TILLMAN TUESDAY: Scholar Jeff Mueller Influences Others with ‘Character Does Matter’ Approach
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 2012 Tillman Scholar and current U.S. Marine Corps reservist Jeff Mueller shares how his time serving as an active duty F/A-18 aviator has shaped him into the person he is today and has helped guide him in his civilian career.
HOW DID YOU REACH THE DECISION TO JOIN THE MILITARY?
“I completed my undergraduate degree at Trinity University (San Antonio, TX) in 2000 and was also a tennis player in college. Jeff was an All American and DIII National Champion at Trinity. My coach, Butch Newman was a Marine and is one of the most phenomenal people I’ve ever met in my life. I had no intentions to ever join the military nor did the thought ever cross my mind.
In 2001, I was working as the Assistant Athletic Director at Trinity University and I worked out a deal with my boss, the Athletic Director, where he was going to allow me to start training to play on the professional tennis tour to see if I could work my way up through the lower ranks, which had always been a dream of mine. Months after that discussion, on the morning of September 11 everything changed. Immediately after the second tower fell I called my mom and told her I was going to join the Marine Corps. I didn’t really think about the magnitude of that decision until later when I was in graduate school. It was a moment where I knew exactly what I needed to be doing. Looking back, it likely had a lot to do with the fact that I was raised by a single mom and had two sisters. Subconsciously as well as consciously, there was this real sense of, ‘if I don’t protect my family from what’s happening, who will?’ It was an indescribably strong feeling, ‘if not me, then who?’ The next day I drove to the recruiters’ office in Austin, TX. I took some tests and ended up with a contract to go to flight school after Officer Candidate School. I just wanted to serve and do my part and didn’t have any intentions of making a career out of it.”
WHAT WERE YOUR MAIN RESPONSIBILITIES AND HOW LONG DID YOU SERVE?
“After Officer Candidate School and “The Basic School,” a 6 month infantry officer course for all Marine Officers, I attended flight school, and was selected for F/A-18s in San Diego, which I flew in for nine-and-a-half years. I was active duty during that entire time. I deployed to Iraq in 2006 for seven months and then I deployed to Japan for one year. My last two years in the Marine Corps I was an instructor at Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) – which is basically the ‘Top Gun’ of the Marine Corps, and also one of a handful of officers who lead the development and implementation of the current aviation training program for the entire Marine Corps. The whole experience was phenomenal and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was beyond fulfilling. I am currently serving in the reserves after my active duty service ended in 2011. After my active duty time was up I attended Columbia Business School.”
DO YOU FEEL THAT YOU ACCOMPLISHED WHAT YOU SET OUT TO DO WHEN YOU JOINED THE MARINE CORPS IN WANTING TO BE THE PERSON THAT DEFENDS YOUR FAMILY?
“Absolutely, 100%. It was very important to me at that period in my life to do my part and serve. My experience in Iraq in particular was priceless. I was flying in an F/A-18 squadron with some of the most impressive people I have ever met, stationed in the middle of the Iraqi desert, west of the Euphrates.
The priceless aspect of it was this ability to be airborne, playing a guardian angel-type role to men and women on the ground. Looking back on it now I still feel incredibly honored to have been given that opportunity, especially when I would find myself in the position to truly tip the scales in a firefight. I can’t really find the words to articulate what it means to have been able to make a direct impact and protect the bravest men and women of my generation in one of the most dangerous geographies in the entire world.”
WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF THROUGHOUT YOUR TIME SERVING THOSE NINE-AND-A-HALF YEARS ON ACTIVE DUTY THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE KNOWN BEFORE?
“I learned several things: nothing is impossible to achieve and nothing is impossible to learn. Anything can be broken down and learned. Throughout flight school and then later at Columbia, and certainly now in my current job, I have held the belief that all knowledge is attainable, and that knowledge exhibits the behavior of increasing returns phenomena, meaning the more stuff you learn, the easier it is to learn more stuff. That belief has served me well. You can achieve anything you want with effort and grit. With respect to ‘nothing is impossible’ I really couldn’t have asked for a better life education than being in the Marine Corps.
The other thing I learned, which I still think about a lot, is related to a service project a co-worker and I are trying to set up in Florida – Character Does Matter. Integrity, character and internal values are shoved down your throat in the military, and for very good reason. Most individuals who have served in the military know how important character is, whether they’ve served one year or 25 years as it is emphasized to a far greater degree than in the civilian world.”
WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW TO MOVE THE DIAL ON SHARING THE IMPORTANCE OF THAT INTERNAL CORE VALUE?
“A co-worker of mine and I are partnering with the Travis Manion Foundation on this ‘Character Does Matter’ belief and will be going to different high schools to give TED-style talks. The aim is to expose young people to the importance of character and integrity. In the military trust is sometimes an assumption. If you tell a lie or even a half truth, there’s a legitimate chance that lives could be lost. I don’t think that is taken as seriously in broader society, at least in my experience so far. We are hopeful that these presentations will make an impact on the lives of some high school kids who don’t otherwise get the opportunity to hear why these values are so important in our everyday lives.”
WHEN DID YOU KNOW IT WAS TIME TO LEAVE THE ACTIVE DUTY REALM OF THE MILITARY AND PURSUE YOUR DEGREE?
“In 2006 when I was in Iraq, someone sent my can mate a book on investing. The book introduced me to Ben Graham, who was a professor at Columbia Business School as well as Warren Buffett’s mentor and friend. The teachings resonated with me immediately. I’ve always been into learning in general and have a very curious mind. I set this ambitious goal to attend Columbia where Ben Graham taught and Warren Buffett attended. I couldn’t believe I got in. I’m convinced it would not have happened had I not joined the Marine Corps – without the confidence from flying and realizing that anything is achievable in this world I may not have pursued this ambitious goal of attending Columbia Business School. Additionally, I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the Tillman Foundation, the GI Bill and most importantly, my wife.”
HOW HAS YOUR DEGREE AT COLUMBIA BUSINESS SCHOOL OPENED UP OTHER OPPORTUNITIES FOR YOU?
“I have been invited back to Columbia as a lecturer every year since I graduated in 2013. I give a lecture on value investing. Additionally, I’m co-teaching a course this summer called, Modern Value Investing. Every time I speak at Columbia it’s not lost on me how everything came full circle and that I’m standing in the very spot that Ben Graham stood back in the 1920’s and 30’s. Columbia also lead me to my current job, which I absolutely love. There were a few key people that helped me get to this point, and I will be eternally grateful to them for making a bet on me.”
HOW DID YOU LEARN ABOUT THE TILLMAN SCHOLARSHIP AND WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION WHEN YOU LEARNED YOU HAD BEEN SELECTED AS A 2012 TILLMAN SCHOLAR?
“Pat Tillman’s actions and mine go back long before graduate school. When I joined the Marines immediately after 9/11, many people had tried to intervene and convince me to not join. There actually wasn’t a class for me until June of 2002 (Quantico, VA), which is coincidentally when Pat joined the Army. I remember I was in the depths of Officer Candidate School when I received a letter from my mom that included a newspaper article about this NFL athlete named Pat Tillman who had just passed on a fabulous professional career to join the Army. I remember reading the article sitting on my bunk at 3 am using a flashlight – it was like a Hollywood movie. It’s not that I needed any validation for the path that I was on, but at the same time it was very impactful and incredibly motivating. When I arrived at Columbia the financial support was obviously an enormous help but even beyond that, to be a part of the Tillman Scholar community and see everything come full circle from that moment in Quantico was very special.
When I learned I had been selected as a scholar, I was humbled beyond words. The Pat Tillman Foundation is collecting a network of the very best of America’s military right now, and I am very, very honored to be a part of it. If there’s a veteran President in the next 20 years, I think it will be a Tillman Scholar. Even though less than one percent of the population has served, I think the Tillman Scholar community is in a position to at least, to some extent, influence broader society about things that matter in life through service and also through example. The Pat Tillman Foundation and its scholars continue to give back to society in increasing ways.”
WHAT OPPORTUNITIES HAS THE TILLMAN SCHOLARSHIP PROVIDED FOR YOU THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE OTHERWISE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY?
“Although the financial support was critical, the network is the biggest aspect. The Pat Tillman Leadership Summit can also not be understated – you leave there and you’re buzzing with so much motivation to try and make a difference in this world. It’s like hitting the refresh button every summer.”
AFTER EARNING YOUR DEGREE FROM COLUMBIA, WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW AS FAR AS A CAREER GOES THAT YOU SET OUT TO DO?
“Currently I’m a Partner and Research Analyst at Polen Capital Management. My job is to look for great businesses for our firm to invest money in on behalf of our clients. A large part of why I took this specific job is the culture and our client base. Many of our clients are what our CEO calls, ‘the most important people in the world (nurses, police officers, firefighters, doctors, city workers, etc.)’. Over the past 27 years, through our investing style we’ve managed to roughly double their money every five years, taking very little risk. It’s a very rewarding place to work. My job is to gain knowledge every day, which is one of my favorite things to do. I view it as one of the last renaissance occupations. It is the exact job I was hoping to get leaving Columbia.
Additionally, it was very important to me when I left the Marine Corps to take a job where I can look myself in the mirror and actually feel great about who is looking back at me. I definitely feel that way at Polen.”
WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO PAY FORWARD THE HONOR OF BEING A TILLMAN SCHOLAR?
“I make a point to reach out to veterans and help them through their admission process for schools. If they’re looking to attend a business school, I can help them within my network and put them in touch with decision makers like admissions officers. This is very important to me because a lot of people went out of their way to do the same for me when I was making the transition from the military. The transition is frightening, as you simply have no idea what is out there. It becomes a very uncertain environment whereas in the military, you know when and where you’ll be getting your pay check from for the next five years. Also, I’m very hopeful that working with the Travis Manion Foundation and focusing on these Character Does Matter TED-Style talks really takes off here in Florida. If we can impact even one kid who is currently on the wrong path, it will be a raving success.”
WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN FIVE YEARS?
“In five years I hope to continue to add significant value for our clients at Polen Capital, and I hope to be the best dad in the world to my daughter. My wife, who constantly keeps me in line, will ensure that is the case. Also, I am really excited for the potential of the Character Does Matter talks. After WWII, when roughly 15% of the population served, the greatest generation set this country on a great course. If I can in any way add even a fraction of the value they did, then I will be very happy looking back on the next five years.”
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