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 we sat down with 2013 Tillman Scholar Anthony DeSantis, who was inspired to pursue his medical degree after serving four years with the United States Marine Corps, deploying to Fallujah in 2007 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Anthony graduates from The University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine this spring and will begin his residency July 1.
PLEASE EXPLAIN YOUR REASON AND PASSION FOR JOINING THE MILITARY AND WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO DO SO.
“I don’t come from a military family and had never thought about joining the military prior to September 11. I just remember watching one of the towers go down and thinking, ‘everything just changed’. I thought about my grandfather joining the Army after Pearl Harbor, even though he was born in Italy and immigrated here as a child. He was told by the first recruiters that he was too old to join the military, but to him it was important to serve his adopted country, even if it meant fighting his birth country, and so he kept trying until he got into the Army. When 9/11 happened I was felt I was staring at my generation’s Pearl Harbor, and I didn’t ever want to look back 50 years down the road and regret not doing my part. I honestly just felt obligated to join. I was an 18-year-old able-bodied and able-minded citizen and my country was going to war – regardless of whether or not the reasons for going were right or wrong. I didn’t see a reason why someone else should go off and fight instead of me being the one to go.”
HOW MANY YEARS DID YOU SERVE WITH THE MARINE CORPS AND WHAT WAS YOUR ROLE?
“I made the call to the recruiters’ office and we made the decision I should finish school first, which my parents were happy about as education is very important to them. I attended OCS while a student at Florida State, and ended up commissioning after college. After The Basic School, I was designated an Infantry Officer and deployed with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines as a Platoon Commander.
I deployed to Iraq during a very quiet time and was in Fallujah in 2007 to 2008. When I share with people that I was in Fallujah their reaction is that there must have been a gun fight on every corner, but that simply wasn’t the case at all during that time, as it was a very quiet period of rebuilding a completely demolished city. It was unexpected because the government had spent years and a lot of money training the us as Infantrymen on how to fight and defeat an enemy, and then we were in Iraq and our role was to develop infrastructure and win the hearts and minds of the people, establish the local government – things that I had very little training on. Despite my best efforts to try to get the Iraqis to trust us and not view us as the enemy, gaining their trust was really difficult, with the exception of my Navy corpsmen. Little things like getting shrapnel out of someone’s leg that had been there for years, or helping sick children, not even as a result of conflict – the medical care that my corpsmen were able to render to these people was the one thing that made the Iraqis stop viewing us as bad guys. They had no medical care whatsoever but my corpsmen being able to administer basic first aid completely changed the way these people viewed us.
Seeing the difference that a little compassion coupled with some medical knowledge could have on people that previously viewed you as the most hated people in the world was what made me decide to pursue medicine. I knew that was something I wanted to be a part of.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF DURING YOUR TIME IN THE SERVICE THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE KNOWN BEFORE?
“I’m a little different than most people in my medical school class because most people complete their undergrad then go right to medical school. They happen to be a little younger than I am, and haven’t had the opportunity for as much life experience as I have – and looking back on my path to medical school, I wouldn’t change any of it. The military is the reason I’m at where I am, because it taught me to be disciplined, to be a leader, and to make tough decisions in chaotic, ambiguous, and time-sensitive environments. All of this sounded a lot like medicine to me. More importantly, going back to school after deploying was so much easier as my work ethic was at a different level than most of my peers. In school, my grades were never about how smart I was or wasn’t, but rather were a function of my work ethic. The military certainly had taught me how to work hard.”
BESIDES THE MILITARY, WHERE DID THAT HARD WORK ETHIC COME FROM?
“My parents are two of the hardest working people I know and a lot of that work ethic was instilled in me at a very young age. The military is where I took that work ethic to another level and really understood the gravity of my actions.”
YOU’RE SET TO GRADUATE WITH YOUR MEDICAL DEGREE IN A COUPLE OF MONTHS. WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
“I’m planning on going into general surgery, which has a five year residency – and I don’t know where that residency will be just yet. I just completed all of my residency interviews, 13 in total, and it’s been a very long process to say the least. I will find out which general surgery program I match at on March 18.”
WHAT ARE YOU MOST EXCITED ABOUT WHEN IT COMES TO GENERAL SURGERY AND HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT WHAT THAT FIRST SURGERY WILL BE LIKE?
“Beyond being fascinated by the way the body works and physically seeing the anatomy of the body and how it functions, the thing that’s unique about surgery is you get a chance to meet somebody on what may be the absolute worst day of their life, and get the opportunity to try to make it better. I think there’s something to be said about being there for the sickest patients on their worst days – I think that’s something that gets me really excited. It’s the same with the military – people join because they want to help people, go to the toughest environments and do their job well. I feel medicine and the military are very similar.”
WHAT HAS THE TILLMAN SCHOLARSHIP OFFERED YOU THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE OTHERWISE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO DO?
“The most important thing is non-monetary related – it’s the network of Tillman Scholars. The Pat Tillman Foundation could give me one dollar per year and I would’ve applied as passionately as I did. To me, it wasn’t just about having my education supported but being connected with a network of people who also care very deeply about helping other people. It’s so inspiring being around other Tillman Scholars who have a way of making you feel little because of all of the amazing things they’re doing – I feel like most of us probably feel that way. The most valuable thing I’ve gotten from being a Tillman Scholar was being part of the network and constantly being around people who care as passionately as I do and being able to continue to serve after we’ve left the military.
As far as the financial side of things, the Pat Tillman Foundation allowed me to have health insurance, amongst other things. I had a GI Bill that helped pay for my tuition but that didn’t pay for everything else, and there was a period where I didn’t have health insurance, which is a very scary thing. The Pat Tillman Foundation helped me pay my tuition, and helped me have insurance, and keep the lights on and food on the table, as it’s kind of hard to go to medical school and be working on the side. Being able to come out of medical school debt free is something that I don’t think people outside of medicine really understand. The GI Bill and the Tillman Foundation have allowed me to choose a specialty that I’m passionate about without any concern whatsoever about paying off crippling loans or debt from medical school.
The network is the most important part but the financial support is certainly incredible as well. I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am right now without the support of the Tillman Foundation.”
HOW ARE YOU PAYING IT FORWARD NOW THAT YOU’RE AT THE END OF YOUR SCHOOLING AND HEADING OFF TO YOUR RESIDENCY?
“The veteran mentoring program at University of South Florida’s Office of Veterans Services has been very meaningful to me. It’s a program where undergraduate students who are military veterans can be paired up with people who are in fields they are pursuing. I’ve had the chance to work with pre-medical students in Tampa who have served in the military and who are now applying to medical school. It’s been really rewarding – one of the students that I advised got accepted to medical school in Tampa just last year. It’s important for me to be able to provide that guidance. It’s a very tricky slope coming out of the military and going back to school and trying to pursue a career in medicine, so having someone to talk to and get advice from is really beneficial.
I’m also really lucky that USF Health is affiliated with two of the busiest VA hospitals in America, and so we get to do a lot of our clinical time as part of the VA healthcare system. As a veteran it’s just different – I walk into a building where people have learned to walk and talk again. The personal gratification that comes from things going well is a lot more powerful. When you can go and sit by their bedside and talk about how you’re a veteran too and talk about their time in the service, it makes things a lot easier and they feel like you’re on their side. You’re not just a faceless white coat but you’re somebody who understands what they’ve been through.”
WHEN YOU SEE THE NAMES AND READ THE BIOS OF THE SCHOLAR COMMUNITY AND HOW IT HAS GROWN, WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO YOU – REALIZING THERE IS SUCH A SMALL GROUP OF TILLMAN SCHOLARS NATIONWIDE WHO ARE ALL WORKING TOGETHER TO CARRY FORWARD PAT’S LEGACY IN THEIR OWN WAY?
“The first thing that comes to mind is, ‘wow, I’m really glad I got selected when I did because i don’t think I would make the cut anymore!’ Every time a new class comes out and I read their bios I think, ‘these people are way more impressive than I ever was so I’m glad I got in when I did!’ It’s such an incredible network of incredible, inspiring people who are all doing different things but all are focused on helping people.
The thing that makes you put on a uniform is a drive to serve. When you take your uniform off, the drive that made you put it on doesn’t go away. When I think about the Tillman community I think about a group of people who share my beliefs. It’s very empowering and inspiring to be part of this group of like-minded people. Even after you graduate and you move on to your career, the Tillman Foundation makes you feel like you’re still valuable to your community.”