JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - Chaplain (Capt.) Niphon Sukuan is the fourth Buddhist chaplain to be sworn into the Army and the second to serve on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. As a battalion chaplain in 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Sukuan provides spiritual support, guides those coping with combat-related stress and teaches Soldiers skills for everyday well-being.
In February of this year he visited Thailand during Exercise Cobra Gold to support Soldiers of 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, and promote Thai cultural awareness through events such as Makha Pucha Day and Dhamma Day. He also met with chaplains of the Royal Thai Army, Airforce, Navy and police.
Sukuan has been helping and guiding people as a religious figure almost his entire adult life. He began his journey as a spiritual guide when he was still a child in Thailand.
Sukuan was raised in Sisaket Province, Thailand, near the Cambodian border. He was raised by his sister when he was 11 years old after his parents had passed away. After some self-analysis and contemplation, he decided to join the monastery at 16 years of age and become a Buddhist monk.
Life in the monastery entailed much studying and learning of Buddhist disciplines, including mastering the art of meditation. The monastery gave him the structure he needed in his life with the many rules and practices the students had to abide by.
"This has helped me in my current profession as a U.S. Army chaplain," Sukuan said. "My understanding of the how to calm the mind has helped Soldiers during times of stress and help them with issues such as PTSD."
A lot of the meditation techniques used in Buddhism are known in the west, such as breathing exercises, yoga and the use of physical exercise, he said. Even stretching, walking and sitting can be a spiritual expression.
After getting his high school education, he attended a Buddhist university where he earned his bachelor's degree in philosophy and religion.
"I found the study of religion and philosophy to be helpful in my path through life," said Sukuan. "The experience has allowed me to find ways to help those seeking assistance with their life problems."
He moved to the United States in 2005 through the help of a Thai Buddhist temple in New York, he said. There he taught meditation, Buddhist disciplines and even taught Thai-American children about Thai language and culture.
He moved to Washington state in 2010 where he met a Thai Buddhist U.S. Army chaplain who inspired him to try to join the Army. It was the challenge he felt he needed.
"Many people, including my family, did not think I could join the Army," Sukuan said. "But I thought I could use my skills and my knowledge as a Buddhist to help people within the military. Many Soldiers come to chaplains with stressors from work, family or other personal issues. A lot of what a chaplain does is related to helping with that."
On Dec. 1, 2011, Sukuan qualified and became chaplain candidate. In June 2016, he achieved his dream of becoming a chaplain. In November of 2017 he became the battalion chaplain for 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment - his first active duty assignment.
"I feel lucky serving as the battalion chaplain," said Sukuan. "I am helping people with their life problems and issues and that is something I have always wanted to do."