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TILLMAN TUESDAY: 2010 Tillman Scholar Applies Architecture Degree to Military Career

Pat Tillman Foundation Communications   |   By Jill Walsh   |   September 1, 2015
Caleb was the Lead Administrator for the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington D.C. which received LEED (Leadership Energy Environmental Design) Platinum Certification

Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, over 400 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, science, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support. This week we catch up with 2010 Tillman Scholar Caleb Lesselles, who earned his Masters in Architecture from the University of Oregon and recently commissioned into the United States Air Force as a Health Facilities Architect.

What made you decide to join the service and what was your role?

“I grew up in Reno, graduated high school, and was finishing my second year of studies at the University of Nevada-Reno when I started thinking about joining the Air Force. I have a pretty strong family military history– my dad served during Vietnam and my grandfather was a flight engineer for the Canadian Air Force. I enlisted with the U.S. Air Force on December 3, 2001 as a load master, picking up cargo and dropping it off. There were no combat deployments, but I went on two-week trips and it became more of a continuous deployment because we were really busy at that time. I ended up flying for 723 hours total between 2001-2005.

My goal was always to study Environmental Architecture, so after active-duty I decided to be part of the Inactive Reserves. I wanted to head back to school because I wanted to make an impact on this earth – 41% of the energy we use is in our buildings and architecture encompasses land use, so I wanted to study something that was conscientious of the environment.

I didn’t foresee the Air Force as part of my long term career and future until recently. I had planned to work in the States in Environmental Architecture, so I went to University of Oregon to earn my Bachelors in Environmental Studies and Masters of Architecture. The latter meant another five and a half more years of school. The GI Bill only covered four years of architecture school, so the Pat Tillman Foundation helped me in completing my Master’s degree.

Throughout your years of service, what have you learned about yourself that you didn’t know until you joined the Air Force?

“Crew coordination was a really good lesson in working together as a team – making sure we could fly the planes, they were balanced and capable of doing the job. Working together as a team, it was great to be part of something bigger than myself. Dedication to each other and getting the job done was huge!”

Where did you get your passion for environmental architecture?

“Growing up, I was always really artistic and good with numbers, and I was exposed to the environment being raised in an outdoorsy type of family. We climbed and hiked all over the place. I think this led me to naturally care for the environment. I thought it would be a good idea to look at how we use architecture as humans – what we’re doing with it and how we’re modifying it.”

What’s the best architecture project that you’ve worked on to date?

“In architecture, there’s a certification you can get called the Architecture LEED System (Leadership Energy Environmental Design). It’s a rating system most projects use now which deals with building green. That being said, I was the Lead Administrator for the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington D.C. and it ended up getting a LEED Platinum Certification. That’s the highest rating you can get, so it was a cool moment. I also served as the Lead Administrator for a NASA engineering building at Langley Air Force Base and it received LEED Gold Certification too.”

How did you learn about the Tillman Scholars Program?

“The Veterans rep from the University of Oregon told us about the foundation and passed along information. After doing a little research online, I learned a lot more about the scholar community and the mission to leave the world a better place. I knew it was something I wanted to be part of and help make things better.” 

What was your reaction when you learned you had been selected as a Tillman Scholar?

“First, it was a great feeling knowing I could finish school on time! I thought the service component was great and I was motivated seeing stories about what the other scholars were doing. I’ve always tried to be a community-oriented person and as a designer there are always ways to help organizations out. During the summer I received the scholarship, I did a solar sun path study for an urban garden at one of the clinics in Reno. I devised a layout plan that showed them where they should best plant the vegetables for growth and sustainability.”

How has the scholarship and scholar community helped you to pursue your goals?

“When I first received the scholarship I was ecstatic. It wasn’t until after I attended the Leadership Summit though that I started connecting with all of the other scholars and I truly understood the amazing community I was part of. Being a recipient of the scholarship has been absolutely incredible. I actually got my first architecture job through a connection I made with Tillman Scholar Michelle McBee at the Leadership Summit in 2011. I had mentioned that I was job searching and Michelle told me that her uncle was an Architect at a firm in D.C. She passed my portfolio along to him and about two weeks later I packed by bags to move to D.C. for the next four years for my formal architecture internship.”

You just completed your internship in D.C. What is the next step in your architecture career?

“While my internship was winding down, I started looking at where I wanted to head next. I actually put in ‘Air Force Architect’ into Google and learned the Air Force has architects that work on the medical facilities. They oversee master planning, coordination and construction of all the medical campuses that the Air Force has around the world. That type of architecture enhances human well-being and healing, and I was 100% interested in learning more about it. As an officer, it takes about nine months to a year for everything to process, but I recently received a call saying I had been accepted. Then I was commissioned on August 3, 2015 as a Captain. This new position blends everything together that I’ve been working for throughout my career. I will get to help fellow service members while pursuing my architecture passion, so it’s a win-win opportunity!”

Lesselles Commissioning

Where will you be stationed as a Health Facilities Architect and what will you oversee?

“I will be stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. It’s a biomedical position so I will be involved in everything from the master planning for the campuses down to setting up the clinics for humanitarian needs. We will travel to the different medical campuses, researching what needs to be improved and identify how we can make them better. Following our research, we’ll start programming the changes and from there we’ll hire out architecture firms to design the actual buildings according to what we’ve identified as improvement areas.”

Where do you see yourself in five years?

“I would like to have my own private practice set up. I really want to help organizations like Habitat for Humanity with sustainable design and other architectural factors. I see myself helping communities navigate the various aspects of architecture so they can solve community design problems, supporting human wellness and green design. Architects have an ethical responsibility to not only represent the needs of the people who will use their structures and their client, but to the natural environment as well.”