Leader Spotlight: Lance Sellon
Veterans for American Ideals is recognizing veteran leaders who are continuing their service by building unity and standing up for American values. Through a series of interviews, we’re asking VFAI leaders to share more about how their service shaped them and what responsibility they feel veterans have to speak up on issues that relate to our national ideals.
Today’s interview is with Lance Sellon, whose 26-year Army career has included both enlisted and commissioned duties, a combat arms deployment to Afghanistan, and a deployment as chaplain to the Horn of Africa. He currently directs local and global relief efforts of CrossRoad Church UMC in Jacksonville.
Tell me about your military service.
I enlisted when I was 17 into the Army Reserve. It was really out of an idealistic patriotism. I wanted to serve and to be part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to see myself in that way, and I wanted to be challenged in ways that I couldn’t imagine. I figured the Army was a good opportunity to do that.
Along the road, I transferred to the Florida National Guard and was deployed to Afghanistan for a year in 2005. In 2015, I was deployed again to the Horn of Africa for almost a year. I had become an officer in 2000 through Officer Candidate School. After about 10 years as a combat arms officer, I transitioned to become a chaplain.
How did your service shape the person you are today?
The Army helped me develop grit. It helped me learn to work with all kinds of people and appreciate not only what each individual brings to the team, but who they are.
The thing about the armed forces is that I really had to learn to get over my own issues and any baggage that I may have, or disagreements with people and people’s lifestyles. I had to just learn to love and accept people—and I don’t mean the rosy kind of love, but a rubber-meets-the-road, my-life-depends-on-you kind of love—and to work with people. That certainly has cross applications to every other aspect of my life.
As a veteran, what sort of responsibility do you feel to speak up on issues that relate to American ideals?
I understand that veterans have a unique role and voice in American society and culture, so it’s important to leverage that responsibility toward things and issues that are going to make a better country, better citizens, and better, healthier communities. So that’s what I want to do.
I always have these images of WWII vets coming back and how they got involved in politics not only on the national level, but also on the local level. They served on school boards. They got involved commercially and economically. They started businesses. These men and women, whether they were in factories or overseas, had a certain work ethic—their mere presence called us to be better people.
That should be the role of the veteran. We shouldn’t diminish the role. It shouldn’t be something we just put on a bumper sticker. We need to make our presence available to our communities and show that yes, it does work, you can get along with people who don’t have the same opinion as you. You can still work together to accomplish a mission and make people’s lives safer and better.
Tell me about one issue related to those ideals that is of particular importance or concern to you right now. What are you doing about it?
The refugee issue. Veterans for American Ideals has focused a lot on the Special Immigrant Visa program for interpreters and translators who served with the U.S. military, which is very important. But that has opened my eyes to the larger refugee crisis. There are innumerable others that are refugees too.
I’ve endeavored to learn all I can about the current refugee crisis—and who are these people, really? When I was in Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, I encountered refugees and internally displaced people of all nationalities—Ethiopian, Somalian, Eritrean. It’s important to me to give a face to them, to make them real, especially because we live in a polarized society where refugees have become a political hot potato.
I work within my congregation and through my larger social media and other platforms to try to influence people to see and understand the human story of refugees. Not to see them merely as Muslim, or whatever faith they happen to be, but also to see them as moms, dads, widows, widowers, aunts caring for orphan children. I try to introduce people to those stories.
What would you say to other veterans about the role that they can play in these issues as citizens?
You know firsthand the crises that our world faces. You know how it not only affects our fellow citizens, but how it affects citizens of other countries. My big appeal to most veterans is: do you still wish you could serve? Do you still wish you could be part of something bigger?
I remember talking with one veteran in particular, a combat-hardened, big, bruiser type of guy. He was soul-searching, looking for a way to take all that the military taught him—to destroy and to engage the enemies—and use that training to help people in the Horn of Africa, where we were serving together, to have productive lives. He felt like he had to hang it all up when he got out. My advice to him was: no, you don’t have to stop serving when you leave. You can still save people’s lives, you can still protect people’s lives, you can still make a difference as a leader today without being in uniform.