Spiritual warfare: Buddhist chaplain helps heal minds

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Photo by Margaret Taylor
Photo by Margaret Taylor

Spiritual warfare: Buddhist chaplain helps heal minds

by: Samantha Bryson | .
The Commercial Appeal | .
published: May 22, 2013

A Baptist-minister-turned-Buddhist chaplain from Memphis will open the first meditation center in the history of the U.S. Army in June.

The Bagram Dharma Center in Afghanistan will be classified as a “faith-based resiliency center,” and it gives Capt. Thomas Dyer, a self-admitted paradox, a better way to connect his Eastern beliefs, Southern roots and Middle Eastern deployment.

“Buddhism says that the quality of your life is dependent on the quality of your mind and thoughts. Soldiers are thirsty for that in Afghanistan,” said Dyer, who can’t shake his soft Southern drawl, not even as his mouth closes around that most sacred of ancient syllables, the “om.”

The center will open at Bagram Airfield, where Dyer has been leading meditation classes and providing spiritual support for Army Buddhists since being deployed there in January. Dyer’s center will be just one small part of the Army’s push to train more resilient soldiers to better withstand the strain of multiple deployments in long foreign wars.

It is not a Buddhist temple, but rather a building dedicated to Eastern health and spiritual practices for the benefit of Buddhist and non-Buddhist soldiers alike -- although it will have a Buddhist altar and statues inside.

“He is really plowing new ground here, and we’ll want to learn from it,” said Lt. Col. Steven Austin, the chaplain assigned to the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program. “What Chaplain Dyer is doing with his meditation work, it’s just a very creative approach he’s taken to set up a space where soldiers can practice this.”

Plowing new ground is nothing new for a man who left his Baptist ministry in 2003 after a meditative spiritual experience convinced him he’d finally found a home in Buddhism.

When Dyer ascended to his role in 2008, he was only the second Buddhist chaplain in U.S. military history and the first who wasn’t Asian.

“I had to stand up for Buddhism as a viable entity in the Army,” Dyer said. “I had to prove I wasn’t a phone booth in the middle of the desert -- I wasn’t an anomaly; I was an asset.”

Dyer expected a half-dozen people to show up the first time he hosted chapel in Afghanistan. His superiors weren’t so sure he’d draw that many.

“They’d say, ‘Well, he’s serious, so let him try,’” Dyer recalled. “Then they said, ‘My God, there’s a hundred people in there.’”

That’s not to say Dyer is converting legions to Buddhism. The majority of his work is teaching meditation, mindful awareness, and yoga to soldiers looking for an outlet for combat stress.

“It works. It helps,” Dyer said. “Not only is it relieving suffering -- it’s restoring performance.”

He used meditative principles to help a man pass a running test he’d already failed five times.

For some soldiers, the stakes are much higher.

“I wish (Dyer) could have come in earlier; there might have been some hope for me,” said James Threadgill, a former medic whose severe PTSD led to his medical discharge from the Army in 2008.

There was no mention of meditation or Buddhism during Threadgill’s deployment, when he says it may have helped him deal with the near-constant IED attacks and the trauma of watching men bleed to death in his arms.

Threadgill returned home to Memphis “full throttle,” and nearly succeeded in killing himself multiple times. Formerly a Christian, Threadgill now credits Buddhism for his will to live.

“The flashbacks, those are horrible. You’re just there. You can smell it and taste it and touch it,” Threadgill said, adding that meditation is the only thing that helps stave off the flashbacks and panic attacks.

Threadgill, an acquaintance of Dyer’s, now studies at the same temple and under the same monk who mentored the chaplain during his conversion to Buddhism.

“At first, my mind is out in outer space,” Threadgill said. “I bring it back to the Earth. Then to the United States, then back to Tennessee and then back to Memphis and then back to my room. And here I am again.”

According to Austin, Dyer’s work is a great example of how the Army is trying to equip soldiers with the skills they need to deal with extreme combat stress in a preventive way.

That is, before it escalates into full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder like it did for Threadgill.

The Army’s nonreligious solution to producing resilient and holistically fit soldiers -- despite the toll of multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan -- is a program called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness.

Launched in 2008, CSF is a departure from the Army’s long-standing, if generally unspoken, adage to keep soldiering on, no matter the circumstances. It reflects a pointed shift in military thought -- propagated by a rash of Iraq and Afghanistan veteran suicides as well as a PTSD epidemic -- that takes preventive measures to ensure a soldier’s mental, emotional, spiritual and physical well-being.

This evolution in Army culture has created an environment for Dyer’s work to thrive, and Austin stressed that while the Army can’t advocate one religion over another, it will be watching his meditation center closely to see how it fares.

“We have a long way to go,” Austin said, “but now we understand how a soldier’s mind has to readjust to go into combat and also to come back out.”

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