When former-NFL player Pat Tillman was killed during combat in Afghanistan in 2004, the national media jumped on the story with books, movies and multiple headlines probing into the events surrounding his death.
However, Tillman’s wife, Marie Tillman, wanted to ensure that the stories of other military members and their families would not go unnoticed. After her husband’s death, Marie Tillman created the Pat Tillman Foundation to provide educational scholarships to veterans and their dependents.
On Monday, Marie Tillman and a panel of USF’s Tillman scholars told their stories as part of the foundation’s Southeast Regional Gathering, a three-day conference aimed at highlighting issues facing military members and their families.
“I spent my days planning events and catering to athletes and celebrities, and my nights drowning in grief,” she said of the days following her husband’s death.
Pat Tillman left the Arizona Cardinals in 2002 to become an Army Ranger in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Pat Tillman received the Silver Star for valor after the Army ruled that he had been killed by enemy fire. However, when she heard that her husband was really killed by the fire of Rangers in his own regiment, an accident dubbed “friendly fire” by the Pentagon, Marie Tillman said her world crumbled.
“There was something strange that happened in those first days or weeks after he was killed,” she said. “There was a certain clarity … I had this realization that life was really precious and sometimes it was really short and I knew that I wanted my time on this planet to be worth something. I wanted to do something that was meaningful and impactful.”
Tillman then decided to create the foundation to help returning veterans and their families interact with their communities and prevent the sense of helplessness she felt in the wake of her husband’s death.
Tillman recipient Rick Schumacher, who graduated from Park University in Montana in the spring, said it was difficult for him to get the education he hoped for after coming back from Iraq.
“I got back in 2004 and I started drinking a lot,” he said. “I went to a bar and stayed there for about a year. I got on the GI Bill, but it didn’t click.”
The GI Bill was created after World War II to fund the education of returned veterans.
After receiving the Tillman scholarship, Schumacher said life adjusted for him in the U.S. He currently has a GPA of 3.95.
Tony Rivera, Assistant Director of Veterans Services at USF, said a major part of the foundation is about service and giving back to the community.
“The Tillman Scholarship is not just about finances and attaining money,” he said during the panel. “It’s a prestigious award where they have to adhere to community service and giving back to the community, because that’s what it’s all about: giving back.”
Some scholarship recipients started nonprofit organizations such as Cover Six Risk Management, the 6th Branch, and the Student Veterans of America in order to fulfill this requirement.
The scholarship is also designed to provide support systems for its recipients. Josiah Hill, a 2011 Tillman Scholar from USF who is a Coast Guard veteran and graduate student studying medicine, said he had to fend for himself upon returning to the civilian world.
“I think the biggest thing I’d been faced with is the difference between the military and civilian mindset as far as teamwork versus individual,” he said. “In the military we’ve often learned that a strong team does better than fighting by yourself. I think that has been kind of difficult to go from the transition of a team dynamic to suddenly having to be by yourself.”
USF, which became one of 12 Tillman Military Scholar University partners in January, has also begun several initiatives to make veterans feel more at home.
Director of Veterans Services Larry Braue said USF is creating a new lounge in the Administration Building in hopes of creating a better sense of community for veterans on campus. At the Southeast Regional Gathering, veterans participated in a ropes course Saturday, and Sunday they participated in a gardening and decorating the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital as well as attended leadership workshops.
Director of Programs for the Pat Tillman Foundation Hunter Riley said the foundation is trying to maintain its growth. Last year, 1,242 students applied for scholarships and 60 were selected.
Marie Tillman said creating a sense of community for returning veterans falls on the shoulders of all.
“When the men and women who volunteer to serve our country do so, they give up a lot of freedoms,” she said. “They are giving their lives up to us and they expect us in turn to be knowledgeable and engaged. It’s a really big responsibility that we have.”