First Lieutenant Somya Malasri, 39, of Rosemead, seemed an unlikely candidate for the US Army in 2001, when he arrived in the United States garbed in a saffron robe, the traditional attire of a Buddhist monk. Originally from a small village in Buri Ram province, Thailand, Malasri had been a Buddhist monk since he was 17 years old.
The US military has been actively trying to recruit Buddhist chaplains since the Second World War, said Rev Danny Fisher, programme coordinator for the MDiv in Buddhist Chaplaincy at UWest.
Before this point, there have only ever been two Buddhist chaplains in the US military, Fisher said. Both are on active duty now.
One of the two is also a UWest student: Jeanette Shin is earning her PhD in Buddhist Studies at UWest and is currently a Buddhist chaplain in the Navy. The other is Thomas Dyer, who is in the Army and became the Army's first-ever Buddhist chaplain about a year ahead of Malasri, Fisher said.
The US Army currently has an estimated 3,300 soldiers claiming a Buddhist affiliation. It wasn't until Malasri met some US soldiers who were Buddhist that he realised their need for chaplains. So, Malasri disrobed to join active service in the Army.
After graduation last month, Malasri expects to be deployed, although he is not yet sure where.
''I'm very happy, and also at the same time I don't know what to expect in the Army,'' Malasri said. ''When I adjust to everything. it'll be okay. I'm really happy.''
In 2007, Malasri became the first Buddhist chaplain candidate for the Army. He would have become the first chaplain, but Dyer, a chaplain from a Christian background, converted to Buddhism, making Malasri the likely second Buddhist chaplain ever in the Army. He will become a full chaplain by the end of 2010, Malasri said.
Malasri did achieve a first by becoming the first student to graduate from UWest's MDiv in Buddhist Chaplaincy programme. The MDiv in Buddhist Chaplaincy programme at UWest is one of only three accredited Buddhist chaplaincy training programmes in the United States.
''Graduating our first chaplain is a joyous way to cap off the first year of the programme's existence,'' Rev Fisher said. ''In addition, Somya, who has done so much training already as a former Theravada Buddhist monk and chaplain candidate in the US Army, has set a wonderful example for his fellow students.''
''I learned a lot from the programme,'' Malasri said. ''For example, I learned how to be a good facilitator, how to be a good counsellor.''
To have more Buddhist chaplains in the military is important because servicemen and women have been needing and asking for them for a long time now, Rev Fisher said.
University of the West is a Buddhist-founded campus open to all students and located in the Eastern suburbs of Los Angeles County. More information can be found at http://www.uwest.edu