Life is Not a Drill By Norris Burkes March 5 2023

With all the news about politicians who’ve mishandled classified material, I feel left out. I retired as a lieutenant colonel but was never given the opportunity to mishandle secrets

Well, I change that today.

 In the Spring of 2009, I participated in a classified mission. That’s when, as most of you know, I was the Senior Chaplain responsible for the spiritual care of the wounded at the Air Force Field Hospital in Balad, Iraq.

Early in my tour, Chief Master Sergeant Robinson enlisted me for a classified team called Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE).

At first, I thought I heard the Chief say “SEAL team,” the elite Navy special forces. That was shocking considering I wasn’t as buff as I am now.

“No,” explained the Chief, “I doubt you meet the standard of swimming 1,000 meters, doing 70 push-ups, 60 curl-ups, or even running four miles.

“This is the Air Force SERE team, a group of experts who help repatriated POWs recover mentally, physically and spiritually.

“You will be the spiritual part.”

I respectfully told the Chief, “On one condition.”

“What’s that?” he asked. Chiefs usually speak their “requests” as the “unconditional kind.”

“On the condition I don’t have to go to SERE Training,” referring to the rigorous school where students learn to evade capture, resist interrogation and even withstand torture.

“No, Chaplain,” he said, chuckling at my conceit. “You won’t be required to go to school. The USAF rarely send chaplains through that course.”

He might as well have added, “Especially not you.” Still, I accepted the honor.

A few weeks later, Robinson rang my office.

“We have a Blackhawk helicopter inbound with a recovered POW, only known as Captain John Smith. Meet us in the hospital basement at 1500 hours for the debrief.”

I arrived at a debriefing already in progress. Team members were asking Smith about his treatment in captivity. Specifically they wanted to know if he’d kept Article 4 of the Code of Conduct to “…make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.”

Smith was surprisingly forthcoming to our team. He presented happy and healthy. He reported being well fed by the enemy. “No torture,” he said, making his detention sound like an inconvenience.

As the debriefing was closing, I was given my turn as team chaplain.

I introduced myself as I have to hundreds of military patients. “Hi, I’m Chaplain Burkes. Do you find strength from any particular religion, spirituality or church?”

“Yes,” he said with firm confidence.

“I’m a Jedi Knight of the Fifth Order.”

His evasive response sucked the military bearing out of the room and Chief Robinson shook his finger, lacing it with laughter.

Feeling somewhat ridiculed, my face flushed. It was as if our mission was suddenly classified as “FUNNY.”

Noticing some displeasure, Smith quickly apologized. “I’m sorry, Chaplain. That’s not in my script.”

Yes, he said “script.”

That’s because this was a tabletop exercise, a rehearsal to simulate the emergency circumstances.

Gladly, this wasn’t real life. It was a drill. And my job was to practice evaluating the spiritual strengths this captured airman used to survive.

In one clinical study, those spiritual strengths were recognized as an “appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope and humor.” My part was to identify and affirm Smith’s fundamental spiritual strengths.

But, as seen on many a tee T-shirt, “Life is not a drill.”

Every day, including that one, is the real thing. No takebacks or do-overs. So, in order to meet life’s challenges, we must always practice our spiritual qualities.

My list includes, “Be kind. Treat others with the same respect we require from others. Find the beauty. Laugh a lot. Be present for the miracles. Love. Make a gratitude list. And always hope.”

At the conclusion of our exercise, our team walked Smith to dinner.

Recovered from my embarrassment, I listened to Smith tell me about his family, his goals and his life. I heard everything the study trained me to hear – “an appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope and humor.”

And as far as the humor part went, my Jedi brother certainly had that nailed down.


Read more about Chaplain Norris’s deployment in his book “Hero’s Highway,” available at Contact him at or 10556 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail (843) 608-9715.