The Ideals that Make America Great

By Lance Sellon

As a child on Veterans Day, I didn’t know what to say to grandpa, so I just hugged him. He flew B-17 bombers as a pilot in Europe in World War II. Grandpa never spoke much about his experiences, but he inspired me. I wanted to follow his example, and so I enlisted in the US Army a few days after I turned 17. Since that cold and exciting January day when I took the oath, I’ve observed 27 Veterans Days in uniform. This year makes 28. Veterans Day makes me thankful to be an American, not just a veteran. Regardless when I eventually hang up the uniform, my service to this country and its ideals will not stop.

Grandpa’s life and example frame my own perspective of this annual recognition of those who have served in uniform. His generation demonstrated to me what I consider the American ideal of benevolent sacrifice; we take pride in shouldering more than our fair share of the burden and don’t complain about it. We fight for ideals. They showed me this is what made America so great in the eyes of the rest of the world.

I worry today that we have lost a bit of that focus. I think of my own personal life when as a private, a lieutenant, a chaplain, a husband or a dad, there are many difficult lessons I learned by ignorantly choosing the hard road, the selfish path, or not learning from others’ mistakes. This Veterans Day, I’m thinking more and more about what we fought for, which was for the ideal that America is in fact that beacon on a hill.

This administration’s extreme reduction of refugees is a similar mistake with grave consequences not only for tens of thousands of refugees but also for our national security. The current refugee admissions level of 45,000 marks the lowest ceiling in history at a time of historic need. Refugee admissions has long had bipartisan support, with the average admissions ceiling at 95,000 and historic highs under Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. We have welcomed over 3 million refugees to our shores since 1975.

By not welcoming nor integrating refugees, it seems we are rejecting our heritage as a nation of refugees and immigrants. Additionally, we create conditions that fuel anti-American sentiment across the globe while simultaneously diminishing our reputation and moral standing with allies and would-be allies. I am reminded of the testimony of Secretary of State George C. Marshall in 1947 when considering the resettlement of “displaced persons” in Europe: “If we practice what we preach, if we admit a substantial number of these people as immigrants…we will also confirm our moral leadership and demonstrate that we are not retreating behind the Atlantic Ocean…. You cannot assert leadership and then not exercise it.”

I have personally witnessed the rationale for his advice, when I visited refugee camps in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and Haiti; the first two as a Soldier, the latter as a pastor. I remember being greeted by orphans with iodine-stained hands who simply introduced themselves by saying, “No mother. No father.” I and my fellow Soldiers were paralyzed by the debilitating poverty and vulnerability we observed. We gathered what we could to give them, but we asked ourselves how we could make a bigger difference for them.

I’m convinced we can make a bigger difference by being their advocates.

Americans are strong and resilient people. We are not given to fear. Before becoming a US Army chaplain, I served as a combat arms officer who migrated from the enlisted ranks after completing duty as a drill sergeant. I’ve witnessed the strength of our nation in the diversity of America’s sons and daughters who serve and, by extension, the families, neighborhoods and hometowns which they represent. I’ve served with and gotten to know thousands of them.

As a chaplain and pastor, I believe that God created every human being to bear part of God’s image. It compels me to see each person as redeemable and worthy of making the sacrifice. It is this truth which many of our American ideals are rooted in.

Like my grandpa, most veterans and service members don’t enlist or serve seeking attention or accolades. They serve because they love our country and recognize that a few must rise to make sacrifices for the many. To me, that’s the spirit of Veterans Day, people going out of their way to advance the ideals that have made America great – ideals like selflessness, hospitality, bravery, hard work, and liberty.

Lance Sellon is a brigade chaplain in the Florida Army National Guard with deployments to Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa and is on the ministry staff of CrossRoad United Methodist Church in Jacksonville. He is a leader with Veterans for American Ideals, a non-partisan group of veterans founded by Human Rights First and dedicated to upholding America’s values-based leadership at home and abroad.