The Evening Leader
Saving another life
Making a Difference: A series of thoughts and reflections on living a life of purpose.
In my last column, I wrote about saving a toddler from drowning. Today’s story is less dramatic, but nonetheless significant.
I was an Air Force Chaplain, working at boot camp. I spent a lot of time counseling with trainees who were trying to adapt to the rigors of basic training. I heard all sorts of issues and stories from these young people.
They knew they could trust a chaplain to keep their secrets. Chaplains were the only people in the military with complete confidentiality. Even military doctors and lawyers were obligated to tell authorities certain things revealed in confidence. Not so, the chaplains.
Like my Roman Catholic clergy colleagues, I took confidentially very seriously. If a chaplain broke “the seal of the confessional,” word would get around, and people would cease to trust chaplains.
A young man, about 20, was pouring out his heart in my office one evening. Chaplains got a lot of troops coming to counsel after the training day was over. He was depressed and claimed he was going to kill himself.
Sadly, this was not an uncommon situation. Many trainees had trouble adjusting in boot camp. Usually, some positive reinforcement, prayer and encouragement helped them recover and they went on to succeed.
When that didn’t work, I would refer them to, or take them to, the mental health ward at our hospital. This trainee would not go to the hospital. He invoked confidentiality, binding me to keep our conversation secret.
What to do? He wouldn’t get help. I couldn’t reveal what he told me in confidence. Time to be creative. As our conversation ended, he rose to leave. I rose with him, picked up my hat and walked with him toward his barracks.
He asked me what I was doing. I told him that I would keep his secret, but I could not, in good conscience, let him kill himself. I would stay with him as long as it took to prevent that. He was dumbstruck. As we walked, he said that I couldn’t stay in his barracks. His training instructor wouldn’t allow it.
Now it was time for my bluff. I told him, “Your instructor is a sergeant. I’m an officer. I outrank him and can stay if I want.” Luckily for me, the trainee bought that rationale.
I was single at the time, so I didn’t have to get home to a family. I was prepared to continue this charade as long as necessary to keep this man safe and still keep his secret.
He inquired, “What will you tell my sergeant?” Continuing my bluff, I said, “I don’t have to tell him anything. It’s chaplain business and he has no need to know.”
It was a long walk to his barracks, giving this young man time to process all this. He finally said, “Okay chaplain. I give up. You can take me to the hospital.”
I checked him into the mental health ward and never heard from him again. I followed up with his sergeant and training officer and he successfully completed basic training.