Grateful for Religious Freedom
More than two years into his role as deputy chief of chaplains for the U.S. Army, U.S. Missions Assemblies of God Chaplain Thomas L. Solhjem is carrying out Chief of Chaplains Paul Hurley’s objectives of ensuring troops freely exercising their faith, providing spiritual care for soldiers and their families, and imparting moral leadership.
Congress ratified Solhjem’s appointment in 2015. Promotion to brigadier general soon followed.
Solhjem says Army chaplains must be vigilant taking care of soldiers at all levels, including leaders — who aren’t immune from the same problems that contribute to stress and depression among the ranks. He sees the overarching issue facing the military is readiness, 16 years into a war on terrorism.
The quick-talking, physically fit, Solhjem finds his role demanding yet rewarding. Rather than being stuck behind a desk at the Pentagon, Maj. Gen. Hurley empowers Solhjem to run the day-to-day operations of the Chaplain Corps; travel extensively; and engage Army leaders, chaplains, and religion affairs specialists in order to make sure chaplains have what they need to provide religious and spiritual support to soldiers and families.
Solhjem is confident that Army chaplains can convey to soldiers that they aren’t constrained in exercising religious liberties, and they have tremendous protections while practicing their spiritual beliefs.
“We want to live out our calling in a pluralistic environment, to represent the Lord, and to take care of His people — whether they have faith or no faith,” Solhjem says.
Solhjem says the Chaplain Corps is committed to developing future leaders who are people of integrity and moral ethics.
“We want to see younger chaplains getting the tools and resources they need to better understand the impact of combat and to be able to provide better care,” Solhjem says.
In recent years, much attention deservedly and belatedly has been given to those who have witnessed the atrocities of war and subsequently suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. But Solhjem believes it’s also time to heed those who emerge not unscathed but stronger, or even enhanced, from conflict.
“We talk a great deal about those who are negatively impacted by combat and the rigors of military life, but a lot of people emerge stronger,” Solhjem says. “We need to talk about how faith strengthened them through the experience. Why were they able to go through this and come out better?”
The cultural reality that fewer Americans have any religious background compared to a generation ago also has impacted the military. Besides the traditional Protestant and Catholic faith traditions, which comprise more than two-thirds of soldiers, there now are more than 220 recognized religions in the military, including heathen, Troth, Rosicrucianism, Druid, shaman, asatru, pagan, humanist, and Church of the Spiral Tree.
Still, Solhjem sees a pluralistic environment as preferable to a government-mandated religion.
“It allows people of faith to thrive, which doesn’t happen in some other countries,” Solhjem says. “Pluralism gives the opportunity to expose other people to your faith.”
Currently, over 15 percent of the Army’s more than 3,300 chaplains identify as Pentecostal. The Assemblies of God has 168 endorsed military chaplains, 101 of those in the Army (active, Reserve, and National Guard). Overall, around 4 percent of Army officers and enlisted personnel claim to be Pentecostal.
Solhjem says the U.S. pledge to God and country is unique among the armed forces throughout the world.
“We take an oath to the Constitution and say so help me God,” Solhjem notes. “Our allegiance as officers is to the Constitution, not to any person, and that is powerful.”
Photo from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary