Staff Sgt. Chansamone Mekdara was a Buddhist monk when he was 6 years old in Laos. His childhood revolved around a Buddhist temple. He was bald, wore a robe, meditated for hours each day, lived off food donations and was at the service of his spiritual master.
All of that changed when he was 13 and followed his master to Hawaii, who was attending the opening of a new temple. Mekdara did not return to Laos, instead, he started sixth grade in Honolulu and a better life in America.
Mekdara had grown up in a village where everyone honored his life-dedication to the service of the temple.
“My family received the respect of the community because I was a monk,” Mekdara said. “And my parents would go to heaven because I was a monk.”
But when he started school in Honolulu, the status of wearing a monk’s robe did not carry over into an American elementary school.
“For six months, the kids wanted to get into fights with me because I knew martial arts,” Mekdara said. “So the chief of police and my school counselor talked with my uncle about having me become a civilian to avoid wearing a monk’s robe.”
Mekdara said he was happy about the transition even though it took him a while to get used to things like wearing sneakers. Monks are only allowed to wear sandals when they travel or work around the temple, otherwise they walk barefoot.
All the way through high school, Mekdara participated in various activities and sports. He played soccer, participated in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, and was a member of the rifle team.
“No matter how much I was involved in school, I was still Laotian, and on the weekends, I would go to help out at the temple, and sometimes I would go to the temple to meditate,” Mekdara said.
Focusing during his meditations was getting harder though, he said. American life was not as simple as his temple life in Laos.
“I didn’t grow up with a TV when I was in the temple at Laos, and now I was going less and less to the temple, or whenever I thought I needed to go,” he said.
Mekdara eventually attended college in San Jose, Calif., but he said he was having difficulties in school and what he really wanted to do was become a police officer. He considered joining the Army, but he never thought they would allow him since he wasn’t a citizen. A (quartermaster) recruiter clarified his misconceptions and set him on the path to unit supply specialist.
“Basic (Combat Training) was tough because of the language,” he said. “I just looked at everyone else and followed what they were doing and I made it through.”
Mekdara has now been in the Army for 16 years and he’s gone through four deployments including Iraq and Afghanistan. He is 38 and teaches the unit supply specialist course with the 244th Quartermaster Battalion, 23rd QM Brigade.
He said it’s been hard for him to practice Buddhism in the Army because he rarely finds another Buddhist, but the chaplains have always accommodated his religious needs as an individual.
“Anytime that I have needed candles, flowers and incense, the Army chaplains have provided,” he said. “They look for ways to help me.”
He uses 10 candles, 10 white flowers and three sticks of incense to pray to his spirit ancestors asking for forgiveness, vision and strength to carry on.
In fact, Mekdara said that the American openness and respect for other religions is one of the things he appreciates about American society.
He became an American citizen in 1994, after three years of serving in the Army, but he said he only feels American to an extent.
“No matter what I do, it’s not the same like people who are born here,” he said. “I feel like I belong to something because I am an American citizen and I have served for 16 years, but if I take this uniform off, people are going to see me as just another Asian guy.”
Mekdara said he has the goal of completing at least 20 years of service so he can defend the fact that he’s American, that he has risked sacrificing his life in service to the nation.
“I want to be able to say I did my time, and that I can defend my citizenship,” he said.
Mekdara said that although he once dedicated his life for the religious needs of others, his service to the United States is not much different. He wears a particular clothing and specific haircut; answers to a chain of command; and makes sacrifices so that others may have peace.