By FATHER JOSEPH PEEK, Special To The Bulletin | Published November 9, 2006
With the movie “The Guardian” recently showing in local theatres, I was reminded of my time in Class 8707 of the United States Navy Rescue Swimmer School in Pensacola, Fla. Training was more than intense as the instructors sought one answer, “If we jump you out of an aircraft on a cold moonless night in the North Atlantic with 70 knot winds and 30 foot seas, are you coming back?” Unable to effectively reproduce such an environment on a pool deck, they used every psychological trick in the book to create a similar level of duress.
My hopeful method of surviving this program was whittled down to this: 1. Do exactly what they tell you and 2. They haven’t killed anyone yet.
Unfortunately my assumption and the school’s misnomer of Camp Crystal Lake (named after the “Friday the 13th” films) were proven wrong as No. 2 occurred six months after my graduation when 19-year-old AR Lee Mirecki, rotating through for the third time, died of a stress-induced heart attack during the infamous “shark and daisies” drill. The event made national news, and the program’s serious training was revamped with more appropriate and effective oversight and structure.
Prior to attending the school, as a motivational tool, I was instructed to sign a document stating that if I failed the school I would not get to fly as an air crewman. Years later, as I signed the permission slip for the medical team at Emory Hospital to proceed with my bone marrow transplant for leukemia, I felt a sense of déjà vu, but this time the stakes seemed to jump from the possibility of death to a more probable walk with death. My life was once more literally on the line, saved with my sister’s stem cell donation “so that I might live.”
I seem to have defined three responses to desperate situations then: 1. I give myself totally, including the possibility of losing my own life, “so others may live”; 2. I take care of myself, yet “do no harm” to you, “that we may live”; and 3. I injure or kill you with the main consideration “that I may live.” Martyrdom, mercy, murder.
Under such duress you will do what you are trained to do. Verbally, you will either cuss or pray—I guarantee that there will be no gray areas. Rescue swimmer school hypes you so that when you are in real duress you will not fold but do what is necessary, so that the best possible outcome might be realized. What you are capable of—great virtue or great vice—will depend on the moral fiber of your training and your willingness to receive it.
Surviving rescue swimmer school and my bone marrow transplant have given me the gift of facing possible death that I “might live like I was dying.”
It is only in understanding death that I discovered ever more deeply the important things for which I should spend my life. A life spent for other people, not merely self or things, had the most meaning.
Therefore, I entered a new course of training and found great meaning and self-worth in the sacrifice of my life in the priesthood, where daily I serve souls drowning in the misery of their lives, even on dry land. With St. Paul I cannot stand by while they drown, I must help them with the life of the Gospel or drown myself in the attempt even if they, in a misguided attempt at survival, injure me or resist my attempts to save them. Their unaided spiritual death is unacceptable to my trained conscience. I am trained to jump in the water when my pilot orders, “Jump, jump, jump.” The victims of spiritual storms deserve the gift of my trained spirit, soul, mind and body. I will always remember the ones I think I have lost, praying that others might save them. Some may physically survive today, others may lose their bodies, but I give my life for souls “so others may live” … eternally.
Father (Lt.) Joseph Peek, USN, CCPO, is a co-sponsored priest serving the Archdioceses of Atlanta and the Military Services, USA. He is presently serving as a parochial vicar at Mary Our Queen Church in Norcross.