Over the last few months, I have been honored with a long list of new “firsts” in my life. However, July 21 – 23, I can say my newest “first” has brought new perspective to my life. I was privileged to join the Pat Tillman Foundation and attend Tillman Honors powered by the NFL as they welcomed 60 new Tillman Scholars at their annual Pat Tillman Leadership Summit held in Chicago. The weekend was also a homecoming for previously selected Tillman Scholars and the means to finish the task for inductees, we were all charged with insight of grandeur to go beyond ourselves.
The “Make Your Mark” themed weekend lifted spirits throughout the three-day event with classes, thought-provoking panels, discussions, regional and nationwide networking opportunities for veterans, active service members and military spouses. I was inspired by dialog from our generation’s next great leaders, innovators, teachers, lawyers and doctors.
During his life, Pat Tillman never hesitated to take a chance. “Embrace the fear,” said 2013 Tillman Scholar Chris Diaz, working toward a PhD in Clinical Psychology at Drexel University. “Do something that scares you every day.” Taking a leap of faith to tackle daunting mountains blocking our view of the prize, but the rewards of climbing over the crest of those challenges are far more rewarding than the fears of doing nothing.
“Diamonds sharpen diamonds,” said Sal Giunta, guest speaker and first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since Vietnam. “When you’re among diamonds, it’s hard to stand out.” Giunta emphasized the importance of standing out and focusing on service and the idea of doing something greater than ourselves.
Throughout the past several years, the Pat Tillman Foundation has invested $14 million in academic support and scholarships, and named over 460 Tillman Scholars at over 100 universities nationwide. This year’s class will receive more than $1.8 million in scholarships to pursue their educational dreams and help make a difference in this world – and I believe they will.
To say my heart is full would be an understatement. Hearing enlightening stories of success from the battlefield to the classroom gives me greater desire to push myself to do more. Scholars shared their success stories, challenges and hopes for the future. Scholars like Kimberly Jung turned her deployment to Afghanistan, clearing roadside bombs, into love of the Afghan people. Jung, who earned her MBA from Harvard University, is the Co-Founder and CEO of a start-up company Rumi Spice. Jung’s company empowers Afghan farmers to hire local national women and in turn contributes to the cultivation and processing of the world’s best and most coveted Afghan saffron as an alternative to growing poppy.
Centered on learning and growing, panel discussions and guest speakers discussed various topics from women in combat and cultural support teams (CSTs) to media awareness and civic leadership. During an author panel, foundation President and co-founder Marie Tillman Shenton even shared intimate final words her husband put to paper should he never make it back. Marie emphasized living by the three pillars that Tillman embodied throughout his entire life – Service, Learning and Action.
Tillman made his mark in so many ways, and sitting idly was never one of them. Tillman loved pressing the envelope and always strived to push his mind and body to do more; be more. So on the final day, we loaded up in buses and headed out to Chicago communities and delivered much-needed service.
I helped at a women and children’s shelter. We cleaned out clutter, sowed roots of colorful petals and rolled on splashes of color to the walls. Women at the shelter took reprieve from the heat and shared smiles and laughter with the men and women sweating a labor of love.
Impressed with the organization, enthusiasm and motivation of all the scholars clad in blue Tillman t-shirts, Jen Kost with Breakthrough said the efforts shown were “heartwarming” and she eagerly anticipates the Foundation’s return. “There’s always work to be done and service above self is at the heart of what we do. We love what we do and that makes all the difference,” she said.
The capstone event was very symbolic of everything experienced over the weekend and brought full closure to my drive to press harder and do more.
I was flooded with so many thoughts and emotions over the weekend – in each of us there is a unique story to tell that defines who we are and what shapes us. I started the weekend feeling inadequately small in a room filled with so many movers and shakers, but those days have changed my way of thinking. Stepping out of our own comfort zone to do something amazing is exactly what I envision Pat would expect of a foundation that bears his name. His legacy will forever make its mark on all of us.
I grew so much from this experience. ‘Shame Spiral’ and ‘Imposter Syndrome’ aside, I know I was in the presence of giants and in my own way I know I can make my mark on society and on my family. Ross Ritchell, author of The Knife, said it best – “My service started with an oath and continues for a lifetime.”
By: Earl Brown (Major), NFL Communications, U.S. Army Training With Industry Fellow