Tibetan Buddhist: IMA Brings Religious Diversity to Air Force Chaplain Team

Buddhist chaplain

1st Lt. Brett Campbell, Buddhist chaplain at the 460th Space Wing, Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, delivers remarks during a community gathering at the chapel. Campbell is an individual mobilization augmentee and the first Buddhist chaplain in the Air Force. (Airman First Class Jacob Deatherage)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

When Reserve Citizen Airman 1st Lt. Brett Campbell graduated from chaplain school in late September, he took on a record-setting role within the entire Air Force.

Campbell, who is assigned as an individual mobilization augmentee at the 460th Space Wing chapel at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, became the service’s first, and only, Buddhist chaplain.

He said his life’s goal is to help other people, and that led him to military service.

The Iowa native who was raised as a Catholic, discovered meditation and was introduced to Buddhism while attending Iowa State University. He was attracted to the religion because it was more of a life philosophy. After graduation, Campbell joined the Peace Corps and served in Mongolia where he said he began identifying as a Tibetan Buddhist. 

Buddhism, Campbell explained, is “about learning how our minds control how we relate to the world we live in and then training them to do things that enable us to live more peaceful, relaxed lives.”

“There is a spiritual aspect,” he said, “but I describe it in those terms because it’s easier for people to understand."

After returning to the United States, he began graduate school at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, and continued to pursue his new faith. He earned a master of divinity degree in 2013 and was also ordained as a Buddhist upasaka, translated devoted layman, by renowned Buddhist teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.

Campbell wanted to serve as a chaplain, especially in the military. He began pursuing both the Navy and Air Force chaplain programs and filled the intervening years by serving in religious and teaching roles at several different hospitals, including the Denver Veteran Affairs hospital, where he taught meditation and loving-kindness classes on the post-traumatic stress disorder ward with fellow Buddhist Steve Burden.

“I was really impressed with Brett,” said Burden. “He has empathy, compassion and an ability to reach out to the younger guys."

During this time, Campbell applied and was accepted into the Air Force Reserve’s chaplain candidate program.

According to Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Amy Hunt, the Air Force Reserve’s chaplain recruiter, the chaplain candidate program is an opportunity for seminary and other professional religious school students to evaluate their compatibility and potential for commissioning as Air Force chaplains. The focus is on experiencing ministry in the Air Force during summer training internships. Chaplain candidates draw on their background, education and experience to function as part of a chapel team. More information on the chaplain candidate program is available at https://afreserve.com/Chaplain.

After completing his requirements and graduating from commissioned officer training in April 2017, Campbell began his ministry to the Airmen at Buckley, serving on active-duty orders. In addition to leading a small Buddhist gathering each Thursday, Campbell counseled Airmen who came into the chapel, taught secular meditation and mindfulness classes, and offered his own unique style of invocations when called upon to participate in support functions.

With no model for a Buddhist invocation, Campbell said he had to work through what these public “prayers” would look like. They have evolved over the past six months but he said he uses them to provide Airmen with a moment of self-reflection. In one recent invocation, he encouraged Airmen to reflect on the benefits of their work relationships and how each individual could do his or her part to strengthen those bonds.

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Robert Ward, the 460th Space Wing chaplain and Campbell’s boss, said the Reservist came to the unit already possessing a strong, well-rounded skill set and carries a calmness with him that settles on those around him.

 “Chaplain Campbell has a knack,” Ward said. “People gravitate toward him, and he has a very unique way of being present and available (to others)."

Ward said the Air Force Reserve chaplain is a valuable asset in the mission to support the base’s 19,000 employees. Chaplains aren’t just focused on their religion; a large part of their role is to be present as a resource to help when people need guidance, advice or counseling, he said.

Campbell said counseling is a topic he enjoyed learning more about during his chaplain training at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. It was something he’d touched on in school and elsewhere, but the training he received through the Air Force was much more in-depth and was something that, just from his first summer on duty, he knew he’d use frequently in the military.

While the Buddhist chaplain brings diversity to the chaplaincy at Buckley, Ward said he also brings manpower flexibility. The Reserve Citizen Airman came to the unit at a time when the office was short two chaplains, Ward said. The ability to bring Campbell on active-duty orders allowed the chapel staff to better support Buckley Airmen during that shortfall.

Ward said he was concerned there might be pushback to hiring a chaplain who wasn’t from a major faith group but that those fears were unnecessary.

“Since he’s been here, that hasn’t happened one bit,” said Buckley’s head chaplain. “People in the military get it; he has a place at the table, he has a skill set, he can do his job."

(Huffman is assigned to the Headquarters Individual Reservist Readiness and Integration Organization at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado.)