TILLMAN TUESDAY: From Army Veteran to Art Therapist

Featured Media, News | 02/10/2015

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, nearly 350 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, technology, 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’s Tillman Tuesday features 2014 Tillman Scholar, Maria “Sam” Moeller who is pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Old Dominion University, focusing on drawing and design. Moeller served nine years in the United States Army, first enlisting as a food service specialist, then volunteering to cross train as a signals intelligence analyst, and eventually serving as a Cultural Support Team leader with Special Operations units in Afghanistan. She will graduate this upcoming Fall.

Initially, you served four years in Mannheim, Germany as a Food Service Specialist (MOS), earning the U.S. Army Europe Cook of the Year award in 2005. What was that experience like for you?

“It was a way for me to be creative. When I arrived at my culinary post, I got placed in numerous positions but I enjoyed baking the most. I would create pastries for the dining facility as well as Battalion function cakes. For holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas the dining facility tries to make it extra special and go all out with the festive decorations. My squad leaders were great mentors and we would compete against other dining facilities in the area as to who had the ‘best’.”

After your first assignment, what made you want to join Joint Task Force as a Cultural Support Team Leader?

“When I was stationed in Hawaii, it was rare that you got to deploy. Deployments were shared with the other branches and consisted of a team of 4-5 individuals. I read about Cultural Support Teams and one of my Master Sergeants recommended I fill out a packet as the field is very competitive. When selection first started, there were 79 packets accepted in the first day. By the end of the week, 23 made the cut.”

Through your experience as a Cultural Support Team Leader, tell us something about women in Afghanistan that a lot of people may not know or realize.

“A lot of media focuses on their lack of voice and their inability to speak their mind. But when I deployed there I felt like they had a lot of control of what was going on in their house, they were more partners with their husbands rather than on the receiving end. I was impressed with their presence because they were very sure of themselves, very welcoming and hospitable, even though we were searching their houses on various missions.”

In 2014, you received the call that you had been selected as a Tillman Scholar. What was that call like, knowing you could continue pursuing your academic goal in the fine arts field?

“I was literally jumping up and down but thankfully was in the house so no one could see me. The opportunity just reinforced my dream and aspirations to become an artist. The fact that such a high caliber organization is able to support me in continuing my dream is awesome. Personally, I didn’t fully grasp the meaning of what it meant to be a Tillman Scholar until I went to the Tillman Leadership Summit in Chicago. There I was introduced to ambitious, influential individuals, and I fully understood and realized the honor to go along with it. “I would tell any applicant that the Pat Tillman Foundation is not just about financial assistance. Networking with the team and the other scholars nationwide are making my dream possible.”

You’re currently pursuing your fine arts degree in drawing and design at Old Dominion University and on schedule to graduate this fall. What has been the best part of your academic experience? The most challenging?

“The best part is seeing how differently I now look at things and the world. It makes you appreciate the smaller things, fine tune, look at the details and break things down into smaller pieces, because that’s what you have to do in order to accurately draw or paint your subject. The hardest part was during the beginning of the transition. I went from an E-6 full time, career driven, active-duty service member to suddenly a full-time student pursuing a completely different goal from what I was doing in uniform.”

After you earn your Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, you plan to pursue a Master’s degree in Art Therapy. After earning both degrees, how would you like to put them to use?

“What got me into art therapy was how I used art while I was deployed, helping relieve stress. When I got back from my deployment, I read an article that introduced me to art therapy as a career. After doing some research, I realized this is something that could really benefit other veterans. By being able to give soldiers an option to express their feelings nonverbally, I believe they can overcome issues such as PTSD. Most soldiers who combat PTSD struggle with emotional numbing or avoidance of past incidents. Art therapy can alleviate these stresses in an alternative manner. Eventually, I would like to work in an environment such as a VA Hospital because I can relate to many of the veterans who are accessing care there.”


(The above picture, crafted by Moeller, is that of MSG Catherine Harris and CPT Jennifer Moreno. CPT Moreno was KIA during a mission on Oct. 6, 2013)

In addition to painting, you are also studying crafts. How long did it take you to learn how to weave?

“I’m actually taking it for a class right now. For the fine arts curriculum at Old Dominion you are required to take a crafts class so I chose weaving. I really didn’t have any expectations but I’ve found it to be so relaxing and it’s great for therapeutic reasons. I would actually love to incorporate it in my art therapy practice in the future. I also learned in my class that it’s great for wounded veterans to relearn their fine motor skills. There are looms that use hand pedals instead of foot pedals and the idea was to increase the use of their upper extremities, specifically use of all the fingers and thumb, wrist, elbow flexion and extension. All things that can be used for wounded veterans today.”

Tell us something unique about yourself or your story that we don’t already know.

“I’m bilingual and fluent in Tagalog – the first language spoken in the Philippines. I was born in Bahrain and adopted by two Filipino parents who spoke Tagalog to me. They brought me to the United States permanently at the end of my eighth grade year to start high school in California. My mom speaks very little English so that is the language we use to communicate to each other.”

When you’re not juggling class and assignments, how else do you spend your time and find balance in the transition from service member to student?

“A lot of class projects are pretty long so I like to take my time and make sure I’m doing the best work I can. I know other Tillman Scholars are probably in the same boat, putting in the same amount of work and effort. Right now, I’m basically just focused on school, the gym and preparing for my son to arrive in July. I was first introduced to CrossFit back in 2008 when I was going through military intelligence school. I didn’t know a thing about it and was just following along with the group. Now, when I’m not painting, I’m working as a certified CrossFit trainer.”

What are you most looking forward to in 2015…both personally and professionally?

“The two biggest moments are the birth of my son and my college graduation. No one in my immediate family has graduated from college, so it will be a huge deal not only for me but for all of them.”