Tillman Tuesday: Scholar Chris Diaz On the Journey of a Lifetime

Featured Media, News, Blog | 06/23/2015

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, 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 spotlight 2013 Tillman Scholar Chris Diaz, a proud New Yorker and Navy Corpsman who is pursuing his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at Drexel University.

What motivated you to join the military?
“As a native New Yorker, I wanted to join the military right after 9/11, but I had a newborn son at the time. A few years later, when my son was about to enter kindergarten, I knew I had to enlist to avoid wondering about the ‘what if’ later. I viewed it as service for my citizenship. I enlisted in the Navy. But during boot camp, I learned I was disqualified from all the cool stuff I wanted to do because I’m legally blind in my left eye. As a result, they sent me off on an aircraft carrier where I became an aviation boatswain’s mate. My job entailed manning the towers, coordinating airspace and working the flight deck. It was a great experience. I had a really fun time.”

Like many others, you had to make a tough choice between staying in the military or separating. What inspired you to re-enlist?
“After two med cruises, my enlistment was up. Around that time, I met a Chief who was an RP (Religious Person Airman) and I started thinking about becoming a psychologist. I didn’t really know what that all entailed. I ended up enrolling in Drexel University when the Chief convinced me to re-enlist because he thought I would be a great corpsman and could get more experience before becoming a psychologist. My wife and family were very supportive. They agreed with the Chief that I needed to stay in the service. I returned to bootcamp and went on train as a Navy Corpsman. When I got to my division, I was put in an Infantry unit and deployed to Afghanistan. After six years, I eventually separated because I knew that I could have an even bigger impact on things from the outside than on the inside. I was ready to go on to the next stage of my career which was becoming a psychologist. Spending more time with my son was also a huge part of leaving the military.”

What was your deployment experience like in Afghanistan?
“I’m one of the lucky ones who got to come back. While I was overseas, we lost a few corpsman and I realized that all of those years of work had led me to those moments… just being there for all of those guys. Because of those moments, I now live my life in a way where I try to remember and honor the sacrifice of those guys who aren’t with us anymore.”

Given your experiences over overseas, what was it like to transition back into the classroom on a college campus?
“My last day with the Navy was on a Friday and on Monday I was in school at Drexel University. I had kept busy though with my schooling while I was in the service, so I was technically a junior when I set foot back on campus. I was involved a little bit in veterans groups. Towards the middle of my junior year I felt like I wanted to connect with other veterans in the community. Someone directed me to the campus veterans office, but I found that the veteran lounge was less than hospitable. That’s when a group of fellow student veterans and I decided to do something about it along with the support of the administration. We essentially helped form a charter that grew and we earned national recognition through Student Veterans of America. We went from having no office space and no attendees to gathering nearly 40 people for monthly meetings. We did multiple community service events a month,and essentially built a supportive community of veterans which continues to expand.”

What did you learn about yourself throughout your service?
“I never had the opportunity to know Pat Tillman and I feel that part of what drove him to make the decision to serve is what also drove me. I didn’t know what I was capable of when I enlisted, but I learned a lot about myself deploying to Afghanistan and seeing how I reacted in tough situations. That I was able to serve and lead in those circumstances gives me great joy.”

What sparked your interest in applying for the Tillman Scholar program?
“Towards the middle of my junior year, I received an email from the Dean of Veteran Life and at the bottom of the email I saw a blurb about the Pat Tillman Foundation. As an avid sports fan, I remember watching SportsCenter on ESPN and hearing about Pat the morning it was announced he joined the military with his brother. I recall thinking, ‘That guy gets it – it’s not about the money. It’s not about the fame.’ He didn’t want any fanfare, so he’s someone who I looked up to. I don’t know what it was about that initial email from my Dean, but I identified with Pat’s story and his experience. I applied and funny enough turned out to be the first recipient of the Tillman Scholarship from  Drexel University.”

How has your involvement in the Tillman Scholar community impacted your studies and goals?

“I didn’t know how it was going to change my life so there were levels of shock and awe. The most awe-inspiring moment came during my first Leadership Summit when I was in the same room as my fellow scholars for the first time. I feel fortunate and blessed to have this opportunity. It’s inspiring to see what kind of impact my fellow scholars around the country are making. I don’t have to worry about having an “off day” or feeling sorry for myself because I know what it’s like to have a family of supporters who are pushing themselves through rigorous programs late in life like medical school. I’m in constant awe about what everyone around me is doing and that’s what keeps me motivated every day.”

“The monetary support that you receive just pales in comparison to the relationships that you build. I’ve been fortunate to immerse myself in the community and the Tillman Scholar family. The Pat Tillman Foundation has given me a support network I didn’t even know I needed at the time. Some of my best friends right now are Tillman Scholars. I was recently accepted as a doctoral student so now I’m going to be working on my PhD in Clinical Psychology. My path would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the guidance and encouragement of fellow Tillman Scholars in the program.”

In addition to your PhD program, you are an intense advocate in your local community. What are some of the issues you are trying to address?
“In the Philadelphia community, I’m trying to help change the perception of veterans. We are doing that by reducing the degrees of separation in the veteran space, connecting more local veterans to each other, and trying to establish a critical social support system. As a veteran, with the right community support, I believe we can be stronger than what we experienced. Right now, my organization Serve1 is working with a team to create veteran-centric programming and opportunities like the student veteran forums and the Triumph Games which will air on NBC this fall.”

In addition to being the only Tillman Scholar from Drexel, you’re also the only scholar to have climbed Kilimanjaro. What inspired you to take on that challenge?
“I’ve had two knee surgeries in the last two years, but while I was recovering I attended a veteran fair where I learned about the Military Assistance Project. They were fundraising to support a group of veterans who wanted to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Their team had already been in place for a year when I reached out to the executive director and expressed my interest. Lucky me, they asked me to come on board and become their team medic! So with less than two months of training, I climbed Africa’s tallest peak. It was an incredible experience. I did a lot of running to prepare, but it was definitely more a mental challenge to push through to the top.”

What are you most looking forward to after finishing your PhD — and do you have a dream job?

“My ultimate dream job is to be a sports psychologist. Right now, I’m committed  to helping to produce the Triumph Games this upcoming fall. I really want to help athletes tap into their mental potential and improve their performance though. Life is crazy, so I don’t know if that’s where I’ll ultimately end up in the future! But that’s my goal right now.”