From Paris to the Philippines and from Moscow to Myanmar, the Mormon leader has seen the graves of those who died in battle.
"As I have visited these various cemeteries, I have reflected first on the terrible cost of war," Hinckley, the 96-year-old leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in a devotional address before more than 20,000 BYU students gathered at the Marriott Center on the Provo campus. "What a fruitless thing it so often is, and what a terrible price it exacts."
The school didn't officially announce that Hinckley, considered a "prophet, seer and revelator" by Mormon faithful, was speaking until this week, but as word got out "an air of excitement swept over the school," said freshman Elizabeth Rhondeau of Salt Lake City. Students began filling the arena as early as 6 a.m. for the 11 a.m. speech.
"When he spoke, there was a feeling of oneness in the room," Rhondeau said. "Even though it's a giant building, it felt like an intimate chat between friends."
Hinckley, who has spoken at BYU many times during his lifetime of church service, departed from traditional speeches, choosing instead to share random episodes from his life.
"It's Halloween and that calls for something a little different, but I don't know why it should," he joked.
Hinckley talked about meeting a poor couple in Mexico, who became financially prosperous after joining the church and eventually helped to convert 200 of their family and friends. He described a tender moment between longtime secretary Joseph Anderson and then-church-President Heber J. Grant. He repeated a poem about Abraham Lincoln. He discussed the deadly plague of the 14th century. He detailed the heroism of the Mormon handcart pioneers.
Though he made no comment on the current combat in Iraq, it is notable that three of Hinckley's nine anecdotes revolved around the problems of war.
Hinckley, then a church apostle, arrived in Vietnam in 1966 as the war was raging. He had to sign a release form absolving the U.S. government of any responsibility for him, then flew to Da Nang, where he attended a Mormon service for soldiers who had been killed. After the meeting, he was taken by Army ambulance to stay the night in an unfinished field hospital. All night long, fighter jets were flying north and he wondered how many of them would return.
The next day, Hinckley helped serve the sacrament (similar to Catholic Communion) to Mormon servicemen who hadn't had the sacred bread and water for months.
"That was a great and unforgettable experience," he said.
He then related a story shared by Shimon Peres, former prime minister of Israel, who told Hinckley there was a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
"When we were Adam and Eve, we were all one. Is there any need for us now to be divided into segments with hatred for one another?"
Not surprisingly, Hinckley ended by telling students about Marjorie, his wife of 67 years who died in 2004, and saying that their college years were the best time to find their "beloved eternal companion." Translation: Get married.
"Do so with a prayer in your heart," Hinckley said. "It will be the most important decision you will ever make."