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William Boykin
Associated Press/Photo by Ed Andrieski
William Boykin

Soldiering on

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

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.

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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.

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