2021 Tillman Scholar

Michelle Ruehl

Air Force
George Mason University

“My grandmother taught me to “always find the music.” Through my teaching and writing, I help others find their lifesong and bring more music, wisdom, and compassion to our world.”

Michelle caught the aviation bug from her grandfather who flew B-24s in WWII, but she picked up a love for music and teaching from her grandmother, a choir director. She has spent 17 years as both a pilot and professor for the Air Force, teaching students how aviation and humanities play an important role in building leaders and officers of character.

As an English teacher at the Air Force Academy, she also served as a sexual assault victim advocate and theater director. She led hundreds of cadets in the Social Impact Theater Project, which brought the community together to find solutions to tough issues like suicide and sexual assault. Her desire to guide people through trauma also led her to become a therapeutic riding instructor, where she uses horses to help people find healing. Michelle took these passions for teaching abroad when she was deployed as an MC-12 pilot, mission commander, and airfield operations supervisor during Operation Enduring Freedom. By night, she flew planes, but by day, she volunteered to teach local students in Afghanistan.

After her last deployment, Michelle and her husband started a non-profit to honor the friends they lost in the war and the resilient people of Afghanistan. They provide leadership programs to veterans and their families, so graduates can then use these concepts to lead others. Now, Michelle is pursuing her Ph.D. in rhetoric and writing, so she can study how the humanities and strategic messaging can bring healing to military communities who struggle with trauma.