Back to Basics: Experiencing God at Army Basic Training Camp

After being separated from family, friends, phones and the Phillies, this recruit finds that ‘in the end, you’re left with God’

Soldier Memorial Chapel
Soldier Memorial Chapel (photo: Lisa Livezey)

My landline rang as I was preparing to leave for the airport. “Hello?” I answered and recognized the voice of Msgr. William Kaufman, pastor of neighboring parish St. Pius X in Broomall, Pennsylvania. He asked if I was related to William Livezey. “Yes,” I replied, saying I was his mother. The monsignor said William had written him from Basic Training Camp (BTC).

“I want to write back,” he continued. “But I’m having trouble reading his address.” I chuckled, picturing my son’s familiar cursive scrawl.

The monsignor’s timing was impeccable, for I was leaving that afternoon for William’s BTC graduation. I promised to provide him with my son’s new address at his next assignment.

I too had received letters — three-page, single-spaced letters — penned from his bunk after long, tiring days. Beginning “Dearest Mother,” the words were like gold to me. “Aside from silence, I have found it an exceedingly difficult task to be intentional with prayer and Scripture,” he wrote in one letter. “I do my best to pray before every meal and say little prayers throughout the day.” 

William’s infantry regiment at BTC was a huge departure from college life and a stark contrast from home comforts like family, faith, friends, phones and the Phillies. He wrote, “I’m sure the immersed and swinging-along feeling is by design. I failed to realize just how nice the ten to fifteen minutes of quiet spiritual time I had nightly were. I am housed, well-fed, and very active, but my soul still longs to be further fed. Unfortunately, right now I will need to trust and get by on Mass once a week and my quick ‘Our Fathers’ and ‘St. Michaels.’ Just how important the health and well-being of my soul is has never felt more apparent.”

William called Mass the highlight of his week. He participated in choir and attended catechism class — “a wonderful time of general spiritual foundation taught by a string of young highly devout officers. It’s very clear their faith means a lot to them and it’s hard not to see myself in them.”

He later described finding peace during the night watch: “We pull fireguard, which means my bunkmate and I wake up for an hour at some scheduled time. We keep a log, clean, and perform headcounts. You would think it’s terrible, but I don’t mind it. It’s nice and quiet, with no yelling from the drill sergeants. I sit there keeping the log, or sweeping, sipping my water, and thinking and praying. It’s quite peaceful.”

Intermittent letters and Sunday phone calls marked the 11-week BTC and now —graduation! My husband, our youngest son and I traveled by plane and car for the big occasion. We were greeted by a long line of traffic, I.D. checks, finding the right building, a family briefing and a presentation. Afterward, William approached us, bearing confidence and a broad smile. How wonderful to see him! We headed off base to satisfy a milkshake craving, listening as William expounded upon his experience. 

“Being in Basic has helped me be constantly relying on God. It’s removed so much emotional baggage from my life. Situations are charged, but things are very simple. You eat at the same time every day, you run around, lift weights — it’s a simple life … the right place, the right time, the right uniform; do as you’re told; show the proper respect to the officers. … There’s lots of regulation, but, for me personally, the most trying thing was the emotional adjustment. Beyond that, the most complicated thing is the drama —tensions are up at the end of the day; people are just tired.”

“How is God there for you?” I asked.

“In the end, you’re left with God,” he stated simply. “What does that look like? I don’t know how to explain it. He Is. In the truest sense of the word. He Is. … He. Just. Is.” 

Stopping by the base’s Soldier Memorial Chapel, we encountered army chaplain Father Stephen Cotter. “In ‘BTC land,’” he said, “you go to any service to get away from the drill sergeants.” He told of one base where the Jewish service served bagels afterward, attracting 200 basic trainees. We laughed as he continued, “Most of us come to church when there is a crisis in our life, but hopefully that starts something that will continue the rest of your life.”

Walking to the car, I mentioned Msgr. Kaufman’s phone call. William responded: “Monsignor was the recipient, but I was writing the letters as prayers or conversations with God, mirroring how in reconciliation we confess our sins unto the priest, but ultimately are speaking with God, whom the priest represents.” 

Too soon it was time to say goodbye, but we left knowing that William had encountered God in profound ways at BTC — in the silence of the night, in the refuge of the Mass, and in the practice of writing letters to his priest.

Writer Lisa Livezey has found the beauty, truth and goodness of the Catholic Church via the Anglican Ordinariate. She publishes a weekly photo devotion at