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Caring for the Soul of the Army

“I didn’t want to be in the Army anymore,” says Chaplain Thomas Solhjem S‘88, a Major General and the U.S. Army’s Chief of Chaplains. But a simple, desperate prayer changed everything.

By Michelle Westlund '83, senior content specialist

November 18, 2019 | 9:15 a.m.

Chaplain Thomas Solhjem

Chaplain Thomas Solhjem S‘88 was installed as the U.S. Army’s 25th Chief of Chaplains on May 31, 2019.

In his youth, Tom Solhjem was, by his own description, a rebellious kid who was angry and hurt by his parents’ divorce. “I was doing drugs and got kicked out of public school,” he says. “In the 1970s, I joined the Army—not with any larger, noble aspirations, but to get away.”

The Army as it was then didn’t solve his problems. His risk-taking behavior increased, as did his drug use, and he became suicidal. He hit bottom—quite literally—when, in a drug-induced state, he fell from a four-story barracks.

And that’s when God showed up—in the form of the Sergeant First Class medic who treated him. “This man saw my pain, and he listened to me,” says Solhjem. “As our friendship developed, I saw him praying and reading his Bible. At one point, we talked all night, and in the morning I knelt at my bunk and gave my life to God.”

The medic referred Solhjem to a chaplain from Minnesota, who became a life-changing source of support, encouragement, and mentoring. It was during this time of nurturing and growth that Solhjem prayed a fateful prayer. “I didn’t want to be in the Army,” he says. “But I prayed for God to call me to whatever He wanted—even if that was being a chaplain. And my journey began in that moment.”

The journey included marriage to his wife, Jill, in 1977. The couple met as children while growing up in rural North Dakota, in what Solhjem calls “a divine appointment.” The two came to the Twin Cities so Solhjem could attend Bible college in preparation for pastoral leadership and eventual chaplaincy. “Jill had always wanted to be a missionary,” says Solhjem, “and the military is a mission field. God couldn’t have provided a better helpmate—this is our call together.”

By his senior year of Bible college, Solhjem was pastoring a church, a prerequisite to chaplaincy. Another requirement was a master’s degree, so he began exploring options for graduate education. Bethel Seminary, with its Swedish roots, drew his attention. “My ancestors came from Norway to pursue religious freedom,” he says. “That Scandinavian connection meant something to me.”

Solhjem found the diversity of perspectives at Bethel Seminary a valuable formation opportunity. “At Bethel, you’re in a community with others who are not like you,” he says. “You learn to respect different theological backgrounds; you gain a broader understanding of people of faith. Real formation is in the rub with others.”

He also found the spiritual and leadership training he was looking for. “The training was robust, and made me stretch, grow, and think,” he says. “Theological and spiritual formation are developed at Bethel in a way that’s essential for chaplains.” In fact, Solhjem says that “every chaplain I’ve served with in the U.S. Army who went to Bethel Seminary has been a top-notch person.”

“Bethel Seminary was a critical piece of the fabric of my preparation. I’m sitting where I am today in some part because of Bethel.”

— Chaplain Thomas Solhjem S‘88

Solhjem has served as a chaplain for 31 years, 17 of those with Special Operations, where it was “an honor and privilege to serve with our finest,” he says. He’s served more than five and a half years in combat, an assignment he embraces as part of the calling. “Being in combat is what you train for,” he says, “to be there to inspire and to tend wounds, both physical and spiritual. Chaplains share the hardships of those we serve and are there, if necessary, to give up our lives in that service.” 

Today, Solhjem serves at the Pentagon as the U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains. He is humbled to have the responsibility to advise the most senior leaders of the world’s greatest fighting force, a global enterprise that includes 6,000 Chaplain Corps members serving 1.5 million soldiers and civilians, and 4.6 million family members. “The Army exists for one reason,” he says. “To protect our freedom and win our nation’s wars. And U.S. Army chaplains have been called to care for the soul of that Army for 244 years.”

The man who didn’t want to be in the Army is now the spiritual leader for the entire U.S. Army, an irony that does not escape him. Today’s Army is not the Army it was in the 1970s, and Solhjem is not the man he was then either. “I have seen God do so much that I can’t take credit for,” he says. And that includes his personal journey of transformation—a journey that led him from the brink of suicide to a place where he is ready and willing to live out his life in service to others, and if called upon to do so, to give up his life for the sake of others.

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