Army religious affairs specialists celebrate 113 years


By MEL SLATER, Institute for Religious Leadership

The first week of January 2023 was big for Army religious affairs specialists. 

The week followed the 113th anniversary of the establishment of Chaplain Assistants, now religious affairs specialists, when the War Department issued General Order 253 on Dec. 28, 1909.

The week began with a senior enlisted advisory group training session hosted at U.S. Army Institute for Religious Leadership from Jan 3-6. Religious affairs specialists from across the Army Chaplain Corps representing ranks of sergeant first class to command sergeant major attended the event. The attendees participated in a leadership development session focused on a total task inventory and small working groups to discuss, assess, and make recommendations for Military Occupational Specialty 56M individual critical task list and professional objectives.

Leaders identified the knowledge, skills, attitudes, duties and responsibilities, education, and/or experience required for all skill levels as well as the criticality of each task and provided recommendations to the IRL’s Training Development Division.

The theme for this year is “Back to the Basics.”

“The idea, the concept of back to the basics, we’ve been discussing it all week long in the SEAG. That’s what we owe, being back to the basics,” said Chaplain Corps Regimental Sergeant Major, Sgt. Maj. Elian Strachan. “As we say we have four priorities: recruit, lead, align and revitalize. It’s time to get back to the basics.”

Active duty, Reserve and National Guard religious affairs specialists gathered to celebrate the 113th Anniversary with the first annual gala at the Capitol City Club in Columbia, South Carolina on Jan. 5.

Many retired and former religious affairs specialists attended the event.

Other notable guests at the gala included Chief of Chaplains, Chap. (Maj. Gen.) Thomas Solhjem and his wife Jill, and Post Command Sgt. Maj. Philson Tavernier and his wife Sue Ann.

A highly notable attendee was James J. Schonefeld, the first Chaplain Corps Regimental Sergeant Major. Also present was retired Master Sgt. Dr. Wayne Penn, Sr., who was the guest speaker at the gala. Penn joined the Army in 1980 and served for 24 years. He also spoke of back to the basics.

“We must return to the basics,” Penn said. “Back to the basics means a return to the core principles and foundational tasks necessary to carry out our religious support mission as an intricate part of the (unit) ministry team. Our mission is to nurture the living, care for the wounded and honor those that have fallen. Make no mistake, your ability to assist the chaplain in providing religious support begins and ends with you being spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically prepared.”

He went on to say that there are certain tasks that the 56M must always do.

“They include physical security, weapons proficiency, land navigation, administration, fund management, logistical support and ministry of presence.” Penn said. “If we don’t return to basics, we will find ourselves spending valuable time, attention and resources on things that do not matter at the cost of things that do. What really matters is that we take care of Soldiers and their Families.”

Penn received The Order of Martin of Tours Medal by Solhjem and Strachan. Retired Sgt. Maj. Pamela Wilson also received The Order of Martin of Tours earlier in the event.

The gala was the first of its kind celebrating the 56M and Strachan looks forward to the event next year.

“Our goal for this event was 150 people. I’m proud to say there were 202 people present. This is the first annual, meaning we gotta to have a goal for next year. Our goal is to double that, so we’re shooting for 300, God willing,” said Strachan.

The final big activity was the cake-cutting ceremony. 

The cake cutting ceremony was held at Memorial Garden on the USA-IRL campus in celebration of the Religious Affairs Specialist 113th Anniversary. Chaplain Corps Regimental Sergeant Major, Sgt. Maj. Elian Strachan along

with Army Institute for Religious Leadership Commandant, Chap. (Col.)

James Palmer, Jr. and IRL senior enlisted advisor, Sgt. Maj. Evelin Montealegre, IRL Task Force Integrator, Sgt. Maj. Tina Saunders, and Staff

Sgt. Tracie Sanders cut the ceremonial cake.


Penn’s full speech can be viewed at: