Mara Hanson was lugging a 70-pound backpack up a craggy trail in Missouri when she called upon a simple gospel melody.
As part of a U.S. Army contingent going through the demands of basic training, Hanson knew the 20-mile hike would be anything but a walk in the park. Now, as the trail became more rigorous and the sting of blisters began to take its toll, the former Oregon high school track standout referred to the verses of an LDS Primary tune to carry her the last five miles.
Mara Hanson returned from a tour of duty in Iraq with the Idaho National Guard last September.
“I started singing ‘I Am a Child of God,'”Hanson said. “It led me back to my Church roots. I always knew that if I was having a problem, I could just sing this song, and it would be alright. I looked around and started noticing more of my surroundingsâ€¦things like the trees and the sound of birds.”
After a while, a stern-faced captain asked her what she was singing.
“I told him and said it was helping me get through the rest of the hike,” Hanson recalled.
To Hanson’s surprise, it turned out the captain was LDS and had recognized the song above the steady clamor of combat boots.
“He said, ‘Soldier, you keep singing that song,'” Hanson remembers.
As an Army specialist in the Idaho National Guard, Hanson has faced her share of uphill battles beyond the dusty slopes of Missouri. In June 2009, she left to train for a tour of Iraq that would last until September 2011.
Hanson is a member of the Moran Prairie Ward in the Spokane Stake. She has also lived in the Sandpoint, Idaho Stake.
Photo by Craig Howard.
While in the Middle East, Hanson’s responsibilities included driving heavy-duty military vehicles on security detail as well as standing watch at military checkpoints. In the face of perilous and demanding work, Hanson said she found comfort in the fundamental messages of the restored gospel. She was one of 10 LDS soldiers in a unit of 115.
“The gospel helps me to be calm and aware of what’s going on,” Hanson said. “Other soldiers would say, ‘There’s something different about you.'”
Hanson would convey that same sense of faith and fortitude when she called home to talk with her son, Dylan, now 20.
“He knew how I felt when I went over there,” Hanson said. “He would always tell me that everything was going to be ok.”
One of Hanson’s refuges during her tour came on Sundays. When not working, she would attend church with a small contingent of fellow LDS soldiers in a chapel on the base. The group would keep up with the same lessons as wards back in the states.
Hanson takes a break from the strenuous routine in Iraq by playing a game of Sudoku.
“I was so happy to have church there,” said Hanson, a member of the Moran Prairie Ward in the Spokane Stake. “You could totally forget about the outside world. The Spirit was very strong.”
From blinding sandstorms to deadly mortars flying overhead, Hanson faced a steady barrage of threats while serving in the desert. Now, back in America, she takes time to talk with veterans who have experienced much of the same duress.
“If I know someone is a vet, I’ll talk to them, even if they served in Vietnam or World War II,” Hanson said. “We understand what each other has been through. I just appreciate the military a lot more now. There’s a real feeling of teamwork and support.”
When Hanson finally arrived back in the U.S. last fall, there was also a renewed feeling of gratitude for the nation she calls home.
“I remember landing in Seattle and coming off the plane,” she said. “I just stood at the top of the stairs and I was crying. I could smell the air and the trees. I remember thinking, ‘I’m really back.'”
Hanson lived on a U.S. military base in Iraq just outside Baghdad that was surrounded by 20-feet tall concrete walls.
Hanson now drives a Chevy Blazer, not a camouflaged truck with 400-pound doors. After the tumult of a war zone, she prefers to avoid loud noises – like fireworks – while she “notices the ground a lot more” when behind the wheel.
Hanson’s return to the Inland Northwest has been marked by what she describes as “a tremendous amount of support from people here.” As part of a program to honor American veterans, the Spokane Indians baseball team asked her to toss out the ceremonial first pitch on July 4. She threw a strike down the middle of the plate the received two standing ovations.
As for the reception at Avista Stadium, Hanson said it was “unexpected.”
“I was overwhelmed,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I was just doing my job.”