New Wing Chaplain
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- Though Thornley spent the first 18 years of his life in a small town north of Charleston, South Carolina, he felt his life actually started when he joined the Air Force as a security policeman.
“My first four years in the Air Force helped shape me into the person I am today,” said Major Andrew Thornley, 374th Wing Staff Agency wing chaplain at Yokota Air Base, Japan. “It made me… me.”
Thornley had a life changing realization during his time as a security policeman stationed at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. It was the first time he was on his own, away from his friends and family, with nothing but his bible.
“I had to examine and truly explore what I believe, outside of the influence of my family and friends because I had neither,” Thornley said. “During that time, the Lord brought me to the understanding of who he was and what he wanted me to be.”
As a young Airman, Thornley struggled to find spiritual mentorship. His struggle eventually manifested into motivation, igniting his ambition to become a guiding light for others.
After completing his enlistment, Thornley began his theological studies, eventually becoming a pastor in the civilian world. After 10 years as a pastor, he began to feel that there might be more he could do with his newfound knowledge.
Thornley began looking for ways to better practice his ministry. A friend, who was a military chaplain in the Army Reserves, told Thornley he should look into becoming a military chaplain.
“I left the Air Force, but the Air Force never really left me,” Thornley said. “I’ve always had the blue blood running through my veins.”
Putting the Air Force uniform back on was exciting for Thornley; he had missed the people in the military community. For him it was easy to come back onto active duty. Upon commissioning as an officer in the USAF chapel corps in October 2001, Thornley’s first duty station was Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.
In April 2003, a few months after the war in Iraq began, Thornley arrived at the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs at Dover Air Force Base, Del. to provide his services. It was here he experienced the first event that reinforced the true importance of his career field.
“It struck me,” He said. “What we do is of eternal value. Men and women are laying down their lives for our Nation, and for one another,” Thornley said. “Despite the trauma of what I saw, of what happens in war, the thing that struck me the most was the personal effects of these service members, sitting in a separate room on a sheet. Seeing their boots and the contents of their wallets, the photographs of them and their family members or loved ones will forever be engraved in my mind.”
Although there are days being a military chaplain is cold and heart wrenching, there are days that can also strengthen resolve and prove the necessity of the chaplaincy in the military.
“Those days sealed into my heart what an honor and privilege it is to be in this community that is so sacrificing and selfless,” Thornley said.
Chaplains are able to have an influence on the military community by imbedding themselves in service member’s daily lives and receive a first-hand view of people’s state of mind.
“I view myself as part of the community; this is my family” Thornley said.
Thornley spent four years recruiting chaplains as the deputy of protestant accessions and became the deputy wing staff chaplain at Travis Air Force Base before becoming the wing staff chaplain at Yokota.
Wing staff chaplains are usually the senior pastors on a given base and it is their job to remove obstacles and distractions ensuring that the other chaplains can focus on practicing their ministry.
The chaplains promote the free exercise of religion in the military while also working to strengthen the spiritual pillar of Comprehensive Airman Fitness. While the spiritual pillar is often listed last, following physical, mental and social, this doesn’t mean that the spiritual pillar is any less important.
“I think the spiritual pillar is listed last to emphasize it,” Thornley said. “Every person has a spiritual component. If they don’t pay attention to that, it could harm them in some way.”
Thornley expressed how helpful his fellow chaplains have been in the stability in his career, but gives the most influential credit, in regards to his mental health, to his best friend and closest confidant; his wife Leigh Thornley.
“She’s given me a lot of excellent advice, and is the best part of this team,” Thornley said.
Thornley hopes to leave an impact on people here by ensuring Airmen realize they are loved and how important they are.
“You know,” said Thornley. “People won’t remember how much you knew, but they will remember how you made them feel.”