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. In this week’s Tillman Tuesday we catch up with 2012 Tillman Scholar Seth Smith who is a graduate of Princeton University, earning a Master’s degree in Public Policy. Seth currently works for Participant Media – a media company whose mission is to produce and create inspiring content that could compel and inspire social change.
WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO JOIN THE MILITARY AND HOW LONG DID YOU SERVE?
“I joined the Navy after September 11th for two reasons…patriotism and selfishness. When 9/11 happened, a lot of people my age felt the pull to serve and I was no different. At the time, I felt the military would be a good opportunity to gain direction and discipline that I was lacking. I felt I would also be able to improve upon my language skills. Linguistics was always something I had a proficiency for and with the need for translators I felt I could help in that capacity.
I served in the Navy for six years exactly. My first day of boot camp was on my birthday in 2002 and I got out the day before my birthday in 2008. I was deployed to the Persian Gulf region for about four-and-a-half years straight. My deployment was different because I wasn’t attached to any specific ship or unit. We were basically on demand for all the units in the region. I called the Persian Gulf home for those four-and-a-half years.”
THROUGHOUT YOUR SERVICE AT SEA, WHAT WERE YOUR ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES?
“The first two years I spent going to sea serving as a cryptologic interpreter which involved translation on Visit Board Search and Seizure teams (VBSS). If you’ve seen the movie Captain Phillips these are the guys that are in the speed boats hopping on other ships’ platforms, doing searches looking for weapons shipments, drugs and any unusual activity.”
HAVING SEEN THE MOVIE AND GIVEN YOUR EXPERIENCE SERVING WITH THE NAVY, COUPLED WITH YOUR CURRENT PROFESSIONAL CAREER, WHAT DID YOU THINK OF CAPTAIN PHILLIPS?
“I thought the SEAL stuff was really cool, having not worked with them very often. Overall a lot of the films I see that depict the Navy ships only showcase a very small portion of the boat – the dark room with the green screens and radios don’t show you what life is like at sea during a 3-9 month deployment. I thought the movie was pretty cool and I enjoyed seeing it, especially after two years of doing that kind of job which often involved being attached to Australian and British ships as well. I did that quite a bit. I then transferred over to Naval Air Crew and was attached to Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) where I was in aircraft all over the Persian Gulf and Iraq transporting ground troops. In support of ground troops, not transporting them.”
THROUGHOUT YOUR TIME AT SEA AND YOUR DEPLOYMENTS, WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE KNOWN PRIOR TO JOINING THE SERVICE?
“I learned that no one ever really knows what their limits are. No one ever really knows how far they can push themselves, or be pushed to excel. That realization is something I’ve taken with me since leaving the military. I always try to challenge myself to be better at whatever I’m doing. I also learned a lot about leadership in that I became an Airborne supervisor, leading multinational teams that consisted of people that outranked me in many cases. I learned a lot about the need to give a voice to your vision, articulating what it is you’re trying to accomplish as a leader on a specific mission in order to give your team a clear understanding of the mission objectives and what is expected of them.”
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO LEAVE THE MILITARY?
“Having been gone from home for that long period of time and only coming home on leave two or three times, I wanted to be more involved in my family. My parents were aging, I had never met my nieces, and at that point I was the only one in my family that had yet to graduate from college. Education is a big part of my family, so it was important for me to earn my degree.”
HOW DID YOU LEARN ABOUT THE TILLMAN SCHOLARSHIP AND WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO APPLY?
“When I got out of the service, I had an interest in continuing the family tradition of attending UCLA. Prior to UCLA, I attended Santa Monica Community College and while visiting the Veteran’s Resource Center I had a great experience, which solidified my decision to get out of the military and pursue my degree.
After I graduated from community college and UCLA, using my GI Bill, I moved out to Washington D.C. for an internship. There I met several military veterans, including Tillman Scholars. I wanted to apply because the network of friends and veterans I met were all great people. They re-energized my desire to be reconnected to the greater veteran community and I felt becoming a Pat Tillman Scholar would help.”
WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION WHEN YOU LEARNED THAT YOU HAD BEEN SELECTED AS A TILLMAN SCHOLAR?
“I felt like I was in Wayne’s World, ‘You’re not worthy! You’re not worthy!’ As I read the bios of other scholars, I realized how amazing everyone is and how different everyone’s story is. I didn’t feel I was deserving to be classified in the same group as the other scholars. Being selected with the other scholars instilled in me a sense that whenever I have the opportunity to do something for the veteran community, that’s what I want to do. It permeates in my life so much now. Even in my work, I try to advocate for various veteran groups.”
WHAT HAS BEING A TILLMAN SCHOLAR ALLOWED YOU TO DO THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE OTHERWISE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO DO PRIOR TO BEING SELECTED?
“It’s been great being able to have a resource and strong network of veterans to reach out to. It also puts other people in my life where I need support and information. In my work life now, it allows me the opportunity to hopefully shine a brighter light on the work that veterans and Tillman Scholars are doing. For example, my company is able to help veteran organizations like Got Your 6 who are hosting their Storytellers event next week in Los Angeles, featuring Tillman Scholar Kimberly Jung.
I didn’t need the financial support of the Tillman Scholarship as much, but what I was looking for was more of the community support and network. It’s paid huge dividends for not only myself but other veterans I now get to interact with.”
CAN YOU PLEASE EXPLAIN WHAT YOU ARE DOING NOW IN YOUR CAREER FIELD SINCE YOU GRADUATED?
“I work for Participant Media, which originally started as a film and production company whose mission is to produce and create inspiring content that could compel and inspire social change. We take on socially relevant media projects and with each one we try to craft, design, implement and execute impact strategies around the content, trying to change policies, raise, public awareness on specific issues, and move the needle in any way we can. For example, last year we started a campaign around veterans called, ‘Return to Service’ which took a documentary film which we produced around the country, screening it for veterans and community leaders in an effort to raise awareness for PTSD, mental health issues and to advocate for the expansion of veterans treatment courts for the military veterans who find themselves in the criminal justice system as a result of substance abuse or any other issues related to their service.”
IS THIS THE CAREER PATH YOU ENVISIONED FOR YOURSELF AFTER YOUR MILITARY CAREER AND EVERY PINCH YOURSELF?
“I never thought I would be where I am. When I left the military and while in school I thought I would ultimately be going back into the government sector and focusing on International Affairs and International Relations. But this didn’t fit very well with my desire to be back in California and near my family. Luckily through a strong network of veterans and those that support veterans I was able to get connected with a finance firm in New York after I graduated from Princeton. A mentor of mine introduced me to a network of individuals that offered me a job in the production industry back in LA so I’m happy to be home.”
HOW HAS THE MILITARY HELPED YOU IN YOUR PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL LIFE TODAY?
“It’s taught me patience and given me the ability to not sweat the small stuff. Certain things we do in the military on a regular basis are so consequential and in high-stress situations we remain calm under pressure. The military helps connect you with a clear mind and focus on your objective and that’s one things veterans can carry with them in the work force.”
WITH BEING ONE OF 406 TILLMAN SCHOLARS, HOW HONORED ARE YOU AND WHAT SENSE OF DUTY DO YOU FEEL IN CARRYING FORWARD PAT’S LEGACY?
“It’s more than pride, it’s a sense of community, obligation in a positive way, something you want to carry forward. I feel all of the Tillman Scholars can agree that Pat’s legacy is something that everyone should strive to emulate – not just military veterans. We need to try to live our lives both personally and professionally that reflects Pat’s legacy in everything that we do. I have a Pat poster hanging on the wall and one of the first things I think of in the morning and see is what it means to carry forward his legacy and honor the Tillman family and all of the other veterans who deserve to be part of this group far more than myself.”