2016 Tillman Scholar

Neil Duncan

Columbia University

“I have a duty not to quit, despite injuries sustained, and set an example for those who follow.”

Growing up in a family with a long lineage of service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam left a strong impression on Neil as a youth. But the events of 9/11 were the final catalyst that motivated him to join the Army just after his 18th birthday. Immediately after completing training, he deployed first to Iraq in 2003 with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and then to Afghanistan in 2005 where he assumed command of a fire team.

Ten months into the deployment, however, Neil’s life changed dramatically when his team’s vehicle was hit by a powerful IED. The device detonated directly underneath him, destroying his legs, breaking both his arms and his jaw. Evacuated and inducted into a medical coma, Neil woke up weeks later at Walter Reed hospital where his outlook was as uncertain as it had ever been. His jaw was wired shut, his arms were in casts, his legs were amputated, and he was being operated on several times a day. Despite severe injuries, Neil leaned on the one common lesson that was instilled in him during his service: duty. He knew he had an obligation to make himself as strong and knowledgeable as possible; he had a duty not to quit and set an example for those to follow, and he also knew he had a duty to reciprocate to those individuals and organizations that were helping him through his recovery.

Now, medically retired, Neil is pursuing his MBA from Columbia University with a focus in finance and investment. Informed by his military experience, he believes that strong culture, personal accountability, a sense of duty to the organization, and the ability to keep morale high during stressful situations are key for any business or organization to thrive.  As a leader, he wants to continue his service both within the business and nonprofit sectors, building relationships and partnerships that will directly impact the lives of wounded service members, veterans and their families. As a way to empower fellow veterans and raise awareness, he serves on the grant committee for the Infinite Hero Foundation and volunteers his time organizing mountaineering expeditions for veterans to climb some of the tallest peaks in the world.