Last month, I attended Annual Training as part of my Army Reserve duties. For Reserve soldiers, we report to our units two days a month (usually Saturday and Sunday) and two weeks a year (usually during summer). This year, I spent everyday during those two weeks counseling soldiers.
Per day, I sat down with three to five soldiers and it would take me about six to seven hours talking to them on a daily basis. (Thanks to this experience, I now know that I probably never will open my own counseling center as it was physically and emotionally draining beyond what I imagined.)
Many, if not all, soldiers have one’s own life story to tell. I had a soldier who talked about his childhood years, remembering the pain he felt when his father shoved his face into a wall because he couldn’t finish his homework; a soldier told me about his daily suicidal ideations and how the only thing that stops him from killing himself is his family; a soldier confessed to me about her father being kidnapped by human traffickers, barely surviving the kidnapping after paying thousands of dollars of ransom money; another soldier shared his life story of losing his job and doing Uber to support his family and to make ends meet. These are just some of the life stories that soldiers shared with me. Several of them broke down in tears as they told me that they have “never shared this story with anyone until now.” I was the first person they have opened up to about their previous or current struggles and pain. I felt sad and even helpless at times, but at the same time felt honored to offer a listening ear, and to be with them in their most vulnerable time. I was glad to be able to explore their emotions and stories, and even bring closure to certain life issues.*
I’m sure many pastors have counseling sessions with their parishioners. So what makes such pastoral counseling sessions different from what I do with soldiers? I as an Army chaplain have privileged communication status like no other. Let me explain a little more. Usually, people such as lawyers, social workers, and mental health professions have privileged communication status. What is spoken between the lawyer and the client, or the social worker and the counselee would be considered confidential. Yet, during the conversation, if the client or counselee states something that is dangerous to oneself and others (such as expressing thoughts of suicide or homicide), such people need to break confidentiality and report to the appropriate authorities.
For Army chaplains, our confidentiality is “absolute.” We have absolute confidentiality, meaning that any statements that were made in the counseling cannot and will not be made known to anyone, even if the counselee says something that is dangerous. I cannot reveal it to my commander, any officer, or sergeant—no one. The only way the chaplain can break confidentiality is if the soldier gives me permission.
When I was in chaplain training at Fort Jackson, SC several years ago, I remember one of the chaplain instructors telling us that even if we get a court order to reveal the contents of the conversation, the chaplain can actually push back and seek guidance from the Chief of Chaplains office from Washington D.C. (The instructor also noted that our Chief, who is a two star general, will probably tell us to keep the confidentiality and not to reveal the conversation, even if such a court order was issued.) Such is how “absolute” the confidentiality status of a U.S. Army chaplain is in counseling.
With soldiers being informed that whatever they say cannot and will not be made known to anyone, seems to bring down their guard and allow them to share some of the most intimate details of their lives. And as these soldiers were talking with me, I felt very privileged to be part of their lives in such way—allowing them to speak freely, and hearing them openly without any judgment, concern, or fear. I am very privileged to have my very privileged (communication) status.
*Stories of soldiers have been altered/changed for confidentiality issues for this article.
Rev. Joseph Choi is ordained by the ECA (Evangelical Church Alliance). He is also a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain, and a healthcare chaplain Board Certified by APC (Association of Professional Chaplains).