Seals' new book shares 'God's Word for Warriors,' supports veterans at Lipscomb
Kim Chaudoin | 615.966.6494 |
To really understand a person, you have to walk a mile in his shoes … or combat boots.
When Tom Seals stands in front of his “Faith and Culture: God’s Word for Warriors” class each semester he sees the faces of men and women who have performed heroic deeds, seen unspeakable atrocities, been a part of harrowing combat missions and feel a strong sense of duty to their country. He sees minds that are eager to learn, who need a framework for finding meaning in civilian life.
He sees a 17-year-old version of himself.
Seals joined the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17 — just ten days after he graduated from Hume Fogg High School in Nashville.
He recalls that, “I wanted to be a Marine so bad, and there wasn’t money for me to go to college.”
He served three years in the Marines and finished the final five years of his commitment working for a government agency that sent him around the world on a number of classified missions, which he continued for a few years after fulfilling his duty.
It was an experience that left a profound mark on Seals’ soul and shaped the way he viewed the world and others. He had no idea at the time how that experience would prepare him to connect with others who would “walk in his shoes” generations later.
Today, nearly 60 years later, Seals has a special place in his heart for the men and women who attend Lipscomb University through the veterans’ services program. He understands in a profound way the challenges veterans face each day as they reenter civilian life, begin a journey to earn a degree and to settle into the “new normal” of their lives.
A number of veterans have come to Lipscomb seeking a place to earn a college degree and to help them transition into a new chapter of their lives. Lipscomb University offers a unique opportunity for veterans who qualify for 100 percent of the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to earn a tuition-free undergraduate degree through the Yellow Ribbon Enhancement Program. The university also offers qualifying student veterans a variety of graduate degrees tuition-free or at a greatly reduced tuition rate.
Since its inception in 2009, Lipscomb’s veterans’ services program has served more than 500 students and has been recognized nationally for its quality. This spring, Lipscomb was named a top 15 Christian college for veterans and in 2014 U.S. News & World Report ranked Lipscomb as the second-best regional university in the South for veterans.
“Faith and Culture: God’s Word for Warriors” has become a safe place for student veterans at Lipscomb to explore their military experiences and how they have shaped their outlook on relationships, faith and life in general in the days and months that have followed after they return home.
A labor of love
Seals has used his experiences in this specially designed course for veterans and the conversations that have taken place in this class as the basis of a new book he released this spring — “God’s Word for Warriors: Returning Home Following Deployment.” The book was released this spring.
“There was a great need for a faith-based course focusing on spiritual development while addressing physical, mental and moral experiences that many veterans have faced,” says Seals, associate professor of Bible. “So we developed this faith and culture course designed specifically for veterans in mind. The lessons taught in this course and the often tough conversations we have led me to write ‘God’s Word for Warriors.’”
Seals says the book addresses several situations that American soldiers face in their goal of achieving normalcy in their post-deployment futures.
“In seeking to assist our veterans in reconnecting with their culture, this book begins with the principle that the first reconnection must contain a spiritual or faith component,” he says. “This book addresses many of the issues the returning veterans face. The designed purpose is to establish a growing and deepening relationship with God, family and fellow believers. The end goal is to bring a wholeness of life to each veteran-spiritually, socially and physically — a life that our Lord desires for all.”
Seals compiled the material he developed for his course and put it together in a study guide form. The book is designed for use by universities across the country as well as by church groups or others who want to offer a study targeting the needs of veterans. All of the proceeds from the sale of “God’s Word for Warriors” go to support the Endowed Chair for Veteran Chaplaincy/Bible at Lipscomb University.
“My mission is to raise enough money so we can fully endow a chair in chaplaincy in the College of Bible & Ministry targeted for veterans or training chaplains,” he says. “The need for chaplains in the military is great. My hope is that through this we can fund a professor, ideally a retired chaplain, who can work with our veterans and teach courses such as this.”
Chad Staggs, director of Lipscomb’s veteran services program, says the book and the course are much-needed resources.
“It’s difficult for veterans to transition to civilian life. There are a number of challenges we face,” says Staggs, a 21-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force. “The things we have seen, done and overcome … everyone handles that differently. What Dr. Seals does is take a raw look at this and peel back the layers. He has the perspective of a veteran, which makes this even more effective for our students.”
“Dr. Seals’ contribution as a chaplain, mentor, coach and counselor has made a significant impact on a lot of lives. He is passionate about veterans and about their faith. What he is doing is laying a foundation for programs not only at Lipscomb but at churches and universities across the country through his book and the course he has developed that will serve veterans and their families for years to come.”
A 'safe place'
The need for courses that allow veterans to “be themselves,” to process their experiences in the field and to transition to a new normal is great.
“My Marine Corps experience gave me insight into what the military is all about,” he admits. “Being of the military and experiencing the things I did with my government work, I just have a heart for our service men and women. Since Lipscomb began the veterans’ services program, I have identified with the veterans that came on campus.”
Knowing that many veterans are wounded physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually as a result of their experiences, Seals “decided that we need to help them heal.”
“The best way to work with our veterans is to be able to identify with them … you know, where they are and some of what they’ve experienced. That helps them identify with you. It just became a natural fit for me to reach out to this group of students. I was one of them so to speak,” he says.
“So I started thinking if we could have a class just for the veterans where we could address some of the issues like PTSD, anger management, survivor guilt, depression, suicide. I developed this as a course in faith and culture as a place where we can talk about these issues — a safe place. It’s a great class.”
Statistics show that veterans wrestle with these issues at alarming rates. Post-deployed veterans account for 14 percent of the total number of individuals experiencing depression, resulting in an alarming rate of suicide among veterans. The Tennessean reported in an April 3 article that the Pentagon stated that 265 active-duty service members killed themselves in 2015, continuing a trend of unusually high suicide rates among U.S. military men and women.
Seals understands that it often takes time for his students to open up to others as well as admit to themselves that there are issues they need to work through in order to successfully transition into life after the military. He has created a safe haven in the “God’s Words for Warriors” class.
“Veterans are able to go into this class to talk about tough things like marriages, depression, anger and anything they want to,” he says. “It’s like the old saying, what goes on in this class, stays in this class. It’s been enriching to me.
“This class is making a difference in the lives of these veterans. When they get in there they talk to each other. They don’t feel alone. The biggest problem our veterans face is that they withdraw. It’s just a good experience for them in the class.”
Each week students are asked to write a reflection paper on the discussion topic. One week the discussion turned to suicide.
“One of my students told me that he just couldn’t bring himself to write a reflection paper, because he once tried to take his own life. I told him not to worry about it,” Seals remembers. “Three weeks later he handed me the paper. He told me that was the best thing he had ever done because he got to write it down and express his thoughts. This is the kind of honest, safe discussions we are able to have.”
One veteran reported in a required paper, “I was always the one to help others out of their struggles. But, I had no help in my struggle with depression and thoughts of suicide. The people who should have known me best didn’t, and they suffered for my lack of control. I was depressed and didn’t realize the actions I was taking, nor did I care. I was numb. My friends didn’t see it.”
Seals says spouses of the student veterans are also invited to participate in some of the class sessions so they can gain insight into the challenges facing their loved ones that will improve and strengthen those relationships.
“Family, friends and loved ones play important roles in becoming involved in the lives of veterans, and we are finding that when the spouses hear these discussions they suddenly have a greater understanding of why their husband or wife acts and reacts the way they do,” he says.
A faith journey
In addition to serving as a haven for letting their guard down for open discussions, Seals says the class helps veterans examine their faith, which can be a difficult endeavor.
“Our veterans are very interested in faith but they don’t like the church. I can understand that because the church doesn’t know what they’ve experienced and how to serve and understand them,” he says. “Churches often don’t know what to do with veterans and as a result say and do hurtful things. At the same time we can treat and teach and help the veterans to know what the church is all about. We have to develop in their lives a better understanding of the church. The church isn’t the enemy.”
Seals’ own journey to becoming a theology professor at a Christian university began in an unlikely way that goes back to that 17-year-old boy all those years ago.
“My family didn’t go to church,” he recalls. “I wasn’t raised going to church.”
One day as a young government employee on assignment, Seals encountered an American missionary located in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“He talked to me. We studied and he got me really thinking about my faith,” he says. “I was becoming very disillusioned with the things I had seen and done in my military and government career and I was looking for something more.”
At age 26, Seals was baptized in Switzerland. This missionary encouraged Seals to begin teaching and preaching. “About this time I was ready to leave my government job behind me and start a new journey.”
In Warrenton, Virginia, Seals saw the work of God in a “chance” encounter with a woman in a shopping center.
“She asked me where I went to church and told me there wasn’t a church in that city. She said that I should build a church,” he remembers. “So I helped build a church. Then I decided to make a change from my government job. I returned to college – to Lipscomb – to finish my degree in Biblical languages.”
After finishing his undergraduate degree, Seals returned to Warrenton while he worked on his master’s degree at Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C., and he continued to work with the church he helped establish there. After about five years, he returned to his hometown of Nashville where he was an adjunct professor in Bible while he worked on his Doctorate of Ministry at Memphis Theological Seminary, which he completed at age 59. He has been a fulltime professor at Lipscomb ever since.
“The Lord works in strange ways,” he muses.
Seals’ work also includes educating Lipscomb’s faculty and staff about how to understand the unique perspective of a veteran.
“Sometimes a professor won’t understand why a veteran misses classes or has trouble paying attention or has to sit with their back against a wall,” he says. “Sometimes we have to find creative and innovative ways to work with our veterans, like offering alternative options for completing course work. We also have to make the Lipscomb community more alert about what the veterans bring to campus. At the same time we have to make our veterans recognize that they have a responsibility as well. It’s a two-way street.”
What does the campus need to know about veterans?
“They bring a maturity to our campus. They bring an outlook on life that we have been sheltered from. I haven’t had a bubbled life. I’ve seen and have been involved in things I just wish I hadn’t. They bother me to this day. Same with many of our veterans,” Seals admits.
“They bring a life’s experience to this campus that typically the Christian culture does not see because we’re sheltered. We can learn what the world is about through their experience. They need from us the ability to be able to handle their experiences in a Christ-like manner. This class is educating these veterans three days a week and opening up their eyes. These veterans see 18-year-olds who walk onto campus as freshmen and think ‘they don’t know what life is like.’ At the same time, there are things in these young people that are veterans didn’t have. Again, it’s an educational process that will break down barriers.”
Seals is committed to making a difference in the lives of Lipscomb’s student veterans. He feels a sense of urgency to raise money through the proceeds of his new book and other fundraising efforts to endow the academic chair to ensure that future generations of student veterans will have a safe place to transform their lives and shape their faith. His inner 17-year-old boy drives him.
“There are people out there who can do what I’m doing and even better,” he says. “I’m hoping to lay a foundation, provide a framework, for others to reach out to veterans on other campuses. I wish I were only 20 years old so I’d have more time to devote to these veterans.”
“Those in these classes may be the ones who are on this campus making a difference to student veterans in the future. This book is just another little step that will help promote the program. Lipscomb is doing something unique here. Others are coming to us to see what we are doing here. It’s in God’s hands, and we hope he promotes it.”
“God’s Word for Warriors: Returning Home Following Deployment” is available at Westbow Press by clicking here. For more information about Lipscomb University’s veteran services program, visit veterans.lipscomb.edu.