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TILLMAN TUESDAY: Scholar and Former Helicopter Pilot Jennifer Marino Strives to Make an Impact in Others’ Lives

Pat Tillman Foundation Communications   |   By Jill Walsh   |   January 19, 2016
Tillman Scholar Jennifer Marino recently spent three months in Africa working as a team leader for African Odyssey

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. Class of 2012 scholar Jennifer Marino recently returned from a three-month project in Africa and in 2013 completed a bike ride across the country, interviewing Gold Star families. The retired Marine Major and CH-46E helicopter pilot continues to be driven by a larger purpose than just serving herself.

WHERE DID YOU GROW UP AND HOW DID YOU REACH THE DECISION TO JOIN THE MILITARY?

“I am from the western part of Colorado. My grandfathers both served for a couple of years and one of my uncles was in the Marines while another uncle served in the Navy. I didn’t start thinking seriously about a military career until my sophomore year in high school when I suddenly decided I wanted to fly fighter aircraft. At that point, I was blissfully ignorant of the fact there was still a combat exclusion policy in place and I wouldn’t have actually been able to enter the career field I was interested in. However, during my senior year of high school that law changed, so by the time I was accepted to the Naval Academy, the field of combat aviation was open to women.

I visited the Naval Academy on a gray, icy weekend in late January of my senior year of high school. Despite the terrible weather, I was very enamored by the place, so I was thrilled to receive an appointment later that year. I really didn’t know much about the Marine Corps at that point, but during my plebe year at the academy, I began to take notice of upper class students and instructors who were Marines or going to become Marines. I was very impressed by their approach to leadership and the way they conducted themselves. I learned more about the mission of the Marine Corps and became convinced that path was right for me. I still wanted to fly, but my goal was to become a Marine pilot.”

WHEN DID YOU HAVE A CHANGE OF HEART IN WANTING TO FLY A HELICOPTER?

“Several months into my time at The Basic School (TBS) in Quantico we saw a helicopter demonstration during one of our field exercises. That was the moment when my mind changed from wanting to fly a fixed-wing aircraft to flying helicopters – I was really taken by their maneuverability and the fact they were so close to the Marines they were supporting on the ground. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. During the helicopter training phase of flight school, as I got to know the instructors from the different helicopter communities in the Marine Corps, I realized that the CH-46 community seemed like the right fit for me. I loved the assault support mission and the crew coordination aspect of flying. It felt like a privilege to support the Marines on the ground and carry them into or out of the fight.”

IF YOU COULD EXPLAIN IT, DESCRIBE WHAT IT WAS LIKE FOR YOU FULFILLING YOUR DREAM OF BEING CLOSE TO THE GROUND IN THE FIGHT AND FLYING A HELICOPTER?

“When you do it day after day, you kind of just think, ‘this is my job’ but then when you get to talk to people who haven’t had that experience, you realize how unique it is. I loved the crew coordination – which is absolutely crucial when piloting a dynamic weapons system like that as a part of the Marine Corps’ combined arms approach. I have memories of moments – specifically during deployments in Iraq – when I was struck by the responsibility for all of the lives aboard my aircraft. The first day of the invasion into Iraq, when we crossed the border and dropped a squad of young Marines at their landing zone on the battlefield, I wondered if they would all make it out. During another mission, we landed at a hasty zone very near the fighting to evacuate a Marine with a gunshot wound to the chest. The moment we landed for the tail-to-tail transfer with the Army Blackhawk that would take him to Baghdad, I prayed he would survive. During moments like these, which sometimes felt overwhelming but were mostly very gratifying – it wasn’t just about me flying an aircraft – it was about being part of this larger mission and purpose.”

AS A HELICOPTER PILOT, WHAT DID YOUR DUTIES ENTAIL?

“I deployed to Iraq for the initial invasion in 2003 and then again in 2004-2005. The CH-46E helicopter was a part of the assault support community within Marine Corps aviation. We did medium-lift troop transport, carrying mostly people and lighter cargo. Our squadron flew casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) missions, emergency resupply missions and other more routine troop and cargo transport flights that occurred mostly at night when the threat was lower. After my deployments, I served as an instructor pilot with the CH-46E training squadron and then with Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1), which supports presidential travel domestically and worldwide.”

HOW LONG DID YOU SERVE AND WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO RETIRE FROM THE MILITARY?

“I served 15 years and three months on active duty. I chose to apply for early retirement because the CH-46E was being decommissioned and I had too much time in service to transition to another aircraft. I had become interested in working on programs for combat and operational stress and resilience, and there didn’t seem to be a way for me to do that while in uniform. I was still well short of the 20-year mark when the Marine Corps reinstated the early retirement option as a way to downsize the force. Because I had enough time in service to qualify for early retirement and because it seemed that I would likely be stuck in a desk job for the last five years of my career if I stayed in until 20, I decided to apply. I spent my last year on active duty working at the Marine Corps Training and Education Command (TECOM) in while simultaneously completing a one-year Masters of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania. It was a difficult decision for me to hang up my uniform after so many years, but I had come to the conclusion that I could do more good for Marines and their families outside the Marine Corps than in. I was officially retired on September 1, 2013.”

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON WOMEN IN THE MILITARY AND COMBAT, DOING THE SAME JOBS ALONGSIDE THEIR MALE COUNTERPARTS?

“My opinions on this topic are not as strong as those of many people, but I do think the recent push to open all military career fields to women is a positive thing overall. In general, I don’t think that race or sexuality should be a determining factor as to whether or not someone is qualified to serve in a particular field, nor do I think that physical standards should be lowered in order to accommodate women. I have several friends who have been fighting for gender equality in the military for a long time. They’re really excited about the recent announcement by the Secretary of Defense, and I know it has been a long time coming.

I see this as a nuanced and emotionally charged issue, but when I try to step back and take emotion out of the equation, my perspective is that women really are just as capable as men in virtually every area, and arguably even more capable in some. However, we are simply not built the same physically. I think the percentage of women who could accomplish the same physical tasks as men is probably very small – like making it through Ranger School, for example. But I do believe women should be given the chance. I wouldn’t be in favor of opening every career field to women if I thought that it was only happening for political reasons. I know so many amazing female service members and veterans who, if they put their minds to it, probably could have been graduates of Ranger School. In my view, cultural norms in our society have evolved to a point where it’s appropriate to offer up these opportunities to women. It’s going to be interesting to see what military leaders decide to do in the future in terms of requiring women to be part of certain career fields as opposed to just opening them to women. I know that a lot of people that have been fighting for this equality for a long time – and I’m glad it happened but I’m not in favor of it simply to prove a point that a woman can do anything a man can do. I’m in favor of it because I think that as citizens we all have an obligation to earn our freedoms as Americans in some way. I wish that every American were required to serve in the military or in some other service organization, least for a few years. I strongly believe that the majority of us take our American freedoms for granted, and this is not good a good thing for the future of our country.”

HOW DID YOU LEARN ABOUT THE TILLMAN SCHOLARSHIP AND WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO APPLY?

“Initially, my decision to apply for the Tillman Scholar program was simply for the financial benefit. I was applying for a graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania and my GI Bill benefits would only cover about one-third of the program cost. The rest of it was going to have to come out of my pocket and I didn’t know how to manage that. Unfortunately, I wasn’t eligible for the Yellow Ribbon program funding because I wanted to do my degree while still on active duty and active duty personnel are not eligible.

I was at a social gathering with several of my USNA girlfriends and was telling one of them about the MAPP program I wanted to apply for. She asked me if I knew anything about the Tillman Scholarship as she had been selected in the inaugural class of Tillman Scholars. She thought I would be a good candidate so I started researching and realized that I would qualify. I applied for the scholarship, although at that point I didn’t know if I had been accepted to the University of Pennsylvania program.

I knew Pat Tillman’s story, but didn’t know that Tillman scholars were a community of amazing people – and I had no idea what benefits I would experience by becoming a part of the community and expanding my network. It’s a very service-oriented organization and I’m so proud to be associated with it.”

WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION WHEN YOU LEARNED YOU HAD BEEN SELECTED TO THE COMMUNITY OF TILLMAN SCHOLARS AND DID YOU ACHIEVE WHAT YOU SET OUT TO DO WITH THE SCHOLARSHIP?

“I was in the grocery store when the PTF team called to tell me I’d been awarded a scholarship. I remember being overwhelmed with joy in the coffee aisle and trying to maintain my composure. The scholarship was very helpful in covering the gap in tuition and fees not covered by the GI Bill. Realizing what a great opportunity it is to be part of the Tillman Community was really inspiring. My grad school year was incredibly intense because I was also working full time, but it very rewarding as well. I earned a Master’s in Applied Positive Psychology in a class of 38 students from all different backgrounds. I was the only active military member and one of a handful of veterans in my class.

I think the MAPP program really helped prepare me for a personal project I did right after retiring from the Marine Corps and for the job I started immediately following. In addition to the incredible wealth of knowledge I gained regarding positive psychology research, the contacts I made through the MAPP program helped position me for my next steps and supported me through the transition.

In my application essay for Penn as well as my application for the Tillman Scholarship, I wrote about my dream of building a non-profit wellness center for service members and their families – a place that would offer multi-disciplinary programs and bring together evidence-based nonpharmacological therapies in a wellness approach that would help them better manage the stress of  daily life.

I randomly met fellow Tillman Scholar Maggie Smith at a panel discussion event at Georgetown. We started talking after the program that night and we shared our goals and dreams after we received our degrees. Maggie said she knew a person who was building a place like I was describing and she offered to make an introduction. Thanks to this connection, I was hired as the Executive Director of Boulder Crest Retreat, and I worked there for just over a year-and-a-half. I enjoyed this job immensely, and I learned so much as I worked with a fantastic team of people to build programs from the ground up. The staff at the retreat is doing great work and helping small groups of veterans and their family members to turn a positive corner in life. It was a great experience helping build those programs.

It was a Tillman Scholar who connected me with my very first civilian job even before I left the Marine Corps, and I don’t think that was a coincidence. Not only has the Tillman Scholar community helped prepare me for the next phase of my service, but my master’s program and the capstone project I completed for graduation helped me prepare for a bucket list item I achieved before starting my job at the retreat.”

TELL US ABOUT YOUR BUCKET LIST ITEM THAT NOT ONLY TOUCHED YOU, BUT LIVES ACROSS THE COUNTRY.

“In the summer of 2013 I set out to ride my bicycle across the country to honor fallen heroes and learn some of their stories. I started on August 10 at the 5th Marines Memorial on Camp Pendleton and finished at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico on October 25, 2013. Along the way, I visited Gold Star families and spent time learning about the loved ones they had lost. The Gold Star Ride was much more than a bucket list goal of crossing the country on my bike. It was the most amazing collection of meaningful interactions with strong, beautiful, resilient families; it was glorious days of cruising on open roads through expansive country as well as grueling days of hill after hill on roads that were not made for bikes; it was the nearly full-circle experience of conceiving an impossible idea, creating a plan and then throwing the plan out the window when required. And now, to complete the circle, it just might be time to write it all down. My initial idea was to write a book about this experience and share the stories of the families that have gone through so much…but I have been working so much since finishing the journey that I’ve barely begun the writing process. I am choosing to trust that if a book meant to be it will be.”

A MENTOR OF YOURS RECENTLY OFFERED YOU A GREAT OPPORTUNITY TO GO TO AFRICA. PLEASE SHARE WHAT THE PURPOSE OF YOUR TRIP WAS AND WHAT THAT EXPERIENCE WAS LIKE.

“From mid-September through mid-December, I worked in Africa with a small American-Kenyan-Ugandan team that was tasked with implementing a mentorship and leadership program within the African Children’s Choir and Music For Life. The four American members of our team were selected by retired Marine Major General Tom Jones, who had become a mentor of mine during my last few years on active duty. General Jones is the founder and Executive Director of Outdoor Odyssey, a youth leadership academy in southwestern Pennsylvania. When General Jones learned that I was leaving my job at the retreat he invited me to be a part of the team that was preparing to go to Africa.

I became the team leader for African Odyssey – the name reflects the collaboration between Outdoor Odyssey and the African Children’s Choir, which was founded more than 30 years ago. Ray Barnett encouraged Ugandan leaders to form a children’s choir to show the world a more positive face of the African child. After achieving great success with the ACC mission, Ray wanted to create a mentorship program for choir alumni to help develop them into leaders and change makers for Africa and the world.

While in Africa, our team ran camps for kids in South Africa, Kenya and Uganda to teach the philosophies and activities that are a part of the Outdoor Odyssey program. We worked with our Kenyan and Ugandan counterparts – all of whom were alumni of past choirs – to adapt the program content for African children. In reality, we changed very little, because we learned that just like with American kids, the African children had a real thirst for mentorship and experiential education. The kids we worked with understand how important it is for all of us to have mentors to help us stay on the right track in life. Especially after being lifted out of dire circumstances and given the opportunity for quality education in a supportive environment, these kids have a chance at success that they may not have otherwise had.”

WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF, WHETHER IT WAS DURING YOUR TIME IN THE MILITARY OR DURING YOUR TIME IN AFRICA, THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE KNOWN BEFORE BUT NOW REALIZE?

“My time in the military changed me profoundly. I initially chose to attend the Naval Academy and started down the path toward becoming a naval aviator because I wanted to accomplish something that was very challenging and appealed to my sense of personal accomplishment more than a sense of duty and serving my country – simply because that’s where my mind was at the age of 18. However, enduring a character-building experience like four years at the Naval Academy and then going into the Marine Corps and learning what it meant to be a Marine and serve in war time and lose friends, I became very aware of the high stakes of what I had signed up to do.

I was in it because I believe that our country is worth fighting for and I knew that I was serving a higher purpose – it was not just about my own accomplishments – it was about other people. I’ve learned that it’s great to set goals and accomplish them…but I think that a person’s goals should be driven by a larger purpose and a larger reason than just serving oneself.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU AND WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN THE NEAR FUTURE?

“I feel so fortunate to have had such incredible experiences since making the decision to attend the Naval Academy and become a Marine. My military career itself was amazing; my grad school program was phenomenal; my cross-country ride was a once-in-a-lifetime experience; my job at the retreat was truly meaningful; and my time in Africa was profoundly impactful. The way things have lined up during the past few years of my life really amazes me, especially when I consider how seemingly random moments such as my conversation with Maggie Smith at Georgetown were actually moments of the “dots connecting” to form a larger picture.

I don’t know exactly what’s next for me and it’s a strange place to be – this place of not knowing and wondering where it’s all going to lead. I actually have free time on my hands – which, for someone who isn’t accustomed to that, can feel terribly uncomfortable. I hope that I can be disciplined enough to use the time well. Writing is difficult for me, and I don’t really enjoy it, it remains to be seen whether I will actually begin this book project. I do have a writer friend who has offered to help, so maybe he can convince me to dive in. One of the things that holds me back is the worry that I won’t be able do justice to the Gold Star families’ stories – it was such a powerful experience meeting all of them and crossing the country on my bike and learning about the heroes who sacrificed their lives for our country. Can I find the words to share my experience of them? I really hope so.

Although the 3-month African Odyssey trip was just a pilot project, there is a possibility I will continue to run the program from the United States with intermittent travel to Africa. I am still very passionate about working with veterans, so the idea of blending my positive psychology background with my experience running veterans programs and mixing in some non-clinical therapies is also appealing. Or, perhaps it’s time to turn my attention back to completing a yoga therapy program.

There are several different things I’m considering doing next and I’m really trying to be patient during this time of uncertainty. I don’t want to mentally close the door on anything or make any decisions right away simply because of the way things have unfolded in my life over the past couple of years – I never could have scripted it this way. But I think it’s safe to say that whatever I do next will be about serving others people and trying to make a positive impact in their lives.”