Face of Defense: Former Monk Trades Robes for Air Force Uniform

For most people, spending a day without their cell phone is an impossible feat. To spend 30 days without a phone, writing, reading, talking or even eye contact would seem unfathomable, but for Thailand Buddhist monks, this is their world.

After spending 18 years in that world as a monk, Airman 1st Class Kornkawee Rue Art, a pharmacy technician with the 23rd Medical Support Squadron here, traded his robes for a uniform in his continual pursuit of a life bigger than himself; one of meaning and purpose.

“When I first became a monk, I didn’t think it would open any professional doors,” Rue Art said. “But the first time I heard I could join the military, I saw the opportunities. I would be able to meet more people, see the world and be a part of the world’s greatest military. Even when I was a kid, I saw ads for the Air Force in Thailand.

“And then,” he continued, “I saw my chance to join. I wanted to feel that experience of being a part something larger than myself, to be with the best Air Force.”

In Thailand, a monk is one who studies Buddhism and practices its ways, follows the rules and lives at the temple. Monks practice and teach meditation, along with being spiritual consultants and leaders of ceremonies. Monks also perform missionary work, traveling across the world.

During his first missionary journey to the U.S., Rue Art reacquainted with an old friend who was soon to enlist in the U.S. military. Inspired by this friend, who became the first Thai Buddhist monk serving in the Air Force, Rue Art blazed his own trail by becoming the second.

‘I Used to Dream About Joining the Military’

“Even when I was young I wanted to join the military,” Rue Art said. “Being a monk, though, it closed my dream. I just wanted a chance, because talking with my friend it reminded me of how I used to dream about joining the military.”

Having grown up on a farm in the countryside of Thailand, growing up dreaming of joining the Air Force, along with successfully following over 200 rules as a monk, Rue Art developed a foundation that would carry his dedication to the honor, respect and duty he would bring to the Air Force.

“This was something I felt I could do if I prepared myself,” he said. “I wanted to challenge myself and always keep growing.”

Rue Art, wanting to experience the full range of life, and exemplifying the Buddhist principle of releasing expectations, joined the Air Force with an open mind of genuine service before self.

“I think being a monk made me more flexible,” Rue Art said. “I believed in myself. Whatever job I would get, it’s something people have done and are still doing, so it’s possible that I could do it, too. Whatever the Air Force needed me to do, I could do that.”

Rue Art said experiencing everyday life in the outside world has provided him with a stronger conviction in his beliefs.

“You learn how to deal with conflict as a monk, but you never experience it,” Rue Art said. “Being at the pharmacy, I saw the realness of it all. So, when something would make me feel mad or upset, I would wonder how I’m going refresh myself every day and be ready to go to work tomorrow. But with my Buddhist beliefs I was actually able to put it into practice and see how it really does work.”

Rue Art maintains his Buddhist ways daily through meditation and keeping a calm mind in his Air Force life, serving as a cornerstone in his spiritual pillar of resiliency.

Respecting Others

“You have to have a calm, cool, collected self to be able to get far not just in the Air Force, but in life,” said Air Force Airman 1st Class Makatelyn Maynard, 23rd MDSS pharmacy technician.

Rue Art “knows how to treat other people and respect them, because he’s been respecting people the whole time he was a monk,” Maynard said.

“I know that for myself, I get worked up over a lot of things that’ll fluster me. But with Rue Art, if he does get aggravated he doesn’t let it show,” she continued. “He’ll just stop. He’ll take a breath and breathe, and then he reiterates what he’s doing and just goes right back into it. It always amazes me how he does it.”

From monk to airman, Rue Art’s world has changed, but his way of life is still able to bring honor, not just to himself, but his friends and family back in Thailand, the Land of Smiles.

“I’m happy to be here,” Rue Art said. “When my friends in Thailand hear about me being in the Air Force, to them that’s a big deal. And, it fills me with a sense of honor knowing I’m making them proud.”