Thailand -- Walking along a beach road in Thailand, 13-year-old Aroon Seeda, a novice monk, carries his food bowl while looking for the next contribution to sustain him. The curious boy watches U.S. Marines conducting amphibious exercises along the shore as the morning sun continues to rise. He decides to make his way to their camp up ahead.
The orange robe of the teenager presents a stark visual contrast with the camouflaged uniform of the Marine who approaches and asks him a question. Having learned some rudimentary English at school, the monk-in-training translates the foreign sounds as best as he can and offers a simple response: “I am monk. I’m here for food.” The American tells him to wait and the young Buddhist watches him briefly disappear into a tent. The Marine returns and places a packaged MRE (meal, ready-to-eat) into Aroon’s food bowl. A friendship is born.
Through a series of hand gestures and broken English, the shaved-headed youth offers to escort a couple Marines to his temple and boarding school for a tour. The Marines agree, and spend some of their time at the school helping novice monks with their English homework. Aroon would later say that this interaction with the Marines created a burning desire within him to speak English.
Novice monks are allowed to have an extremely limited number of personal possessions, so when his new American friend presented him the gift of a pen bearing the image of an American flag, it immediately became his prized possession and a powerful symbol.
“The pen was a symbol of friendship and represented hope,” Aroon recalled.
This chance encounter between a young Buddhist monk and a U.S. Marine happened in 1988 during the 7th annual Cobra Gold, a Kingdom of Thailand and United States co-sponsored military exercise in support of their commitment to work together in support of peace and security in the region.
Aroon said his American friend drew an outline of a map of the United States in the sand and pointed to a place called Virginia, which is where the Marine said he was from.
“He told me that someday maybe I could go to America.”
That day came in 2001. Aroon was now a full-fledged Buddhist monk and wanted to make an impact in the lives of people beyond Thailand. He moved to California and worked as a Buddhist minister, but after several years found that he was really only affecting California’s Thai community.
The desire to reach a diverse group of people led him to consider enlisting in the U.S. Navy. Chaplains in the Navy directly serve not only Navy personnel, but also service members in the Marines and Coast Guard.
“I thought I could serve my mission better by helping U.S. service members cope with the stress that results from their jobs.”
He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 2008 with the goal of becoming a chaplain. He received his citizenship several months after completing basic training and attained his goal in two years and seven months. Chaplain Aroon Seeda is the only Buddhist chaplain in the Department of the Navy and currently serves with Navy Reserve Religious Ministry Support, Marine Corps Forces Pacific, Navy Operations Support Center, Los Angeles.
Today, the 42-year-old lieutenant is back in Thailand and dressed in camouflage for the 36th iteration of Cobra Gold. On Feb. 14, he visited the Wat Sam Nakkaton primary school with other U.S. military personnel to drop off school supplies and soccer balls and to spend time with the children.
Chaplain Seeda knows firsthand the impact these interactions can have on the children, but he also stressed the importance it has for the service members as well.
“Community relations events open our hearts to other cultures. It’s an opportunity to learn about culture through people, not books. When they give a soccer ball to a child, they can feel that moment. They can experience how it feels when you help people. You learn to appreciate people and to see other humans as friends and family.”
Cobra Gold’s focus has shifted over the years to place a greater emphasis on community engagement. The U.S. military is participating in 15 of these events during the 11-day exercise as part of the longstanding friendship between the Thai and American people.
The school is located a short distance from Chaplain Seeda’s childhood home where his parents still live, and the U.S. military has already made an impact there, having built two of its structures during Cobra Gold 2002. The school’s director Preedee Ratcha Punt said the buildings have seen extensive use by not only the school but also the community. There have even been wedding ceremonies performed there.
As the Navy chaplain walked the grounds of the school that prominently features a Buddhist temple, a teacher that looked familiar to him approached him and asked, “Are you Aroon?” He answered and then recognized her as Mrs. Pairor Sa-ngiemrat, his primary school teacher at Nong Ma Pring from the ages of seven to nine. They haven’t seen each other for more than 30 years. He attempted to bow to show her honor but she gave him a big hug instead as their eyes welled up with tears.
“I am very proud of him and happy to see him,” she said after catching up and taking photos together.
“I couldn’t be here without what she taught me,” he said. “I hold the frame, but she put the puzzle pieces together that make the picture. I consider her my second mother.”
Chaplain Seeda credits his roots in the Kingdom of Thailand with making him who he is today. His childhood as a novice monk provided him with a foundation for inner peace, skills that he now shares to help a diverse audience in the United States.
In California, Seeda works with prison inmates as a staff chaplain for the Federal Bureau of Prisons at the Federal Corrections Complex, Victorville. He is currently pursuing his Th.D. in Theology from the University of the West. The topic of his dissertation is the use of Buddhist principles and values in helping both civilians and service members recover from trauma and PTSD.
After spending the morning with the children of Wat Sam Nakkaton primary school, Chaplain Seeda drove together with a fellow Christian chaplain to share a meal with his parents. Upon greeting his parents, he moved to his knees and bowed to each of them three times.
“My father taught me to respect the people around me and to become part of their family,” he said.
After the short visit with his family, he got back in the van to continue not only his military mission in Thailand but also his life’s mission in the world – to cultivate peace.