the Black Hawk helicopter carrying Boykin and his men. Shrapnel and bullet fragments ripped into his arm, shoulder, and chest, destroying his left biceps and shredding the bone in his arm.

Boykin recovered. A decade later, he received a second wound in 1993 in Somalia during the Battle of Mogadishu. By then commander of Delta Force, Boykin oversaw the manhunt to capture brutal warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid in the incident recounted in the book and movie Black Hawk Down.

“We walked into a city of 5 million people and had to find one man,” Boykin said.

During an airborne raid to snatch one of Aidid’s lieutenants, Boykin watched on video monitors at the command center as a Black Hawk took a hit from an RPG and slammed nose first into an alley. The snatch-and-grab operation had become a rescue mission. The Somalis soon shot down another Black Hawk. A grueling firefight in the city’s crowded streets stretched through the night and left 18 Americans killed and more than 70 wounded. Boykin suffered shrapnel wounds in a mortar attack on the U.S. compound—one of 12 wounded there. The mortar round killed one U.S. serviceman standing near Boykin before the attack.

“These men were all in,” Boykin said. “The commitment they had made to each other was something people have no concept of. They were willing to die to bring a buddy home.”

Appointed deputy undersecretary of defense in 2003, Boykin moved to a desk in the Pentagon. But he soon found himself in the middle of a battle of a different kind: a political fight where words replaced mortars as the weapon of choice.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Boykin had begun speaking at churches and other civic groups. He asked people to pray for the country. He called the war on terror a spiritual battle over worldviews and said the true enemy is Satan.

When journalists discovered clips of Boykin’s speeches, delivered in his uniform, critical stories poured in. Boykin spoke about a spiritual battle, applying the same imagery that the Apostle Paul used when he urged New Testament readers to put on the “armor of God.” Journalists called him a religious fanatic and an intolerant extremist who was seeking a Christian jihad. They questioned whether he should hold a senior position in the Pentagon. 

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., now on deck to become the next secretary of state, called Boykin’s actions “un-American.” Radical Islamic organizations started calling for his assassination, posting maps to his home and listing the names of his family members.

After three decades in the military, Boykin faced attacks he knew could not be fought using the physical tactics he had learned as a Special Forces soldier: “I knew I had to rely on God. …  I had to leave the battle to Him.”

Even as White House officials distanced themselves from Boykin, colleagues in the Pentagon would approach him in the halls to say they were praying for him.

An investigation by the Defense Department’s inspector general exonerated Boykin of all but a minor violation. He never charged the military for trips to speak at churches, he did not accept speaking fees for such events, and churches and other civic groups covered all non-military travel. Officials did cite him for not listing on a disclosure form as a gift paid travel for one speaking event in Toronto.

The bad press remained, but the incident actually confirmed Boykin’s right to free speech and his freedom to practice religion even in a military uniform.

Today Boykin admits he should have been more clear that his views didn’t represent the official views of the Defense Department. 

Retiring from the Army in June 2007, the New Bern, N.C., native vowed to reembrace rural life and never to return to Washington. When Perkins first offered Boykin the chance to join the FRC, Boykin refused, saying he felt emotionally unprepared for a return to the city. For a year and a half Perkins kept asking and Boykin kept saying no.  

But family and friends unanimously told him he should reconsider.“I’ve learned not to tell God you wouldn’t do something because before long that is the very thing He will have you do,” said Boykin. “Staying in the battle is the right thing to do.”

Now, Boykin says he believes the controversy over his talks to churches is being used to prepare him to be able to fight the country’s culture battles: “The movement needs some grizzled old people not easily frightened by what the opposition does. Once you’ve been kicked around a bit it doesn’t hurt so much.”

Boykin hopes to apply the strategies he learned in the Special Forces, starting with having an appreciation and understanding of the opposition: “I give a great deal of credit to liberal progressive organizations in this country for message unity.” Too many social conservatives, he said, have become apathetic, expecting that someone else will defend their beliefs.

“Not enough of us are out there fighting,” said Boykin, who attributed that to the stream of media ridicule often faced by outspoken social conservatives.

Boykin, who on a recent mid-January day was preparing to visit House Speaker John Boehner’s office on Capitol Hill, described the country he’s fought for as “almost rudderless,” where a whole generation has failed to learn about the nation’s religious roots. He plans to focus this year on the nation’s debt, its growing addiction to entitlements, the integrity of the family, and the sanctity of life. 

“When you remove God from society,” he said, “that void is filled with something else, and in most cases that something else is evil.”

Edward Lee Pitts

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.

Comments

  • Buddy's picture
    Buddy
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 06:11 pm

    Thanks Edward and World Mag, this is good. Its wonderful to hear of someone who has true courage reguardless of the battlefield.

  • Sawgunner's picture
    Sawgunner
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 06:11 pm

    I deeply admire this man. I hope he brings nothing but good stuff to the FRC.Some years back I guess he was a featured speaker at a church. He appeared in uniform. He spoke (accurately I feel) about the false god of Islam compared to the true God of the Bible.In our oh so PC modern day his statements drew fire.I can tell you ea as a soldier the number of men who have done and achieved all Jerry Boykin has are rare indeed.  Lord bless him and help him steward FRC thru the tumult it must invariably face from the beltway insiders

  • dvbcbob
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 06:11 pm

    Well said.