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TILLMAN TUESDAY: Contreras Family Continues to Make an Impact in the Veteran and Scholar Community

Pat Tillman Foundation Communications   |   By Jill Walsh, Communications Manager   |   May 23, 2017
Bonnie and Aaron Contreras are part of the inaugural class of Tillman Scholars selected in 2009. Considered as the grandparents of the Tillman Scholars, both continue to be actively involved in the scholar community.

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 had the pleasure of learning more about our first and only husband/wife Tillman Scholar duo Aaron and Bonnie Contreras. Both are part of the inaugural 2009 class of Tillman Scholars and continue to make an impact in the veteran and scholar community.

Tillman Tuesday Tidbits:

  • Aaron and Bonnie had been married a couple of years before Aaron felt a pull to join and serve in the military in December 2010.
  • Both Aaron and Bonnie earned their undergraduate degrees from Idaho State.
  • After serving in the Army National Guard for 11 years Aaron switched to a judge advocate role in October 2011 where he continues to serve as a judge advocate today.
  • Aaron and Bonnie are our first and only Tillman Scholar husband and wife duo and will be married 18 years in June.
  • Having been selected as part of the first class of Tillman Scholars in 2009, Aaron and Bonnie consider themselves the ‘grandparents’ of the Tillman Scholar community.

HOW DID YOU LEARN ABOUT THE TILLMAN SCHOLARSHIP PROGRAM?

Aaron: “It was during our undergrad when I joined the military and we were already married. We were both at the University of Idaho where Bonnie was attending grad school and I was attending law school. I went to the apache flight school course and then went to Afghanistan. After returning from my deployment I attended law school and she started grad school for school psychology. At University of Idaho they have a scholarship called Operation Education which is a scholarship for disabled veterans and spouses. When I was in Afghanistan I sustained some injuries, and qualified for the scholarship through the University of Idaho. At the same time the Tillman Scholarship program was starting and they were partnered with University of Idaho. In 2009, we both applied and were accepted for the scholarship.”

HOW DID THE BOTH OF YOU MEET?

Bonnie: “In high school Aaron was a sophomore while I was a senior and I had big plans to date him but that never came to fruition until later. We had some mutual friends in high school so I did get to know him a little bit. He did serve an LES Mission of Mormons in Argentina for two years while I was finishing school. After high school, I went to BYU and we ran into each other at a choir concert in December 1998 while he was on a date with another girl. When I saw he was there I wasted no time seizing the opportunity to talk to him when his date went to say hi to some friends of hers. We were engaged by Valentine’s Day and married in June.”

WITH YOU BOTH BEING ACCEPTED AS TILLMAN SCHOLARS, WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO RECEIVE THE CALL AND BE TOLD YOU BOTH WERE GOING TO BE PART OF THE INAUGURAL CLASS OF TILLMAN SCHOLARS?

Aaron: “For me it was huge because there was a lot of stuff for service members and for me seeing something that really recognized the service of my spouse meant a lot. Though I had already received a scholarship from Operation Education during my second year of school and having Bonnie receive a scholarship during my third year, recognizing her service, made a huge difference for us.”

HAVING BEEN PART OF THE FIRST CLASS OF TILLMAN SCHOLARS AND SEEING ALL OF THE OTHER CLASSES CONTINUE TO BE SELECTED THROUGHOUT THE YEARS, HOW HAVE YOU SEEN THIS PROGRAM GROW?

Bonnie: “I think it’s great seeing and recognizing the Tillman Foundation did what it set out to do in real time has been very exciting for us. I remember the first year of the Tillman Scholar Program at the sixth Pat’s Run, there were five of us that walked over for the start of the race. It’s amazing that something so positive and powerful came from something so catastrophic. When we were walking over during this year’s Pat’s Run it was great to see how much this program has grown and the realization of how far this program has come. We have a desire to not only be ambassadors as Tillman Scholars but to continue to give back and pay forward what we receive.”

WHAT DID RECEIVING THE TILLMAN SCHOLARSHIP ENABLE YOU THE OPPORTUNITY TO DO THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE OTHERWISE HAD?

Bonnie: “I don’t think we could have done what we did simultaneously without having the support from a community in which it could work with the cost of child care, tuition, and be together as a family while Aaron did his JAG internship at Fort Sam Houston for two months. Without the scholarship, it would have taken us so much longer and been difficult had we not had such great support from the Tillman Foundation.”

Aaron: “The impact the scholarship has is not the same for everybody. When I came home from Afghanistan it was difficult because as an apache pilot there was a lot of stuff I was dealing with (and still do) and didn’t have to worry so much about like the cost of school, books, etc. A big part for me that I see, and one of the biggest benefits wat that it allowed us to be more of a family and for me it gave us that time that I know I needed and our family needed. As a family we were able to do fun activities that we otherwise would not have been able to afford like a night out at the movies, go out to dinner every now and then and just have fun and we could enjoy our time together. Law school and grad school was like a break for us because after war we were able to be a family and not be so stressed.”

HAVING BOTH GRADUATED IN YOUR RESPECTIVE PROGRAMS IN 2010, WHAT ARE YOU BOTH DOING NOW WITH YOUR DEGREES?

Bonnie: “After graduation, I worked in both school counseling and school psychology and am currently working as a middle school counselor at Fort Huachuca in Arizona with mainly active duty and military children. The community still has a large military population and I still really wanted to be part of that even though we’re surrounded by it all the time. Active duty families are a small demographic and being a military spouse having experienced active duty deployments first hand and understanding the stress that comes with it I really enjoy and understand working in that environment.”

Aaron: “Currently I’m serving as the chief of the Intelligence and law division where I teach the legal component of the intelligence training done within courses. This is a two-year assignment and then we’ll head to San Antonio where we’ll be for three years.

WHY DO YOU CONTINUE TO STAY INVOLVED AND ENGAGED IN THE TILLMAN SCHOLAR COMMUNITY?

Bonnie: “I feel we really had an advantage being on the front end and seeing the efforts really come together first hand. Something that was communicated to us from the beginning was that there was always the hope scholars would stay engaged through community involvement. I think our gratitude for the assistance we had it’s natural for us to want to continue to give back to the community. For us it’s about continuing the legacy and I think that can best be done through involvement as recipients. It’s been really rewarding to see the Tillman Scholar program continue to grow. In our office we both have a poster of Pat wearing a number 42 jersey and it’s always a good starting point when working with young male students. It generates curiosity and has given me the opportunity to talk about duty and sacrifice and striving for something larger than yourself – which can be a difficult lesson to teach middle school students. I feel even in my profession there’s an element of the Tillman Foundation which is incorporated naturally into what I do every day.”

Aaron: “I work with a lot of military service members and spouses at the school house where I talk about the Pat Tillman Foundation as much as possible within the limitations. Whenever I can I share what the Tillman Scholarship has done for me and my family. As we’re moving forward, for me it was always a thought of ‘how would I not?’ When you’re selected, you’re a scholar not just a scholarship. It’s a title that doesn’t just end when you graduate and there’s an obligation as you continue to move forward.”