The doctor at the army base near Taejon, Korea, looked up at me and smiled. I had been congratulating him and his colleagues on their brilliant management of a carbon monoxide poisoning incident. As Chief of Professional Services for the Surgeon of the U.S. Army and for the United Nations Forces, I had been so impressed by this young doctor’s actions that I came down personally to review the case with him.
In his tent we chatted about the incidence of such poisoning among soldiers. Korean homes are heated with a soft coal, called yantan, which is pressed into large bricks and burned in a stove beneath one corner of the house. Smoke and fumes are ducted through the clay and tile floor to a chimney on the opposite side of the structure, warming the building and its occupants. If a leak develops, carbon monoxide is released into the house.
Often U.S. soldiers would leave their base of assignment, go into a nearby village, get drunk, and fall asleep near a yantan stove. Occasionally they suffered carbon monoxide poisoning and were returned to the base unconscious. In the course of treatment, it was customary to check the alcohol level in their blood.
I asked the doctor what this soldier’s blood-alcohol level had been, and his answer was both startling and satisfying.
“Oh, I didn’t get a blood-alcohol reading on Private Christian,” he said. “He’s a Mormon.”
I pretended not to understand why that would make a difference.
“What’s that got to do with it?” I asked. “This soldier went into town and was found unconscious. How do you know his unconsciousness wasn’t caused by alcoholic intoxication?”
The doctor replied, “Because this is Christian. He never does anything that is not proper and exemplary.”
The doctor explained that nearly everyone on the base knew that Private Christian was a returned missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He had served his mission in Korea, spoke the language, and during his off-duty hours he often went to the village to visit with the people. He had taught some of them about his church, and they had joined. They lived in a small hamlet next to the base but had gone with Christian to religious services in Taejon.
The private had returned home with them Sunday evening and was invited to spend the night. Because he was the honored guest, he was given the place closest to the smoldering yantan. But it was a cold night, and all the openings in the building had been closed. A crack in the floor had not been noticed. As the American soldier slept, he had been overcome by the gases.
With utmost pride I informed my medical colleague that I, too, was Mormon. I marveled that he could have known this young private so well. He replied that he didn’t know many soldiers closely but that Christian’s life was so distinct that it set him apart from all the other men on the base. I have never had the opportunity to meet Brother Christian and can only speculate about the total amount of good he did in an environment that normally draws out the base instincts of men. But I will never forget the impression he made on the doctor who treated him and the example he set for me. He had made proper decisions about many things in life years before being plunged into the challenges of military life, and he had not allowed his environment to deter his power to be good. The other soldiers knew him for what he was—uncompromising. I am sure that many of them carry his example in their memories, even as I do, and I’m grateful to him for letting his light shine.