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NEWS & MEDIA

TILLMAN TUESDAY: Adventurist Tillman Scholar Dan Futrell Thrives on Pushing Himself to Better Society

Pat Tillman Foundation Communications   |   By Jill Walsh, Communications Manager   |   October 18, 2016

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 highlight 2011 Tillman Scholar and Army veteran Dan Futrell who earned his Master of Public Policy degree from Harvard Kennedy School of Government and currently works at a tech startup focused on data analytics. Dan’s passion lies in his elected role on the Somerville School Committee where he serves a city of 77,000 people. Also an avid runner, Dan is also featured in the November issue of Outside Magazine, highlighting his discovery of the black box from a missing Bolivian airline flight that killed all 29 people on board.

WHERE DID YOU GROW UP AND WHAT STRUGGLES DID YOU HAVE EARLY ON THAT HELPED PAVED THE WAY FOR YOU AND LEAD YOU TO THE MILITARY?

“Due to a turbulent early life, I grew up in and out of foster care in Florida and after a few years a state-appointed guardian found my dad in California, who I started living with at age six. My dad has worked for the same company since he was 19, we shopped at Goodwill, were tight on groceries, but one thing he did was make sure I had a good education. He enrolled me in a private school but due to a lot of circumstances couldn’t afford to continue partway through my seventh grade year. The school called my dad in and said, ‘let’s talk about this, Dan is part of our family and we want you to do what you can financially but we feel he should stay here and finish through eighth grade.’ The school basically waived tuition so I could stay there and have some continuity. A teacher later on helped me with my application for a local college prep school, which I was fortunate to attend. There were so many people that helped me along the way and made all of those things possible.

I applied to four colleges and ended up going to Gonzaga University. My dad unfortunately wasn’t able to pay for college so upon my arrival, meeting with the Financial Aid office they asked how I planned to pay for school to which I did not have an answer. They told me I could take out a bunch of loans, my parents could take out a bunch of loans, I could get a part time job or I could join ROTC. My dad had mentioned ROTC as an option for school previously but as a stubborn 18 year old, I told him I’d never do it. However, after joining ROTC I loved the people and happily accepted a four year scholarship in December 2001. For me it was both a way to pay for school and a way to have some adventure and do something that would be worthwhile later on.”

DESCRIBE YOUR PATH OF MILITARY SERVICE, WHY YOU CHOSE THE INFANTRY ROUTE AND WHAT YOU GOT OUT OF YOUR TIME SERVING.

“In 2005 it was pretty clear I was going to go to either Iraq or Afghanistan. I went to Georgia and completed the Infantry Officer Basic Course and Ranger School, joined my unit and went off to Baghdad a year after I graduated college. I wanted to be an Infantryman because I felt if I was going to be in the Army, I wanted to be right in the thick of things. Everyone in the military supports the Infantryman who’s doing the hard work. I served for 5 years, serving 2 ½ years in Baghdad as an Infantry Officer. My first deployment was before and during the surge in 2006.”

WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE LIKE BEING IN FOSTER CARE AND WHAT IS THE RESPECT YOU HAVE FOR THOSE WHO SERVE AS FOSTER PARENTS?

“As a kid, I didn’t know any different but as an adult looking back I couldn’t imagine how hard it is being a foster parent and taking on something like that. As a grown man who has served in the military, it taught me that you do everything as a team and don’t leave anybody behind. The foster system is our communal answer to a social need, part of our commitment to each other to never let anyone suffer. I have a ton of respect for anyone who serves in the role of a foster parent.”

WHAT IS YOUR ROLE AND WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO RUN FOR THE SOMERVILLE SCHOOL COMMITTEE?

“I’m currently in my second two-year term on the School Committee, where I’ve been advocating for the elevation of social and emotional learning for urban youth. Today’s top-down assessment system often over-emphasizes math and English education, and I think working towards those metrics alone will miss an opportunity for our kids to learn character traits and interpersonal skills. I currently serve as chair of the Finance & Facilities subcommittee.

I was encouraged to join the School Committee by my State Senator, Pat Jehlen, a former teacher and School Committee member herself. In May of 2013 I gathered enough signatures to get on the ballot and won in November of 2013 with 75% of the vote. The School Committee is like a board for a corporation that oversees the CEO, or in this case the Superintendent, sets policies and budgets for the school district. We’re helping to guide an organization that educates kids.”

WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF DURING YOUR FIVE YEARS IN THE MILITARY THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE OTHERWISE KNOWN PRIOR TO JOINING THE SERVICE?

“I started out as a platoon leader in Baghdad and immediately thought this meant being in charge meant making all decisions myself, but was corrected on that very quickly and rightfully so by some exceptional NCOs. I learned a lot about how important a team is to leadership, and how the team is better by tapping into all skills available. The military made me very proud to wear the uniform during as well as after I was out. I also got a good dose of humility – I’m never going to be the smartest guy in the room and don’t need to be. Learning to trust others around me and trust that they know better than I do and we’re all going to work together to come up with the best plan as opposed to one person working alone. That’s something I definitely use today.”

UPON COMPLETING YOUR TIME IN THE SERVICE, WHY DID YOU PURSUE A DEGREE IN PUBLIC POLICY?

“At the time I decided on my degree I was very disillusioned as to why we went to Iraq and thought it was unnecessary. I’ve been a beneficiary of policies that have worked as far as education and family services like foster care. I’m one of those stories where everything worked out okay and there are a lot of stories where things did not work out. I look at this as a way where I can do something positive that’s going to leave a lasting impact.”

WITH YOUR DEGREE IN HAND, WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW?

“I work at a tech company that does a lot of data research and marketing. My school committee role has everything to do with Public Policy – digging through how budgets drive outcomes and how we get to our goals, how we interact with the teachers union… These are all things we talked about in grad school.”

AS AN AVID RUNNER, HAVING RUN SEVEN MARATHONS WHILE ALSO PARTICIPATING AS PART OF TEAM TILLMAN, RAISING MONEY FOR YOUR FELLOW SCHOLARS, WHERE DID YOUR INTEREST IN RUNNING COME FROM?

“My dad used to run 10Ks and he always invited me to run with him. When I was about eight years old I would run the last 1-2 miles of races with him. There was a ¼ mile track behind our house where my dad would do laps so I would always join him. When I got to high school it seemed natural that I would join the track and cross country team and then later went on to run Division 1 Cross Country at Gonzaga while earning my Bachelor’s degree. When I got to the Army I was pretty good at running and have kept up with it ever since. My goal is to break three hours in a marathon and it will happen this year!”

IN A COUPLE OF WEEKS THERE’S AN ARTICLE COMING OUT FEATURING YOU AND YOUR FRIEND, HIGHLIGHTING YOUR RECENT DISCOVERY THIS PAST MAY. COULD YOU PLEASE SHARE WHAT IT’S ABOUT.

“Last summer I was on the internet wondering what happened to the missing Malaysia Airlines flight so I Googled it and followed this internet rabbit hole down to a Wikipedia page that lists the 19 unrecovered flight recorders in the history of aviation. I started reading about each one of them as they list a reason why they weren’t found. One of them (Eastern Airlines Flight 980) stated it wasn’t found due to high altitude and inaccessible terrain. I pulled up the location on Google Earth, learned it was a mountain in Bolivia and thought, ‘it doesn’t look inaccessible.’ I pitched the idea to one of my friends: ‘we should go find this black box.’ He reminded me we weren’t mountaineers but we decided to commit to it by buying ourselves plane tickets and it turned into a real idea. We bought an altitude tent and kept it in our basement so we could adjust to the altitude while sleeping.

We contacted a pilot who had written a book about this plane crash that had flown into the mountain at 19,600 feet January 1, 1985 with 29 people on board. The plane was smuggling snake and alligator skins from Paraguay into the U.S. to make items like belts. We found a guy who had seen some of the plane debris so we hired him to be our expert guide. We eventually found some debris along with the black box and the cockpit voice recorder along with pieces of magnetic tape.

Right now we’re in a limbo position with the government of Bolivia and the U.S. State Department and the NTSB. The U.S. won’t look at the tapes until the Bolivians give permission and they have been nonresponsive. Before this trip we connected with Peter Frick-Wright from Outside Magazine who convinced the magazine to send him with us and committed to a 5,000 word feature article. They sent Peter and a photographer with us and the article will be published in the November issue.. We hope this article will also put some pressure on the U.S. agencies to look at the tape.”

WHAT WAS THE EXCITEMENT LIKE WHEN YOU ACTUALLY DID FIND THE BOX AND REALIZED HOW IT CHANGED HISTORY FOR THIS AIRLINE AND FAMILIES OF THOSE VICTIMS ON BOARD?

“It was a bit anti-climactic. We found six pieces of the box over the period of time we were there and the final piece said ‘cockpit voice recorder’. We debated whether we had found something or not until we found the last piece. It was like a, ‘wow would you look at that.’ We also found a journal from a woman who had hiked the mountain six months after the plane crash and wrote notes to her deceased husband in it. We did talk to some of the family members afterwards and one in particular we met up with in Boston. She asked for some pieces of the plane and touched the box – it was a very powerful moment as she was two-years old when her dad was killed on this flight. It’s great that we did what we wanted to do but we were also conscious of the fact we were surrounded by tragedy.”

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR YOU TO BE PART OF THE TILLMAN SCHOLAR COMMUNITY?

“At this year’s Leadership Summit someone made the comment, ‘what would Pat be doing now if he were here?’ The response was, ‘it’s in our Tillman Scholars’. For me being part of the Tillman Scholar Community makes me feel like I need to live up to a high standard that my fellow Tillman Scholars are also living up to. I need to keep pushing myself and continue to make an impact. My trip to Bolivia and working on the School Committee scratches that itch for me a bit as well as a backpack company that I’m working on. Being a Tillman Scholar is putting my dreams into action.”

WHERE DO YOU HOPE TO SEE YOURSELF IN FIVE YEARS?

“In five years, I’d like to be running my own business that provides a product or service that I can both be proud of and that solves a real problem. Additionally, any business I’d like to start would have a social element to it that gives back to the community. In a world where businesses themselves are social citizens, I want to find a sustainable way to continue to pay it back. I’d like to have a house and a family and my dog Libby here in Somerville, and I’d like to continue finding ways to push myself outside whether it’s through more marathons or, even better, an Ironman Triathlon.”