With The Guardian showing in cinemas recently, I was brought back to my time in Class 8707 of the U.S. 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 mentally repeating this formula: Do exactly what they tell you; they haven’t killed anyone yet.

Tragically, this went by the wayside six months after my graduation, when 19-year-old Airman Recruit 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, I would not get to fly as an aircrewman. Later, when I signed the permission slip for the medical team at Emory Hospital to proceed with my bone-marrow transplant for leukemia, I had a case 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. This time it was saved by my sister, who made a stem-cell donation so that I might live.

There seem to be three responses we can give to such desperate situations.  Martyrdom, mercy or murder — that another may live, that we may both live, or that I alone may live.

Under severe duress you will do what you are trained to do. Verbally, you will either cuss or pray. I guarantee there will be no gray areas. Rescue-swimmer school hypes you so that, when you are in real danger, you will not fold. What you are capable of will depend on the moral fiber instilled by your training and your willingness to receive it.

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, has 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 was trained to jump in the water when my pilot orders, “Jump.” The victims of spiritual storms deserve the gift of my trained spirit, soul, mind and body.

So that another — or many others — may live. Eternally.

Father Joseph Peek writes from Norcross, Georgia

(joempeek@yahoo.com).