When Thomas Dyer heads to Afghanistan in December, the former Marine and one-time Southern Baptist pastor won't take a rifle with him. He won't take a Bible, either.My elder stepbrother is a chaplain in the U.S. Army—and the son of a chaplain. And one of my Southern Baptist missionary "uncles" in Japan became very interested in Japanese Buddhism, later publishing a book entitled Zen Way, Jesus Way. One of his daughters is a believer in Tibetan Buddhism. Whenever Christians ask me why I am not a believer, I usually respond, "In which religion?"
Instead, Dyer, a Tennessean National Guardsman from Memphis and the first Buddhist chaplain in the history of the U.S. Army, hopes to bring serenity and calm, honed by months of intensive meditation.
That preparation, he says, will help him bring spiritual care in the midst of a war zone. "We're going to put it to the test," Dyer said.
Dyer's deployment is another step in the U.S. military's attempt to meet the diverse spiritual needs of America's fighting forces. It's no easy task. For one thing, the military chaplaincy is facing all the complications that have affected American religion over the past 40 years. The decline of mainline Protestants and their aging clergy. The ongoing Catholic priest shortage. The explosion of religious diversity. The emergence of people with no faith. The ease with which people move from one faith to another.
The military is trying to adapt to these changes, while trying to find ministers willing to serve in a war zone, and who can minister to American troops without offending Muslim allies.
UPDATE: There were Christian chaplains in the Imperial Japanese Army, along with Buddhist and Shinto chaplains. (The pastor of the Hiroshima Baptist Church, where my parents served as missionaries, had been a Christian chaplain with the Japanese Army in China.) However, there were no Buddhist or Shinto chaplains in the U.S. Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team, only Protestants, even for all the "Buddhaheads" from Hawai‘i.