First Buddhist Chaplain in the US Air Force Reflects on His Service
Buddhistdoor Global | 2017-12-28 |
Brett Campbell, the US Air Force’s first Buddhist chaplain. Photo by A1C Holden Faul
SEATTLE—After graduating with a Master of Divinity from Naropa University in Colorado in 2013, Brett Campbell now serves as the US Air Force’s first Buddhist chaplain, holding the rank of Reserve Citizen Airman 1st Lieutenant. Campbell broke through this barrier earlier in 2017, the same year that the US Air Force is celebrating its 70th anniversary with the theme Breaking Barriers.
Campbell, who grew up in Iowa and was raised Catholic before learning about meditation and Buddhism at Iowa State University, said he was attracted to Buddhism because it was more of a life philosophy and did not appear to carry the trappings and potential corruption that he saw in Catholicism. After graduating, Campbell served in Mongolia with the Peace Corps, where he was exposed to Tibetan Buddhism.
Returning to the US, Campbell went back to school, enrolling in Naropa University’s graduate degree program in divinity while continuing to practice his new faith. He was also ordained as an upasaka—a lay Buddhist who has undertaken certain vows—by the renowned Buddhist teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.
1st Lt. Brett Campbell, Buddhist chaplain at the 460th Space Wing, Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado. Photo by A1C Jacob Deatherag
Buddhism is about learning how one’s mind influences the way we relate to the world, Campbell observed, and about engaging in practices that enable one to live a more peaceful and relaxed life. “There is a spiritual aspect,” he noted. “But I describe it in those terms because it’s easier for people to understand.” (Air Force News)
Campbell began his service while still a student at Naropa, teaching loving-kindness meditation to patients in the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) ward at the nearby Denver Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital. After completing officer training in April, he began his ministry at Buckley Airforce Base in Aurora, a suburb of Denver.
He wasted no time getting to work there, quickly instituting Monday, Wednesday, and Friday drop-in sessions open to all service members. He has also started weekly Buddhist services with meditation sessions, Dharma talks, and discussions. Campbell says that the idea of a contradiction between Buddhist ideals and military service often arises in conversation:
“It’s a great question—and one I’ve had to struggle with in the past. First, I have to point out that, as a chaplain in the military, I’m a non-combatant,” he explained. “I can’t carry a weapon—at all, ever. In fact, if I’m seen carrying a weapon, I could be kicked out of the service. It’s part of the Geneva Convention.” (Naropa Magazine)
Campbell asserts that his fundamental commitment is to relieve suffering, and this is fulfilled by helping airmen and airwomen build resilience. “If that means that I am bringing negative karma my way, so be it. I will gladly accept that karmic debt for the opportunity to help these Airmen stay spiritually and psychologically healthy,” he said. (Naropa Magazine)
“My intention is to keep these airmen healthy so that the Air Force as a system functions on a healthier level, which in turn might relieve suffering all around,” Campbell explained. “So that when they leave the military, they can function positively in society and also be happy and healthy on a personal level.” (Naropa Magazine)
Brett Campbell giving a talk on mindfulness during Buckley Chapel’s monthly luncheon. Photo by A1C Jake Deatherage
Beyond directly helping those he serves, Campbell stated that he also hopes to help reduce the polarization we see in the world today. Instead of pointing out faults in others, he sees Buddhism and mindfulness as ways to turn and look within:
“My time working as a chaplain has shown me that we must face our suffering in order to heal from it,” he stated in an essay for Shambhala Publications. “If we spend our time running away from our pain by binging on television, excessive drinking, or any of the other ways we keep ourselves from feeling, we will never heal.” (Shambhala Publications)
First Buddhist Chaplain in the U.S. Air Force: Brett Campbell (Naropa Magazine)
IMA brings religious diversity to AF chaplain team (Air Force News)
First US Air Force Buddhist Chaplain Answers “Why?” (Shambhala Publications)
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