While officials have relied on “social distancing” to curb the spread of COVID-19, the Army’s top chaplain says the term doesn’t mean stopping all contact with friends and family.
Social distancing, a term used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, aims to head off the COVID-19 pandemic by advising people to stay at least six feet apart with no large gatherings and as many staying home as possible to slow the spread of the airborne virus.
Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Solhjem, the Army’s 25th chief of chaplains, is concerned some details of the phrase may get lost in the fog. If taken the wrong way, the term could negatively impact a Soldier’s mental health, he said, especially for those who live and work alone.
“It’s lonely here,” the two-star chaplain confessed, during an interview from his Pentagon office. His staff – who used to fill the workplace with conversation and camaraderie – were told to go home last month, and have since teleworked to minimize contact.
These days, the Pentagon hallways – like much of the world – grows quieter and quieter, and the chaplain’s conversations are now in short supply.
The defense building, where more than 23,000 federal officials and service members work, has operated on minimal manning since March 16. However, the mission goes on, including that of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps, whose mission is “to care for the Army’s soul, and the dignity and worth of each person,” he said.
Safeguarding the spirit of the Army
As more and more Soldiers are isolated in their homes, they are finding new ways to sustain their mission. Army chaplains are no different.
“Self-isolated chaplains are still virtually connecting with Soldiers in their units,” Solhjem said. “Troops have been reaching out to chaplains on social media, with FaceTime, Skype, phones – whatever capabilities their chaplains have. Soldiers know we’re here for them, no matter what.”
The virtual turnout has been unprecedented, he said. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, chaplains have noticed an “off the charts” increase of social media activity. For example, virtual services that would normally receive a few hundred views at best, are ranging in the multiple thousands.
“The religious communities across the Army will come out of this stronger,” Solhjem said. “We’re connected to each other and more connected to God than we were when we went into it. It’s because of the creativity and initiative of our unit chaplains who are just out there getting it done.”
“People are looking for hope during uncertain times,” he added. “We’re investing in people, and connecting them in spirit, community, and now virtually. Physical distance has never limited us from connecting with people, whether it is carrier pigeons, radios, or handwritten letters from deployed locations.”
“Chaplains have great resources, and they are here to care for your soul,” Solhjem said. “Whether you're a person of faith or not. Every Soldier, every family member, every civilian, every veteran, and retiree – they’re all in the Army family.”
“We protect each other,” he added. “We're valuable. Each of us is precious, and we must protect each other in this because there are things that will destroy us – and it's not just a virus.”
Dangers of social disconnection
“This is a rough time, and Soldiers need to know what social distancing means,” Solhjem explained. “Troops understand physical numbers – like no groups larger than 10 people, or always maintain at least six feet of separation.”
It’s the numbers that matter in the lexicon of social distancing, he said, which means Soldiers need to keep a physical distance from others. It doesn’t mean stop socializing. As troops stay apart, they should still be connected.
But certain vulnerabilities can be exposed when troops get the wrong idea, he said, especially when they feel increasingly lonesome and withdrawn. If those feelings are coupled with things like substance abuse, it can lead to risk-taking behaviors.
For example, Solhjem recently spotted young Soldiers leaving a store with multiple bags of alcohol in tote. Although the troops assured him they would practice moderation, the chaplain feared the risk they invited with excessive alcohol.
“Although this is not what civil society needs to hear… it’s the realities of the environment,” he said. “What’s important is how people respond to the pandemic.”
Message from the frontlines
With medical masks and prayer books in hand, ministry teams from the National Guard have stretched far beyond their chapels, to COVID-19 hotspots around the country.
“The military is trained to deal with fear, anxiety, uncertainty,” Solhjem said. “That's all part of the training in our DNA. I think there are things that civil society can learn from, how we do things.”
Lt. Col. Scott Ehler, New York National Guard state chaplain, has ministry teams on the ground all over New York to support activated troops on the frontlines of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We’re here to remind them that during these trying times, we’re a beacon of hope,” Ehler said. “We’re there to take care of our service members and to make sure their spiritual needs are being met.”
Although a concentration of support has been provided in New York City, chaplains are working all over the state, he said.
“One of the great things I’m seeing and hearing from our service members on the ground is they are working in and helping communities,” he said. We have service members preparing food that’s going to be delivered to people in need. We have service members cleaning so when restrictions are lifted, people can continue to safely go back to their community center, synagogue, church, wherever.
“There is a sense of accomplishment in New York,” Ehler said. “A lot of our service members are feeling that way because they are helping people.”