FORT BENNING, Ga. -- Capt. Thomas Dyer took something of a unique passageway into the Buddhist faith. But he doesn't want to be stereotyped in his role as an Army chaplain.
Assigned to the 11th Engineer Battalion since August, Dyer said the unit ministry is his top focus, even as he works to provide spiritual guidance and counseling to a growing number of Buddhists in the ranks. It's unknown exactly how many Soldiers and Families practice the religion at Fort Benning, but he leads a weekly service for about 200 people -- mostly trainees -- every Sunday at the Regimental Chapel on Sand Hill.
"We don't really know yet, and it's difficult to get the data," he said of the post statistics. "Soldiers practicing Buddhism have to identify themselves. Many times, they don't. A lot of times, they're not really aware they have a chaplain representing them. One thing we have to do is get them aware.
"(But) the first thing I want to accomplish is making sure the battalion ministry is very solid. My first responsibility is to the battalion. … I wanted to avoid becoming known as 'the Buddhist chaplain.' I didn't want the 11th Engineers to lose their chaplain, even to a great cause of serving the Buddhist community."
Dyer became the Army's first Buddhist chaplain in 2008 when he was accessioned through the Tennessee National Guard. Last year, a second-generation Thai joined him in the chaplain corps.
In the early 1990s, the Army endorsed both the Islamic and Buddhist faiths, creating positions for chaplains, he said. The branch got its first Muslim chaplain in 1996, but the Buddhist slot went unfilled for another dozen years.
From Baptist pastor to Buddhist
Dyer's military career began in the Marine Corps Reserve, where he served from 1984 to 1990. He got out to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in college. Dyer later spent four years as a Southern Baptist pastor before beginning his new spiritual journey, around the same time he entered the National Guard.
"I came to Buddhism in 2003," he said. "At the time, I was looking for a little more depth than what I was experiencing, so I looked to the Christian Mystics for help."
Dyer said he began practicing a form of Christian meditation a year earlier and felt very comfortable with it, for reasons that escaped him -- until an experience one day expanded his mind.
"I really didn't understand what happened, but I knew it had forever changed me," he recalled. "I realized I had to leave the church. This experience, it was almost like an egg cracking, and an eagle came out of the egg. You realized there was some greater potential that you didn't know before."
The chaplain further explored what happened to him and soon discovered Zen Buddhism, he said. It allowed him to reflect back what had transpired in his own mind.
"Buddhism has traditionally been a pacifist religion," he said. "Over the years, as it's grown and gone into different segments of society, people learned it was not practical. There has to be some interaction as Buddhists begin to participate in larger roles of society."
Finding 'relevance' in Iraq
Dyer has deployed once. In 2010, he went to Iraq with the Tennessee National Guard. It was downrange he learned about the nuances and nature of his position and duties, he said.
"The challenge, of course, was that you're so new," he said. "You're sort of treated as an anomaly, something strange and out of place. It's kind of like a phone booth in the middle of the desert. It doesn't make sense initially."
At first, mild resistance came from those accustomed to the traditional faiths of Christianity and Judaism, he said. There simply wasn't much familiarity with the Buddhist religion.
Dyer said many troops didn't recognize the patch on his camouflage uniform, or even realize he was a chaplain.
"What we discovered in Iraq was that Buddhists are a hidden people group," he said. "Many didn't realize how many were in the Army. For me, it became grounds to demonstrate not just your right to be a chaplain, but your relevance as a chaplain. Once the Buddhists were coming out of the woodwork, it became a little more clear that I was more of an asset than an anomaly."
Numerous Christian chaplains began contacting Dyer about performing services for Buddhists in their units. So he spent a large amount of time hopping around to different forward operating bases in the country.
"It was very wonderful to experience that aspect of it," he said. "When I was invited to a FOB to hold a service, it might be the only Buddhist service some Soldiers would get during the whole 12-month deployment."
Balance at Fort Benning
Dyer said he's committed to keeping the 11th Engineer Battalion's ministry on solid ground. Ensuring Buddhist Soldiers can exercise their First Amendment rights in an Army setting -- perhaps for the first time -- and accommodating requests to counsel personnel in units across post are his other top priorities.
The Sand Hill service starts at 8 a.m. every Sunday. Dyer and the installation chaplain are now gathering research and data on the number of Buddhists at Fort Benning in an effort to determine whether it's the best location for the community. After the New Year, an officially sanctioned Buddhist service will be established, he said.
Dyer said every Soldier not only has the right to practice their chosen religion, but it also has impact on health and wellness, resiliency and qualify of life.
"Faith has such an important role for our Soldiers to be able to come into the serene and beautiful environment of a Buddhist service that's meaningful to them," he said. "It provides a quality role in their military service. I want to provide that to a group of Soldiers who have never had that before."
But balancing Buddhist ideals with Army duties can be conflicting for some, the chaplain said.
"Buddhist Soldiers have to deal with issues of livelihood: How do I view myself as a Buddhist and a Soldier who carries a weapon?" he said. "I have developed procedures that help them see themselves as a force for good in the world, protecting what's beautiful and right. It allows them to promote happiness and reduce suffering in the world. I try to teach those things to Buddhist Soldiers."