Waters South of Japan -- They say hindsight is 20/20. Someday, I will find this to be very true.
I will be alive and mostly sane. I will have learned something new and be able to help others. I will write a story and maybe you will read it.
But I don’t know any of this right now and none of it matters. Nothing does.
Hindsight is 20/20.
But here. Now. As I feel the tap-tap-tap of the plastic surface of the chair underneath my fidgeting legs in the cold, crowded loneliness of this office…
I am blind.
I’ve been sitting for who knows how long in a room not much bigger than a hospital waiting area. The more I think about it, the more it feels like that’s exactly where I am.
I’m the shackled captive of an aching, withering mind. I’m a soul compelled by pain to scream and cry for help but forced to tough it out and wait for its allotted turn.
I wonder if that’s how the term “patient” came to be.
I’ve got stumps for fingers. The product of a steady diet of fingernails and the adjacent hardened flesh, nicotine, sugary drinks and processed snacks – the typical underway anti-stress fix.
There are other Sailors in the room and it seems to me that, in a way, they’re also indulging in their own instant gratification coping rituals. Some watch the movie playing on the wall-mounted TV; others scroll through their Facebook walls – the closest available pretense of a social life outside the metal skin of the floating ward we call home.
I stare at nothing for some time until something snaps me out of my rumination.
An imposing man with a bald head and tough build walks into the room, making a beeline toward the desk in the back as if on a mission. I’ve seen him before – wearing a flight deck jersey with a peculiar design across the back – walking with the same urgency and determination with which he does tonight.
I will later learn that the design is a “Chi Rho”, a Christogram composed of the first two letters of the Greek Khristos.
I will learn that it was used as a military standard by Constantine the Great after receiving his famous vision before the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 A.D.
I will learn that the man walking in the room decided to use his own version of it, merged with an anchor.
But right now it doesn’t matter.
That’s probably him, I tell myself.
Twenty-four hours ago, I walked into this very same room and asked for an appointment with a chaplain. I filled a form with personal information: name, rank, rate, and department – just to name some.
But as I made my way down to the last blank on the small piece of paper seemingly intended to summarize a complex human being into key words, numbers and circled options; irony showed its mocking face.
Yes. I had come to the Command Religious Ministries Department (CRMD) office aboard the Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), seeking respite.
Sure. I’d requested a counseling session with a priest.
But in the line preceded by “faith group,” my fingers guided the pen into carving a very decisive “N/A.”
So what does this mean? Did an atheist finally see the divine light, the error of his ways, the folly of his long-held personal convictions?
Not in the slightest.
But here’s the kicker that I’ve always suspected and will soon confirm:
It won’t matter one bit.
The man with the Chi Rho jersey turns his body to face me now – in his hand is the piece of paper I had filled out the day prior – and he makes his way toward the chair I’ve been sunk into this whole time.
I see his hand open in front of me for a handshake and with an almost involuntary movement – like a decision I don’t consciously make but rather throw myself into out of desperation– I reach up with my hand and grasp his own.
A comforting smile.
“Follow me,” he says.
This is how I meet Battle Chaps.
A self-proclaimed 37-year-old kid, Lt. Jason Burchell, CRMD’s division officer, will someday tell me he loves to have fun. He loves life, nature, cars, and sports. He loves his country and loves the people who serve it.
At 26 years of age, he decided to be “the best version” of himself and his journey to become a priest began. He will tell me that at some point during the years of seminary required to join the clergy, he chose to become a Navy chaplain.
At 26 years of age, on the other hand, I’m walking into his small office – my heart leading the way ahead of my chest, one massive pump of blood at a time – and my mind tumbles inside my skull with thoughts.
At 26, Battle Chaps found himself.
At 26, I find him.
I will see him many more times after this first interaction – some scheduled, some impromptu. Some will give me peace. Some will frustrate me. All of them will help.
But what about my lack of faith?
Sometime after our first meeting – after many monthly, periodic talks -- when I sit down with him once again to gather material for my story, he will say, “I have to admit to you, I was trying to do the math in my head but I would say only about 10 percent of the counseling that I do is actually religious in nature.”
He will explain that he is a priest first, and an officer second. That he loves who he serves. But as a Navy Chaplain, his priestly duties are the least of what he does. He will say he speaks for other chaplains as well when he says this.
He will tell me about what he calls the holistic approach – body, mind and spirit.
“The holistic approach on anything is basically looking at it as a whole person, and how we are made up – which includes the mind, the body and the spirit,” he will say. “Spirituality is one portion of that. And each person comes from different traditions, cultures and backgrounds. Our job is to help the person in every area of their life, not just the spiritual. We focus also on the mind (and how much they are learning, their mental state, their emotions, self-confidence, and life experiences) and on the body (how they are sleeping, eating, exercising). The Sailors we see are not one-dimensional.”
According to Burchell, as I will find out, this is the role of chaplains:
“Through a ministry of presence, the chaplain is there to help a person get through anything in their life, no matter what it is. Some of the time it has to do with spirituality but I would say the majority of the time, it doesn’t.”
Someday we will sit in his office – the same office where we will have sat so many times before – and I will ask him to explain the chaplain’s confidentiality policy.
“There is no limit,” he will say. “It’s 100 percent. Not 99, or 99.5. There’s no circumstance that I can even imagine that would enable a chaplain to break confidentiality for anything. In fact, they would lose their job if they did. The only thing a chaplain can do is ask the person who they’re counseling, ‘Can we involve another helper to assist us in this?’ This may happen with a suicidal attempt or ideation. A lot of times we could ask the medical department for an assist, but only with permission of the person that came to see us. If that person says, ‘No. I don’t want anyone else to know,’ that door remains shut. Period. Everything is sealed in. Nothing ever happens. The Sailor owns the conversation.”
I will ask him about his credentials -- a reason why anyone should put their trust on a stranger, a person who might not share their beliefs.
“We hope that people would trust us first because we are chaplains called to serve them in a very dedicated way, and second, because chaplains also have a pretty extensive educational standard they must have gone through. Most, if not all of us have post-college education. We all go through some sort of seminary program. Specifically for me, mine was six years. But in addition to those classes that we take and those degrees that we get, we also get good real-world experience in churches and parishes across the country before coming into active duty. There is also all the specialized training in our various educational fields and the military training that we receive at chaplain school. There, we concentrate on how to take care of the Sailor and Marine, how to be pluralistic, and how to receive and counsel not only the religious but also the people that are not religious. Many of us have advanced degrees – sometimes even doctorates – in counseling, psychology or theology. All of these things, we bring to the table when we come to a ship like this. It would be a mistake to send a chaplain that could not reach everybody. And that’s the whole point of the Chaplain Corps. It’s to provide and facilitate for all people no matter where they are, no matter what faith they have.”
We will reminisce about our experience during past counseling. And I will ask him what he thought about my lack of faith – something I will have made very clear early in our talks. I will ask him how he approaches cases like mine.
“First of all, it does not make me think any more or less of the person sitting in front of me. Is it a challenge for me? Sure. What isn’t a challenge on this ship? But challenges are across the military, across every single life skill, across everything that we do. Yes, being a priest means everything to me, God means everything to me…but meeting someone where they are at that very moment is much more important. I am at peace with that. In the end, it is not about me. It is not about the chaplain, It is about the Sailor. It is about the Sailor’s life story. Where the Sailor was and where the Sailor wants to go in the future. One of the best ways I can explain what chaplains are is in this context: chaplains are all things for all people. It does not matter who you are and what you believe, chaplains can re-adjust. If a chaplain is confident in who he or she is, in their own belief system, they can literally be whoever you need them to be. Do I want to spread the Good News all the time? Do I want to make sure everybody feels the same way I do about my life, my blessings and how happy I am? Absolutely. But I’m not going to force it upon anyone.
“This is the way they train us in chaplain school. It doesn’t make us less of what we are. I’m still a devoted priest. CDR. David Yang is still a Southern Baptist minister, LCDR Andrew Hayler is still an Anglican priest, and LT. Jason Owen from CVW-5 is still a Calvary Chapel pastor. Nothing will ever change that, but in the military, we are here for everyone and we’re here to be real with them. We’re here to listen to them. We’re here to help make them better versions of themselves by using the skills and the things that they’ve learned throughout their lives. If a Sailor wants to speak to us about God, we will definitely speak to them about Him, but we don’t force it. Things that are forced are not real invitations; it’s just added pressure. You never force people to believe anything or do anything. It has to come from a desire of the heart.”
He will tell me all of this after I have experienced it first-hand, when I’m writing my story for others to know what I will know then.
He will tell me this after my faith, or lack thereof – the “N/A” scratched on the piece of paper – will have proven to be of no consequence.
After he will have been there for me.
After he will have listened.
“We listen under the premise of confidentiality, which is very soothing to people,” Burchell will say. “Because it’s finally somebody listening to them that would be able to give them feedback that is going to remain in that confidential environment. A lot of Sailors come just to be heard because they’re not heard anywhere else. One of the greatest things I think we do as chaplains is we provide that service to just listen – to listen attentively and fully, to give them the ability to get it all out. People carry very heavy loads on their shoulders and sometimes they just want to let it go. Being able to talk it out is completely therapeutic for them.”
And it will be. But I don’t know any of this right now. He hasn’t told me any of it yet.
After our first handshake, Battle Chaps will lead me into his office and close the door behind us.
I will feel safe.
He will preface our first talk with the confidentiality agreement and sit back in his chair.
His tiny office will feel cozy and all the bustling of Sailors in passage ways, the humming of ventilation, the metal-on-metal booms of aircraft caught by arresting gear overhead, the angry mob of thoughts in my head fighting over the best view of my public execution – all of it will fade away.
“The floor is yours,” he will say.
And then, it will happen.
I will start to get a glimpse of the light -- figurative colors and shapes. My eyes, like a newborn’s, will begin to open and I will again be able to visualize the once familiar but then almost forgotten truth.
In a chaplain’s office -- aboard a steel leviathan steaming across whatever piece of ocean we’re sailing -- I still won’t believe in an all-powerful deity in control of everything. I won’t think of myself as alienated to the divine light. I won’t see error in my ways or a folly in my long-held personal convictions.
But I will know something new.
That I am not, have never been, and perhaps most importantly, will never ever be alone.
Months will pass and they will still say hindsight is 20/20. I will find it to be very true.
I will be alive and mostly sane. I will have learned and be able to help others. I will write a story and you will read it.
I won’t know what the future holds, but I will feel strong enough to face it.
Hindsight is 20/20.
And there. Then. As I feel the tap-tap-tap of the plastic surface of the keys under my lively fingers, as I type the final words of my story up to that point, things will still not be perfect, but at least…
I will see.
By U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Eduardo T. Otero
Provided through DVIDS
Comment on this article