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NEWS & MEDIA

TILLMAN TUESDAY: 2015 Scholar Halli Stewart Has Passion to Fight for Social Justice

Pat Tillman Foundation Communications   |   By Jill Walsh   |   October 20, 2015
Halli Stewart made the tough decision to separate from the service, turning her focus to being a great mom for her son Noah

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. In this week’s Tillman Tuesday we learn more about 2015 Tillman Scholar Halli Stewart who served five years in the U.S. Army. During her service, Halli experienced a traumatic event, which taught her to persevere and ignited a passion to fight for equality and justice. A first generation college student, she is currently attending UW-Milwaukee, pursuing her Ph.D. in Urban Education. 

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO JOIN THE SERVICE?

“Where I was born and raised in Racine, Wisconsin, they have a large Fourth of July parade that is a big event and the entire city attends. Since I was young I watched the customs and courtesies of the military in that parade. The representation of patriotism and fighting for your country was always intriguing to me. As I grew older, my brother-in-law served in the Army, and when I was 10 years old I visited him in California. On that trip, I became completely entranced by many different aspects of the Army, from the soldiers to the cadence to formations – all of it was very interesting to me. As I went through high school, I realized I wasn’t ready for college yet and I wanted to do something ‘big’ in my life, so I decided at that point to join the Army, signing my paperwork at the age of 17.”

HOW DID YOU END UP TRAINING AS A COMBAT MEDIC DURING YOUR TIME OF SERVICE?

“It was an option presented to me based on my test scores. I was then shown a video about being a combat medic where everyone was in hospital whites and going around the hospital with a tray. I got a big dose of reality when I never saw hospital whites and I was sleeping in an ambulance for weeks at a time. What you are shown on the video versus what really happens were very different for me. I knew I wanted to go into a field that was going to make a large impact and definitely help people. While I think that all jobs in the military offer that, I think there are particular jobs like being a medic where helping people is inevitable.”

YOU SERVED FIVED YEARS IN THE ARMY. WAS IT A TOUGH DECISION TO SEPARATE FROM THE SERVICE?

“Right after I had my son, Noah, I received orders for Korea, but by then the end of my contract was coming up in three months. I would’ve had to re-up and go to Korea without my son, so I decided to get out. I didn’t want to miss the first year of my son’s life.”

DURING YOUR TIME IN THE SERVICE, WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE KNOWN PRIOR TO JOINING?

“When I joined the military, I knew that I needed some structure and discipline, but along with that I needed to be trusted that I could accomplish things on my own. I was raised in a religious family where I didn’t have many freedoms, so I didn’t really experience things for myself and know what I was capable of doing on my own. During my time in the service, I learned that I had skills to problem solve, think about things and make my own decisions, whereas I didn’t have that experience prior to joining.”

YOU UNFORTUNATELY HAD A TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCED DURING YOUR TIME IN THE MILITARY. HOW HAS IT INSPIRED YOUR PASSION FOR JUSTICE AND SERVICE TO OTHERS?

“While I was stationed at Ft. Knox, I was raped by a fellow soldier. Going through that experience has ignited my passion to fight for social justice, to look at things in a different manner and know things are not always how they may appear. I want to change the beliefs surrounding what rape victims look like, but I also want to change the perception of what people with mental health diagnoses look like, as I was also diagnosed with PTSD after my rape. Taking it a step further, I want to create more awareness about what survivors of military sexual trauma face.

Given those three areas, I feel people are very quick to pass judgement about what people who have been sexually assaulted look like, what the mental health diagnoses are that they might face, and what disabled veterans look like too. I think if you ask the general public what images come to mind when they think of people who face these issues, they’re not going to describe somebody who is successful and educated and functioning well. What ends up being the perpetuated stereotype behind that is that these are people who are not as “successful” or doing much with their lives. I would like to change that perception and be an example for others.

Personally, I think there are so many kids out there that are facing issues and thinking things that nobody knows about or nobody takes the time to look into. People would rather just slap on labels and make judgements about kids, making decisions on what is best for them without even asking them. Motivated by my own experiences, I want to inspire educators to look deeper, build relationships with students, and understand that sometimes there is more than what they see on the surface.”

DO YOU FEEL THE MILITARY HAS COME A LONG WAY WHEN IT COMES TO SEXUAL ASSAULT?

“I think they’ve realized there is a problem, but I still think far too many go unreported, especially a crime  as personal in nature as sexual assault, They say that for every one that gets reported there are five that go unreported. I think while the military in general is realizing there is an issue within the Armed Forces, there is still this system in place where it’s not safe to report the crime. I really think that sexual assault in the military is a completely different aspect than in the civilian world because you’re trained to fight and protect yourself. When you’re sexually assaulted, you realize that you weren’t able to defend everything; as a result, you start doubting those skills. The person who was supposed to be defending you and have your back is also now the person who made you a victim – which adds another piece to it.”

HOW DO YOU USE YOUR EXPERIENCES BEING BOTH A MOM AND A TEACHER, IMPACTING TODAY’S YOUTH?

“I really focus on trying to help people understand that everybody has their own story and their own things they’re dealing with. Even if there are two people whose experiences are the same, no two people see it the same way. So what I try to get people to look at, not only the teachers and administrators that I work with but also my son, I try to get them to understand that we need to take the time to get to know each other as individuals and know each other’s struggles if we’re ever really going to make a change that’s going to be impactful on a higher level. Until we do that, we can’t make the world a better place or create a safer environment for anybody if we’re just putting a ‘one size fits all’ label on everybody.”

LOOKING BACK, HOW HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE DEFINED YOUR PASSION TO USE YOUR STORY TO HELP OTHER PEOPLE?

“I can’t change that this happened to me nor can I change that it affects my life every single day so all I can do is capitalize off the positives. I’ve realized that it makes me have a certain appreciation and sensitivity for people who have gone through traumatic experiences. It’s made me a more open-minded person so I look at things from a standpoint that has given me a tremendous amount of empathy and the will to fight for social justice and equality. Through all of this I’ve realized there are systems in place that prevent people from doing things every single day and if we just sit back and let those systems occur and don’t fight for justice, nothing will change. It’s rare to find people who are willing to fight for something that doesn’t directly impact them – that’s why I find the Tillman Scholars are such an amazing group of people. They are a group of people who are out there taking up causes that might not necessarily make their world better in any way but it’s going to help other people. My experience has also given me the idea that I can make it through anything – with that being an extremely difficult time in my life and yet I came out on the other side and persevered.”

YOU STATED YOU WERE NOT READY FOR COLLEGE RIGHT AFTER HIGH SCHOOL UNTIL AFTER YOUR TIME IN THE SERVICE. AT WHAT POINT DID YOU REALIZE YOU WERE READY TO TAKE THE NEXT STEP AND ENROLL IN COLLEGE?

“While I was in the Army I became a Combat Lifesaver (individual who administers first aid until a medic can arrive) instructor and realized I really liked teaching. I like being able to help people learn and explain information to them in a practical way. That sparked my interest in education and teaching. You think that when you get out of the Army you’ll find a civilian job close to what you’ve been accustomed to doing in the military, but when I got out civilian employers were telling me I was the equivalent of a Nursing Assistant. While that was a great profession, it wasn’t something I could support my son Noah on. I went to work for a short period of time as a pediatric dental assistant at my childhood dentist and within less than a year, she encouraged me to go back to school. She handed me a letter of recommendation and told me I no longer had a job and needed to go to school ASAP. In a nutshell, she told me I had to do more with my life and career than work for her, so that expedited my decision to pursue college. While I don’t think I was mature enough to go to college right out of high school, after five years in the Army going to college was a piece of cake!

I earned my Bachelor’s Degree from UW-Parkside and started working right away as a high school reading teacher at Racine Unified School District. I then went back to school to Alverno College where I earned my Master’s degree in reading. In June 2014, I decided I was going to go back to school again, this time at UW-Milwaukee, to pursue a Master’s in Administrative Leadership and not long after starting I realized I wanted to earn my Ph.D. as well”

HOW DID YOU LEARN ABOUT THE TILLMAN SCHOLAR PROGRAM?

“I had actually never heard of the Pat Tillman Foundation until I read about it in a veteran email sent out from UW-Milwaukee. I went on the website and started reading the bios about the current Tillman Scholars and thought ‘I will never, ever possibly be chosen for this!’ I dismissed it and then received another email prior to the application process opening up. They encouraged people to apply so I decided to give it a shot with the thought that it would never happen in a million years.”

GIVEN YOUR HESTITANCY AT FIRST, WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION THEN WHEN THE FOUNDATION CALLED TO SAY YOU WERE CHOSEN AS A 2015 TILLMAN SCHOLAR?

“When I received the call I was shopping for engagement rings, so there were two huge events going on in my life at once. I was in disbelief and kept asking, ‘are you sure?’ The excitement was overwhelming. I was in shock for a couple of weeks for sure – I was definitely speechless. There was a second layer of shock when I read my fellow scholars’ bios and thought that there must have been a mistake!”

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO BE PART OF THIS TILLMAN COMMUNITY?

“Meeting the other scholars at the Pat Tillman Leadership Summit was great because I realized I had this group of people who have had some of the same experiences I have had. Having a group of people that have not only similar military experiences but who are also going through educational endeavors later in life. It helps you relate to them. Additionally, meeting the staffers representing the foundation who are taking up this cause and wanting to give back in order to change what the image of veterans is in society is also very helpful. It’s good to know there are other civilian allies who aren’t just veterans themselves. On a personal level, I’ve been asked to do several different interviews and represent Tillman Scholars at events which has given me a platform and an opportunity to shatter those stereotypes that are out there about veterans. That’s really what I want to do – show there are people out there who are successful. It’s also helped me at work as I’m helping our public relations department begin a recognition program for veterans that are working within the district.”

WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN FIVE YEARS?

“I’d like to stay in public education in some aspects and I’d also like to start teaching at the college level because I really think that some of the professors at the college level don’t have any classroom experience. They’re not preparing incoming teachers and administrators for what they’re really going to experience on the ground level in community classrooms. I’d like to make sure teachers are prepared for the reality of what we deal with currently in schools.

I also have plans to write a book someday about self-disclosure. There are things we don’t talk about in society – racism, sexual assault, LGBT issues, etc. because they’re uncomfortable for people to talk about. I’ve found throughout my life that when you talk about those things, although it may be a little uncomfortable, you’re actually educating people. I feel being able to talk about certain issues brings awareness to those who may not understand. We need to be able to change certain people’s thinking in order to change the world.”