Tillman scholarships helping veterans serve their communities
PHOENIX — There are teachers, doctors, nurses and lawyers.
They are a diverse bunch, these Tillman scholars. Their common denominator is a life dedicated to service to their communities and society at large.
About 60 scholarships are awarded each year — out of about 2,000 applications — by the Pat Tillman Foundation, the organization founded following the combat death of the man who abandoned an NFL career to join the military.
Given to veterans or their spouses, the scholarships average about $15,000. Some $12 million has been awarded over the years. Much of the money comes from the NFL through its Salute to Service program.
"Through the Tillman Scholars program, we're able to see Salute to Service come to life and witness the many ways this work impacts the military community," said Anna Isaacson, the NFL's senior vice president of social responsibility.
Marie Tillman, the foundation's president, believes her late husband would approve of the scholarship effort.
"I'd hope that he would be happy about the fact that his life continues to inspire people," she said, "and continues to give so many people opportunities to go on in the world and do great things."
A dozen years after his death, Tillman is a name that's become synonymous with sacrifice and service. After a standout career at Arizona State, he played four seasons for the Arizona Cardinals.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001, which led Tillman to abandon his athletic career to join the Army Rangers. He already had been to Iraq and was on tour in Afghanistan when he was killed.
Family and friends created the Tillman Foundation in 2004, pledging $1.25 million to create the ASU Leadership Through Action program, a scholarship offered through the university's business school.
In 2009, the Tillman Scholars program was launched.
One requirement is past service to the community, through the military or some other avenue.
"We're also looking at what it is that they want to do with their experience and the education that they're looking to get," Marie Tillman said. "What is the impact that they're hoping to have as they move forward with that education."
Joseph Wheaton was an Army Ranger in the same battalion as Tillman, though they never met.
Wheaton was deployed four times to Afghanistan and twice to Iraq. In his later tours, he oversaw a team of snipers.
After leaving the military, Wheaton graduated summa cum laude from Arizona State before attending law school.
He went to work in the gang unit of the Maricopa County prosecutor's office but said he found that all he was doing was sending people to prison who deserved to be there.
Wheaton wanted to reach youngsters before they got into trouble. So he decided to switch to teaching.
His benefits exhausted, he couldn't afford to go back to school on his own, so he applied for and received a Tillman scholarship.
Wheaton wants to someday affect national education policy but felt he needed some grass-roots experience.
This year, he received his master's degree in secondary education from Arizona State. He teaches at a high school outside Phoenix, where many of his students come from low-income households.
"Only experience at the ground level will help highlight the problem and therefore better direct the path toward effective solutions," he said.
Blake Schroeder was 20 when he first arrived in Iraq.
"Our unit took a pretty heavy toll," he said. "There were about 160 of us, all National Guardsmen from Illinois, young. All of us had initially joined to go to college. We had about 35 wounded and five killed, the first being within 16 hours arriving in Iraq."
When he came back, he couldn't adjust. Visits with a Veterans Affairs counselor did no good. The only thing that worked, he said, was re-enlisting. It was a much less intense trip to Iraq this time. When he returned, recalling his troubled first time back from the war, Schroeder chose to become a clinical psychologist.
"They covered a pretty significant portion of my education," he said, "that allowed me to keep going."
Now, with a doctorate from The Adler School of Professional Psychology, he treats people with post-combat conditions.
Each year, new scholarship recipients as well as many of the earlier ones gather for the Tilllman Summit.
"It kind of blows your mind when you're surrounded by all these like-minded individuals," Schroeder said.
Emily Thompson-Schelberg enlisted in the Marines in 2005 and deployed to Iraq with an artillery unit. She was a turret gunner on a 7-ton vehicle moving supplies and people.
During down time, she helped with humanitarian aid missions, an experience that solidified her decision to follow in her mother's footsteps and become a nurse.
She graduated from Penn State with a degree in sports medicine, worked for a year doing concussion research there, then attended Johns Hopkins, something she said she never could have done without the Tillman aid.
Now she works as a nurse practitioner in Annapolis, Maryland, where many of her patients are retired Navy personnel. On the side she is a CrossFit coach and nutrition counselor at a gym.
And she is training with the U.S. developmental skeleton team, an event in which she lies facedown and careens down a mountain on a sled. Her target is the 2022 Olympics.
"The scholarship opened doors that I would never have had access to," she said.
Veterans get a lot of media attention for the troubles they have, Thompson-Schelberg said.
The Tillman Foundation, she said, is showing that "veterans have something to offer ... we can do a lot for our communities."