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 one of our newest scholars, Reagan Odhner from the class of 2015, a northeast Philadelphia native who served on the Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan and is currently pursuing her BA in Economics at Stanford University.
What was your motivation behind joining the service?
“I’ve never been able to come up with the ‘why’ when asked why I joined the service, I just knew it was something I had to. It ultimately came down to the decision that I would rather wake up the next four years and say, ‘oh man this was a bad idea’, than wake up every day for the rest of my life and say, ‘I wonder what would have happened if I had enlisted.’ The high levels of stress and activity under pressure and everything your recruiters tell you that may or may not be true – travel, responsibility, and the kind of work you can’t do elsewhere – all of that appealed to me.
My grandfather was my only family member who had served, but once I decided I was going to enlist, my younger brother decided he was going to enlist as well. We ended up going to boot camp at the same time. When it came time to do the rifle qualifications, they actually had us compete next to each other.”
What was your deployment experience like as a Marine and what did you learn about yourself throughout serving?
“During my first deployment to Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, I learned a lot about my job – aviation ordnance. I deployed about a month after I checked into the unit so a lot of my initial experience entailed getting ready for the deployment. I wasn’t super passionate about my job, but I learned a lot about the hierarchy, time management and all the stuff that you can’t learn fast enough when you first enlist. I learned an incredible amount about separating my personal life from my work life and learning not to take things personally too. After my first deployment, I realized I wanted to do more, so when looking for other options for my second deployment (Sangin, Afghanistan) I came across the Female Engagement Teams.”
Tell us about serving as part of the Female Engagement Team – what did it entail?
“The Marine Corps ran the program from 2010-2012. About 200 women went through the program and they pulled us from whatever unit we were assigned to primarily. They put us through a six-month training program where we were taught how to patrol, given vehicle licenses and anything we would need to be attached to an infantry unit. We were then sent overseas and split up in teams of two or three, paired up with infantry units. Our specialty was engaging with the population, information gathering and community development projects, which was one of the coolest things we got to do. We would invite the kids on base to play soccer and interact with the police. We also got a local teacher to come and teach classes to the kids.”
What is your goal now that your service with the Marines has ended?
“I served four years and got out a few months early so I could make it to my first class. I really loved my second deployment and decided I wanted to do that same type of work in the civilian world, so I began looking into international programs. I feel that there is an insane amount of work to be done overseas and I want to make a difference. I’m going to finish my undergrad at Stanford and to be competitive I’ll have to get my Master’s degree, so I’ll be in school for the long haul.”
Shortly after you enrolled in economics classes at Stanford you were diagnosed with Lymphoma. How are you doing and how have you pushed through that unexpected obstacle?
“I knew something was wrong before I left the military but I just didn’t know what. I arrived at Stanford in September 2013 and around December I started getting worse and worse. In February 2014, it got to the point where I was having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. I was just too tired to do anything. Eventually, one of my friends encouraged me to go to the hospital and talk to the doctor one more time. I stayed for a few days while tests were done. They discovered I had Lymphoma and I started treatment within a few days. For as bad as it could have been? I was pretty lucky. The worst part for me throughout the whole experience was before chemo even started. I’m now in remission and feeling great these days. My body still needs more time to get back to 100% but I can run and go to the gym, and that’s what I really care about. I have another follow-up scan in July so I hope to hear that everything is still good!”
What sparked your interest in applying for the Tillman Scholar program?
“I actually heard about it from 2012 Tillman Scholar Tim Hsia whom I had been working with on Service to School since 2013. He encouraged me to apply but I put it off because of the caliber of people. I didn’t think I would get it! This past year, I realized I was getting to a point where I just want to hear other people’s stories and learn more about what they’re doing, so I decided to apply. To me, the scholarship money is just icing on the cake, I’m looking forward to having a great network of people in the Tillman community.”
“I was actually sitting in a math class when I got the call I had been selected. I ignored the first call, but then when I saw the same number call back I figured it must be important. I think I said ‘thank you’ about a million times because I didn’t know what else to say. I was so excited!”
What are you most looking forward to down the road and what is your ultimate dream job?
“I would love to be somewhere in the Middle East doing project development in small, rural communities. This summer though, I’m also doing research looking at VA disability policy. The more I learn, the more I think that I could see myself happily ending up in veteran’s policy.”