USF vets selected as Tillman scholars

Their paths started in different places, but they all hope to enter the field of medicine.

Richard Mendez, a graduate student in medical sciences, Alicia Irvin, a graduate student in medical sciences and Anthony DeSantis, a second year medical student, were recently named as 2013 Pat Tillman Scholars.

The Tillman Foundation, which was founded to help assist veterans and their families returning to pursue higher education after former NFL-player Pat Tillman was killed while on active duty in Afghanistan, awarded 60 scholarships to recipients across the nation.

These are the stories of the three selected from USF.

Richard Mendez

Mendez was a senior in high school on Sept. 11, 2001.

He had wanted to join the military, and the days and weeks following the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon strengthened his desire to join the armed services.

Initially, he said, his family didn’t want him to enlist.

“They knew what was to come,” he said.

He decided to give college a try and enrolled at UCF, about 30 minutes away from his home in Orlando where he had spent his whole life.

But after two years and witnessing his grades slip and lack of passion for being in school, he decided to go back to his original dream of joining the military.

“It was probably the best decision I made, and a life-changing one, because I joined as a shy kid,” he said. “I didn’t really talk. I was a totally different person. Going to the military, I was put in different situations that forced me to grow up and change and mature.”

When he enrolled in college at UCF, like many incoming students, he didn’t know what he wanted to do.

“I was an 18-year-old kid,” he said. “Who really knows?”

But after four and a half years on active duty, three deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan, Mendez soon found exactly what he wanted to do — make a difference through medical care.

“Before the military, I had this huge aversion to needles and blood,” he said. “I wasn’t a fan. Most people aren’t. But in the military, we went through some training where you give IVs and different medical procedures that taught me that even if I had a fear of something, I could overcome it. Same thing happened with my fear of heights. I was scared of heights, but our unit was an airborne unit, so we had to jump out of airplanes. I knew that even though, I didn’t necessarily think I could do it, I showed myself I could.”

On his third deployment to Iraq, while on a mission, one vehicle ran over and improvised explosive device . The IED was directly underneath one of his friends from his platoon.

Mendez and other in his platoon set up a site from which his friend could be extracted and airlifted to a combat hospital.

“I remember seeing him being put onto the stretcher onto the helicopter and at that moment, I knew that’s what I’m going to do,” he said.

He later found out that the friend died three times in flight, but was resuscitated through medical expertise.

After leaving the military, Mendez completed his undergraduate degree at Illinois State University, where he said the transition was initially difficult.

“When I initially got out of the military, for about the first year or two years, the war in Afghanistan was really at it’s peak and I had a lot of friends that had gone over there,” he said. “A lot of people I knew were getting injured and killed. Like, a lot. I was going to class and constantly receiving phone calls saying, ‘Hey, this guy just got hurt last night,’ you know, ‘Hey, this guy just got killed.’ On campus you see a lot of veterans and you think, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ but there’s a lot more to it than that. A lot of these experiences and stuff, it’s hard to talk about with the average student because they don’t understand some of these experiences we’ve had.”

But after coming to USF for graduate school, he said being on a veteran-friendly campus is helpful.

While in Tampa, Mendez has volunteered with the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, an organization that assistance and support to Special Ops Command veterans, and GallantFew, which helps rangers transition to civilian life.

He is applying to medical schools and said he hopes to continue at USF, where he will be able to work with the James A. Haley Veterans Affairs hospital.

He said he hopes other veterans are able to find success at USF.

“As you return to school, remember that you are not alone,” he said. “My transition back to school was extremely difficult, but talking about my experiences helped greatly. There are many veterans on campus who have gone through similar experiences and understand. Reach out.”

Alicia Irvin123