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Brett Campbell
Photo by A1C Holden Faul.

First Buddhist Chaplain in the U.S. Air Force: Brett Campbell

by Billy Thieme

Brett Campbell

It may seem odd—even paradoxical— to imagine a Buddhist chaplain, dedicated to relieving suffering and promoting peace, in the U. S. military. “I’m actually the first Buddhist chaplain in the entire Air Force,” explains Naropa graduate Brett Campbell. Admittedly, it’s also a difficult position to navigate, but Campbell is thriving, and so are his fellow Airmen, with his peaceful advice and leadership.

However, it wasn’t an easy trip to get there, by any means. “The application process is usually like six to eight months, and I had to do that three different times,” he says. “It took a lot of patience. It started when I got into Naropa in the Master of Divinity (MDiv) program, which was when I joined the Navy’s Chaplain candidate program. I actually wanted to join the Air Force as a Buddhist chaplain initially, but they said they didn’t need any when I called.”

After going through their chaplain candidate program, and after finishing a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) residency at Swedish Hospital in Denver, he was told to officially apply for either the Navy reserves or active duty. He applied to the Navy reserves, and—in a surprise move—the Navy turned him down. “I came to a place where I found myself always asking ‘Do I really, really want to be in the military? Is where I’m headed the right path?’ After nearly a year of thinking on it,” he explains, “I decided to give the Air Force one more try—and they accepted me. I was officially commissioned into the Air Force last September.”

The question of that huge contradiction between Buddhism and the nature of the military often comes up 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 explains. “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.” This fact points to one place the contradiction might break down a little: the truth is that the military isn’t only about combat. The military, of course, also supports local communities in many other capacities too, from emergency relief and rescue to reconstruction.

Campbell, as a Buddhist, is in the military because he’s specifically committed to help relieve suffering, as all Buddhists are. “I support the Air Force mission by helping Airmen stay spiritually resilient. If that means that I am bringing negative karma my way, so be it,” he says. “I will gladly accept that karmic debt for the opportunity to help these Airmen stay spiritually and psychologically healthy.” 

“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,” he explains. “So that, when they leave the military, they can function positively in society and also be happy and healthy on a personal level.”

Brett Campbell giving a talk on Mindfulness during Buckley chapel’s monthly luncheon.Brett Campbell giving a talk on Mindfulness during Buckley chapel’s monthly luncheon. Photo by Amn Jake Deatherage.

“Obviously, as a Buddhist practitioner, I need to choose my profession wisely,” says Campbell, “but I won’t deny support to anybody, even if that person’s actions are causing suffering.” Much of Campbell’s time is focused on counseling— one-on-one counseling, couples’ counseling, and more—but he always finds that he can apply Buddhist concepts to his patients’ needs. As one might expect, it’s difficult to accurately figure out how to use those ideas consistently, in a language that fits the military environment, but that’s a challenge he plans to be tackling constantly, as he continues to do this work. 

In his first eight weeks on assignment at Aurora’s Buckley Air Force Base, Campbell has instituted Monday, Wednesday, and Friday drop-in sessions—completely voluntary and open to all service members. He’s also started a weekly Buddhist meeting that centers on meditation, a dharma talk, and discussion about Buddhist concepts.

“The drop-in sessions are a kind of ‘mindfulness for stress-reduction’ course,” he says. “It’s an hour they can take at lunch. It was kind of my first attempt to get a feel for what people in this environment understand about mindfulness.” So far, the classes have been pretty well-attended, though he admits it’s been difficult to find people who are willing to give up their lunch to meditate, or to relax. “Ultimately, my goal is to develop a four- or five-week program that I can actually take to all the units and teach them where they’re at, instead of making them come to me.”

Recently, he invited one of his friends—also a Naropa graduate, and a Tibetan Buddhist monk— to come to Buckley and teach. He flew over from Tibet and taught at one of the Buddhist group meetings. “That was really cool. We definitely had a bigger crowd for that class,” he says. “What I’d really like to do with that group is invite teachers from different Buddhist traditions to come and introduce their specific style of Buddhism. That way, maybe people can get a feel of all the different types of Buddhism, and find something they might relate to a little more easily.”

Campbell is a stellar example of the power of a Naropa education. “My Naropa experience really taught me to be aware of my inner workings, how I relate to the world, and the idea of each person’s basic goodness,” he explains. “The more I put those ideas into practice in my everyday life, and the deeper my understanding of them becomes, the more I realize that I have to approach this world from a place of true compassion, with a deep belief in that basic goodness.”

“We see how polarized things are, and I think Naropa really taught me that, while I can have specific ideas about how I think the world should work,” he continues, “I can’t ignore or demonize one or another group just because we disagree. I believe this idea is really important, and I think that Naropa is at the forefront of spreading it—as it should be.” Naropa mini seal for end of article

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