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IMA brings religious diversity to Air Force chaplain team

1st Lt. Brett Campbell, Buddhist chaplain at the 460th Space Wing, Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado.

First Lt. Brett Campbell, Buddhist chaplain at the 460th Space Wing, Buckley Air Force Base, Colo., delivers remarks during a community gathering at the chapel. Campbell is an Individual Mobilization Augmentee and the first Buddhist chaplain in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jacob Deatherage)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. (AFNS) -- Reserve 1st Lt. Brett Campbell became one of the Air Force’s newest chaplains when he graduated chaplain school in September 2017.

Campbell, an Individual Mobilization Augmentee at the 460th Space Wing chapel at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, is the first, and only, Buddhist chaplain in the Air Force.

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

The Iowa native, who was raised Catholic, discovered meditation and was introduced to Buddhism while at Iowa State University. He was attracted to the religion because it was more of a life philosophy and he was frustrated with the mainstream church culture and system that he said was so susceptible to corruption. After graduation, Campbell joined the Peace Corps and served in Mongolia where 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 our minds to do things that enable us to live more peaceful, relaxed lives.

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

After returning to the U.S., he began graduate school at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, and continued to pursue his new faith. He earned his masters of divinity 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 Veterans 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 chaplain candidate program.

According to Lt. Col. Amy Hunt, the Air Force Reserve chaplain recruiter, the Air Force 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. Upon entering the program, the candidate commissions a chaplain candidate, second lieutenant and upon graduation and ecclesiastical endorsement, the chaplain candidates may be eligible for reappointment as an Air Force chaplain.

After completing his requirements and graduating from Commissioned Officer Training in April 2017, Campbell began his ministry to the Airmen at Buckley AFB, serving on active-duty orders through the summer, prior to attending his formal chaplain training. 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 would offer his own, unique style of invocations when called upon to 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 their part to strengthen those bonds.

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Robert Ward, 460th Space Wing chaplain, said Campbell 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,” said Ward. “People gravitate towards him and he has a very unique way of being present and available (to others)."

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

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 AFB, Ward said the reservist also brings manpower flexibility. Campbell came at a time when the office was short two chaplains, said Ward. The ability to bring Campbell on active duty orders allowed the chapel staff to better support Buckley AFB Airmen during that shortfall.

As an IMA, Campbell has a minimum commitment of 24 days each year, which Campbell is working to complete this fall. With the 460th Space Wing chaplain staff back at full staff, Campbell, like all reservists, will return to his civilian life for a while after that commitment is finished. However, while he’s not required to, the new chaplain has committed to returning to Buckley AFB on a weekly basis to mind his small but growing Buddhist flock.

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,” Ward said. “People in the military get it; he has a place at the table, he has a skillset, he can do his job."

IMAs are Air Force Reservists assigned to augment active component and government organizations, including Air Force units, major commands and combatant commands. They are part of the Individual Reserve, which is managed by the Headquarters Individual Reservist Readiness and Integration Organization, located at Buckley AFB. The IR also includes reservists in the Participating Individual Ready Reserve, who typically augment the Civil Air Patrol and the U.S Air Force Academy, participating for points towards retirement only.

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