It wasn't cool to be a Mormon in the military when Paul A. Yost Jr. joined the LDS Church in the 1950s.
The swearing, hard-drinking, partying culture clashed with his newfound Mormon faith, which prohibits smoking and drinking among other things. Still, Yost continued to live in both worlds, rising in the ranks of the Coast Guard and doing his best to be an exemplar of LDS principles.
Once he ordered cases of hot chocolate as a substitute for coffee on the ship he was commanding. He tried to get rid of pornography and gambling at Coast Guard stations. For his church, he served as a leader of LDS servicemen in Vietnam and a Mormon bishop in New Orleans (his old ward was in the recent flood zone).
And by 1986, he had arrived at the pinnacle of his profession - Commandant.
It's different in today's military, he says. "In the last 10 to 15 years, there have been few challenges being a Mormon in the military. Alcohol is no longer necessary for anybody in the military to be socially or militarily successful."
The admiral comes to Utah every six months as a member of the church's Military Relations Committee, whose meetings coincide with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' semi-annual General Conference, which gets underway today.
The committee, made up of several four-star generals, a three-star general, a professor at the Naval Academy and others, ensures that Mormons in the military have spiritual nourishment. Its members minister to soldiers in war as well as peace, and look out for their families.
On Friday, the group got "an update on operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, as well as briefings on world threats and potential problems that might surface in the future," says Frank Clawson, the committee's executive director. "We use high-ranking military officers so that if we have a challenge, they can use their influence to open doors for us."
Also on Friday, Yost shared his perceptions of what happened with Hurricane Katrina. He knows a lot about such natural disasters, having led the Coast Guard's efforts after Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 and Hurricane Hugo in 1999.
"Paul is a person who takes a wide range of information and comes up with logical, coherent decisions," says Richard Whaley, a retired chaplain who is on the committee. "He has seen the crucial spiritual aspect of soldiers, sailors in combat zones. He knows the impact that religion has in people's lives and assists them in that."
Yost now heads the James Madison Foundation, which offers fellowships for high school teachers to become more knowledgeable about the U.S. Constitution. Founded by Senators Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy following the Constitution's bicentennial in 1987, the Madison Foundation is an independent agency of the executive branch of the federal government, funded by Congress and individual donors.
But the retired admiral is happy to volunteer his time on the LDS Church's military relations committee, drawing on the insights he accrued after decades of service.
One of his most memorable experiences was overseeing the cleanup efforts after the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, dumping nearly 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound.
"I was on an island that was coated completely with oil," Yost recalls.
About 25 miles from civilization, a 40-year-old Klinket Indian woman approached him. It was cold, raining, probably about 34 degrees, with a wind blowing half a gale.
Oil plastering her hair to her head, the woman pointedly said to him, "Admiral, this is my land."
From that moment on, he says, "it became my mission to do the best job I could to clean the mess up for the people who owned and lived on that land."
His efforts led directly to increased Coast Guard responsibilities for oil tanker regulation and environmental protection with Congress' passage of the Oil Protection Act in August 1990, according to his official biography.
Throughout Yost's years in the Coast Guard, he was always reaching out to other Mormons in the military.
While commanding 25 percent of the Coast Guard troops during the Vietnam War, Yost asked his ship's chaplain if there were any Mormons on board his ship. The chaplain said he thought there were a couple and they met in the hold for services. The next Sunday, he found two young men in a corner of the cavernous space, holding a Sacrament meeting. He asked if he could join them. Then he proposed that the next week, they hold the service in his quarters. And they did from then on.
One of the things he does for the military committee is help Mormons who join the service find their way to weekly meetings as part of a ward.
"So many kids who come out of a little farm community think, 'I'm free here because the grocer isn't my bishop,' " Yost says. "They go wild and don't come to church and then they get lost. We try to help find them."
Today there are more Latter-day Saints in the Coast Guard than ever before, he says, though modestly claims it is not because of him.
"It may have helped setting an example for them," he says. "I guess they thought that if the commandant could be a good Mormon, so could they."