Recently I was given the opportunity and honor to interview Buddhist Soldier and two-time Bronze Star Medal recipient, 1st Lt. Stephen J. Hunnewell, who is currently serving with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. I just first want to say how wonderful it is to know that there are Buddhists in the military. It is my hope that the calming teachings of Buddhism are helping the soldier deal with the stresses of combat.
I was humbled to be able to interview such a unique and courageous individual. As a Buddhist, I find war a particularly vicious extension of suffering that causes deeps wounds of the spirit and body. Yet, I am also a realist and understand that sometimes such abhorrent measures are unfortunately necessary to protect the innocent and maintain a semblence of humanity. Otherwise, the merchants of endless suffering pour forth rivers of blood that is unabated. That is an ugly picture to paint, to be sure. However, it is necessary that we Buddhist realize that we don't live in a Utopian world. It would be nice to believe that ending war on Earth is possible but, so long as there is attachment to power, greed and hatred, it will exist.
This doesn't mean that we shouldn't do everything in our power to reduce violence, war and bloodshed. We can also pressure our leaders to ensure that we will only go to war when all other methods of settling disputes has been thoroughly exhausted. It also means that we conduct war in a way that lessens innocent casualties and utilizes non-violent methods to bring an end to hostilities. Lieutenant Hunnewell is engaged in such non-violent projects within the Afghanistan war-zone and we are thankful for his sacrifice, work and inspiration.
As a Civil Affairs Team Leader, Hunnewell is responsible for overseeing a three Soldier team whose primary objective is to advise local Afghan officials on the implementation of productive governance processes and assist them in forming meaningful connections with the local population and ensuring they are properly serving the citizens which they represent.So, now that you know his role better; lets proceed to the interview, shall we?
1). How do you maintain your Buddhist practice while out in the field?
I make a concerted effort each day to take some personal time for reflection and meditation. I am lucky in that where I live now I have my own personal space, wood walls separate myself and other Soldiers, and I am able to meditate whenever I am at the Combat Outpost. I spent the majority of this deployment living amongst the Afghan people and when I was living with them I usually woke-up before dawn, sat outside, and centered myself.
2). There are so many great and historic Buddhist sites in Afghanistan. How do you feel about the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan?
The destruction the Bamiyan Buddhas is not only a great loss to Buddhists, but to all humanity. The sites were works of art and pieces of history which we have all been robbed of. Currently, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) is assisting the Chinese government in excavating the ancient site of Meys Aynak in Logar province.
3). How has your Buddhist practice helped you reach out to the Afghan people and communicate with them on the same level?
With regards to the reintegration process and conducting negotiations and mediations my practice has helped me tremendously. A short story; I was conducting a civic negotiation with local farmers in the Pech Valley, Kunar province, which is the most violent area in eastern Afghanistan and where the majority of my accumulated 18 months of service in Afghanistan has been spent. I was accompanied by a representative from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). We were assisting GIRoA officials in engaging local farmers in order to educate them on diversifying their crops to produce more nutrient dense feed for themselves and their animals as well as to deny the insurgents fields to hide and stage ambushes in. The farmers were very stubborn and would not listen to the government officials or the USDA representative and I.
I continued to engage in calm negotiations and eventually the farmers were convinced that diversifying the crops was not only good for them and their animals but also in the best interest of the coalition forces (CF) and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The representative from the USDA then said to me, “Wow! You have a tremendous amount of patience with these people.”
I feel that my practice helps me to enter a situation with a beginners mind. I try to see the world from their view and not bring in preconceived notions. How would an Idaho potato farmer react to someone trying to tell them to grow blueberries? The people of the valley have grown corn for thousands of years and it had worked for them, why change? The operation, which was dubbed “Operation Crop Diversification”, resulted in over 1000 farmers in the valley diversifying their crops with the help of government subsistence and no attacks from the fields on both CF and ANSF.
Furthermore, I have engaged with insurgent leaders within days of being personally attacked by their troops and possibly themselves. A few of the incidents resulted in serious injuries and the loss of life, which harmed me as well. But I would continue to engage them in civil discourse in order to give hope to the reintegration process. Many times groups and individuals have been fighting due to a feeling of being wronged and many times they only want to have their grievances heard...
~Peace to all beings~