FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- The 25th chief of chaplains of the U.S. Army stopped by Fort Rucker to visit with leadership, tour the post and also to serve as the keynote speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast May 6.
Chaplain (Maj. Gen.) Thomas L. Solhjem spoke about prayer to the limited audience at the breakfast after prayers were offered for the nation, the U.S. military and the post; several musical performances; scripture readings; and an enthusiastic introduction from Maj. Gen. David J. Francis, U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker commanding general.
“What a coup it is to have the chief of chaplains of the U.S. Army join us at Fort Rucker,” Francis said at the prayer breakfast. “We’re putting him to work – he’s talked to our chaplains, talked to the pre-command course, on how the Army is recognizing the spiritual component of each one of us. We are absolutely honored and privileged to have our chief of chaplains with us today.”
Solhjem said he was happy to be speaking at the home of Army Aviation.
“I love being a Soldier – there’s no greater calling,” he said. “Then, to be a chaplain among Soldiers – that’s the coolest.”
He also expressed his Soldier's view of Army Aviation.
“Those of us on the ground – we love the sound of that airframe,” he said. “If you’re wounded, that is a sound you welcome. If you’re having a bad night and the enemy is putting it to you, that sounds is an awesome sound to hear. Or, if you’re just flat tired and you just don’t want to take another step, it’s nice to get on that bird and fly away. What you represent to our Army is awesome. And you’re a feared presence – when the enemy hears that sound, it also reverberates in their lives, as well.”
The chief chaplain said his visit to Fort Rucker is part of Gen. James C. McConville’s desire for the chaplain and the Chaplain Corps regimental sergeant major, Sgt. Maj. Ralph Martinez, to get out and visit the force.
“In light of everything that’s been going on with COVID and all of the things affecting our nation this past year, we want to visit and see how our Army is doing,” he said. “We’re here to do a couple of different missions. Care for and check on Army leaders, so the regimental sergeant major meets with senior NCOs, and I’ll meet with senior officers and senior commanders and see how they’re doing, and talk about the challenges they are facing and how the chaplains corps team is helping them to get after some of these things and take care of their people.
“Another element is to meet with community leaders or people within the community, and then, obviously, spend time with our chaplain teams,” Solhjem said. “We also visited with the pre-command course, speaking to them about the capabilities of the ministry team.”
Solhjem also spoke about the Chaplaincy Integration Pilot, which is being conducted at various posts throughout the Army, although not at Fort Rucker. The goal of CHIP is to explore ways unit-level chaplains can more effectively complement behavioral health care through the fostering of spiritual core development in Soldiers, he said.
As Army fitness doctrine has become dedicated to physical, mental and spiritual health, the Army Chaplains Corps has partnered with Dr. Lisa Miller, professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York, and the founder of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, to scientifically show the importance of spiritual health to the whole, or holistic, individual, Solhjem added.
“Field Manual 7-22 Holistic Health and Fitness was rewritten and republished. For the first time, we have a really well-written spiritual readiness component. There is a mischaracterization of what is spiritual and what is religious,” he said in describing the purpose behind CHIP. “If you say the word spiritual, people immediately equate it to religion. So (the purpose of) this training is to bring the science behind spirituality into our Army.”
Solhjem explained that the research Miller brings to the table will allow Army chaplains, behavioral health specialists, and command teams to work together to ensure Soldiers have a place to go and a variety of people to talk to, regardless of religious or spiritual specificities. The training is intended to help key leaders show their Soldiers that they don’t need to have a faith-based perspective in order to ask for and receive help.
“We’re helping the Army,” the chief of chaplains said. “When we go to a location, it is a series of engagements with different groups. We meet with command and ministry teams, behavioral health (and other care providers) – it’s really about us getting more of a dual referral and helping them understand the spiritual aspects. It’s really creating a more seamless continuum of care.”
The regimental sergeant major agreed.
“We’re trying to give ministry and command teams the tools and capabilities they need to help Soldiers who experience low points in their lives,” Martinez said. “We want them to be able to identify those individual Soldiers, to bring them in and talk to them, and say, ‘You’re important to us. I’m going to invest my time in you and I’m going help you.’ And once the commander or provider reaches that certain point where they can no longer help, to recognize that and direct that Soldier to the ministry team to help build a spiritual path for that Soldier.”
So far, the feedback on the initiative has been positive, according to Solhjem.
“Like anything, it’s going to take some time to get enculturated,” he said. “Like what I talked about during prayer breakfast, we pray in all kinds of different ways, so our spiritual life is just as natural as the physical and that over time the culture embraces it. I think it’s going to take time, but I think it’s being well received.”
Martinez said he expects it to take a while before it is fully integrated into how the Army conducts business and the culture changes to accept that spirituality matters just as much as physical fitness.
“Once they’re both the same and they understand the holistic fitness and all the dimensions of it, the physical, the mental, the spiritual, and sleep and nutrition – once this all accepted that’s when it’s done,” he said. “It’ll probably be around five years, in my opinion, before Army culture really understands what spirituality can bring to an individual.”
Solhjem thanked the Fort Rucker community for hosting his visit, including the local ministry team.
“We often focus a lot on the negatives or the challenges, but there are a lot of great things happening in our Army, and a lot of great work being done by our ministry teams,” he said. “I want to commend our ministry teams on what they’re doing here and across our Army to take care of the soul of the Army, and the people who carry out the mission and their families.”