First Buddhist chaplain performs first Army Wesak
Story and photos by Sgt. Michael Carden
13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary)
CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE TAJI, Iraq — As a full moon rose into the Iraq night’s sky, more than 200 Buddhist worshipers bowed their heads in meditation May 27 at Contingency Operation Base Taji, Iraq, to celebrate Wesak, the holiest day of the Buddhist calendar.
The celebration was a milestone, being the first Wesak celebration hosted by the U.S. Army, and with the Army’s first Buddhist chaplain, 1st Lt. Thomas Dyer, a chaplain with Regimental Support Squadron, 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) and a Memphis, Tenn. Native.
“This is a time that is very special to the Buddhist community,” Dyer said. “Traditionally, Buddhists cannot practice unless a teacher is present. They can offer prayers, and celebrate meals but actually having a full Buddhist service; a chaplain or teacher has to be present.”
The Army has never had the capability to provide a full Wesak service due to the absence of Buddhist chaplains. Dyer’s presence allowed deployed Buddhists to celebrate an authentic and official service, he said.
“It is very important for Buddhist Soldiers to be able to experience this,” Dyer said. “It is more than just a first amendment right. It is kind of a quality of life issue. It’s a resiliency issue. For Buddhist Soldiers to come and experience (this) for the first time in Army history, with the hope that this will be a continuing thing; it’s really exciting.”
Soldiers from across the Iraq joint operations area were invited to the Wesak celebration.
Spc. Heidi Sanders, a supply specialist with the 585th Military Police Company, 151st MP Battalion, 49th MP Brigade and a Kent, Ohio, native, traveled from Camp Ramadi to be a part of the ceremony.
“It was put out as an invitation to all Buddhists in Iraq,” Sanders said. “I don’t take it for granted. I really appreciate it. Chaplain Dyer is very gracious; very humble. He is just what I need as a teacher.”
Dyer frequently travels throughout Iraq to provide religious support for Buddhist Soldiers.
“The Chaplain Corps cares about every one of their Soldiers,” Dyer said. “(Other chaplains) want to have access to a Buddhist chaplain, so they can provide that service for their Soldiers.”
Officials in the Chaplain Corps believe there are more Buddhists in the military than most people realize, he said.
Dyer is currently working with the Department of the Army to develop a plan to better provide services and support for Buddhist Soldiers throughout the Iraq joint operations area, he said.
According to Department of Defense policy, while Soldiers’ welfare is the main focus of the Chaplain Corps, chaplains are also concerned with, and instructed to provide for, the welfare of contractors.
Hundreds of civilian contractors live at COB Taji, many of them from Nepal and Sri Lanka, which have large Buddhist populations.
After the meditation ceremony, the civilians hosted a traditional Buddhist dinner, a simple vegetarian meal.
First Lt. Thomas Dyer, a chaplain with Regimental Support Squadron, 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) and a Memphis, Tenn. native, meditates during a celebration of Wesak, a Buddhist holdiday, May 27 at Contingency Operating Base Taji, Iraq. Dyer is the first Buddhist chaplain in the U.S. Army. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael Carden)