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 learn more about one of our newest Tillman Scholars, 2016 Tillman Scholar Anthony Johnson. An Army veteran, Anthony grew up in violence in Chicago’s south side where his drive to get to school was just to escape the environment. Anthony saw the military as a safer environment rather than home and now working towards earning his PhD. in Health Services at Northern Illinois University, Anthony hopes to bring light to issues relating to non-military PTSD and how they affect communities.
AS A YOUNG KID GROWING UP ON THE SOUTHSIDE OF CHICAGO, HOW DID YOU RISE ABOVE ALL OF THE VIOLENCE AROUND YOU?
“There is nothing I can specifically pinpoint to other than divine intervention. One thing about survival in Chicago is you have to be decisive and strategic about it. So the most daunting question was, What do you want to be or do? I didn’t know that answer I just knew I wanted to get away and live. School was difficult for me when I was younger because there was too much chaos for me to focus on books. I was lucky enough to be scholastic so I had the benefit of going to better schools but the schools I went to were on the opposite sides of town which had its own issues. For example in high school if I didn’t get a bus card from one of my buddies I really couldn’t get to school in the mornings because I didn’t have money. I am forever humbled because it was this bus driver who would just let me on for free. I would get on the bus, he looked and I told him I didn’t have bus fare. He asked me what school I went to, I told him and from then on he would just let me ride for free – I just had to be there during his scheduled time. If my aunt gave me some money I would just ration it out, whatever I had to do to get on that bus. The motivation to get to school was just to get out the hood – I never wanted to miss a day of school. When you’re traveling from one side of town to the next you can tell you’re not from the best place so when I was away at school I allowed myself to enjoy it more.”
HOW DID YOU REACH THE DECISION TO JOIN THE MILITARY?
“I knew I wasn’t in a good situation in my neighborhood and knew I needed to escape and the only things I knew that would help me do that the quickest were sports and the military. My father and three of his brothers were in the military so that was the first positive reference of ‘Maybe I should do that’.”
WITH THREE QUARTERS OF YOUR COMMUNITY LIVING IN POVERTY, HOW DID YOU KNOW WHAT ELSE WAS OUT THERE FOR YOU TO ‘ESCAPE’?
“I did not know what was out there or how to handle it. It was one of those situations where you get comfortable with the unknown. People tend to fear the unknown, I didn’t have that luxury. The unknown became comfortable and peaceful, I ran to it to dodge the known. Initially I was a little fearful of the military when I enlisted in 2002 – the whole concept of war and all. But my thought pattern was that I would probably be safer in the military than I would be at home. I also thought the military would be easier to understand because the enemy has an image whereas in my neighborhood the enemy looked like me and I couldn’t differentiate who was or wasn’t the enemy.”
YOU WERE SENT TO BASIC TRAINING AT ONE OF THE TOUGHEST PLACES YOU COULD BE IN FORT SILL, OKLAHOMA. WHEN DID YOU HAVE YOUR AHA MOMENT WHERE YOU REALIZED YOU HAD MADE THE RIGHT DECISION JOINING THE MILITARY?
“In the types of experiences I’ve been through I don’t think you have the time analyze and say, ‘okay let me make sure this decision is correct you just have to trust yourself if it’s not right adapt.’ But, I honestly did not look back until this year to have that moment, so maybe 15 years or so I’ve been running. I’ve recently had experiences where I’m talking with some of my people from my neighborhood and we start to have conversations and their eyes widen up with surprised reaction to me going to school, earning a PhD whereas in my head it was no big deal. Until my friends where I grew up pointed it out, I didn’t really notice it was rare for someone like me to have done and experienced all that I have.
The Pat Tillman Leadership Summit was this culmination of experiences for me because my wife and I had just finished our masters, I had just been accepted to the PhD program, my second born just came, my father and I rectified our relationship – so having all of those things happen made me realize I had made the right decision.”
COMING FROM THE COMMUNITY YOU GREW UP IN AND THEN GOING BACK, DO YOU FEEL LIKE THERE’S A CERTAIN RESPONSIBILITY AND MANTEL YOU’RE PLACED ON OR YOU’RE LOOKED AT DIFFERENT?
“I have extreme survivor’s guilt at times, especially when I turn on the news lately. I’m from this complex environment and oddly enough it helped me to places where I am. There was this one time I was out playing basketball with some friends and some guys came up and took us into a random lady’s house and told us all to lay down, he gave the lady some money and the door closed. Three minutes later it sounded like the Fourth of July outside. I had the same type of experience while getting on a bus – the corner where I get on the bus was the hustle spot and there was this instance where I couldn’t get on because I was broke so the hustlers paid my way to school that day. It was these strange experiences because in the same degree you go to school and get correct information like drug dealers are bad, etc. but those ‘bad’ experiences were actually pushing me over the fence. My indebtedness exists in only one space. I don’t feel an indebtedness for surviving and making it out, my neighborhood doesn’t make me feel that way. I’m not a celebrity by any means but when I want to go back I can go back. What makes me feel a level of guilt or responsibility is that I feel I understand some components of how to process things and get out and know I should put myself into a position to communicate that to other kids who are maybe in the same situation. Whatever got me out, maybe there’s a kid there who wasn’t able to see some of the things I saw and to be able to say you’re still capable and help them navigate if it helps.”
WHETHER IT BE IN THE COMMUNITY IN WHICH YOU GREW UP OR SERVING IN THE MILITARY, HAVE YOU ALWAYS LIVED LIFE LOOKING OVER YOUR SHOULDER AND AT WHAT POINT DID YOU REALIZE IT’S OKAY TO LOOK FORWARD RATHER THAN THE OPPOSITE?
“I’m just realizing that now as well. Before we moved to the house where we’re at now, and have been for about the past three years, I would come home and would circle the block, come home different ways and I don’t do that now. I don’t do that now anymore but there is a borderline to where I don’t want to be too comfortable. That mindset doesn’t come from the military because that experience was passive given my role as a pharmacy specialist. I don’t know that I even have a valid reason to feel that way, I guess I feel like I didn’t look like I’m struggling which can make me stand out.”
THROUGHOUT YOUR EXPERIENCES GROWING UP IN YOUR COMMUNITY AND IN THE MILITARY, DID YOU LEARN MORE ABOUT YOURSELF IN THE MILITARY OR IN YOUR COMMUNITY?
“I learned everything about myself in the military. When I was home I would explain everything I did as survival tactics. When I got to the military I learned the undertones of leadership, tie everything together, face your fears and you’re put in such a space where I felt like I was made to be a leader. At home I felt like a small part of a group whereas in the military I felt like I could be a leader and progress. Experiences matter but they don’t define me. I thought in my community when things happened to me it was due to race or socioeconomic status but in the military it didn’t really matter but rather resonated on the person and their character. With my success in the military, it stripped the confusion I had earlier living in my community and tied me to empowerment.”
HOW DID YOUR DISCOVERIES AND EXPERIENCES DEALING WITH INDIVIDUALS SUFFERING FROM PTSD, LEAD TO PURSUING YOUR PHD?
“The knowledge and what became exposed to me by way of the military in regards to PTSD came through a friend who had some mild issues with PTSD. My mother also had a set of experiences where she was evicted from her home and after that her mood and temperament hasn’t been the same to say the least. The spark was a conversation I had with a military buddy that I grew up with in Chicago, he started to compare moments in combat to time from back in the hood. I turned on the news that night and another set of killings in Chicago and I just thought, ‘ok enough is enough’. I started looking for opportunities to leverage my skills to help. I was just finishing my Master’s Degree and thought, ‘What if I could do a study as a PhD?’ Three months later I was accepted into a PhD program.”
WITH ALL OF THE VIOLENCE WHEN IT COMES TO GUNS, ETC. DO YOU THINK THERE’S A CORRELATION BETWEEN THOSE THAT ARE ACTING OUT AND PTSD?
“I would guarantee it. I don’t point the light on just the people living in the neighborhood. Police officers leave their house and promise their family they’ll come home and when they go out into the communities they’re dealing with some of the same experiences our soldiers are on the ground. Police go into neighborhoods and they don’t understand why some of these things are happening. If a police officer sees an enemy, in some cases they’ll respond out of fear and what they’ve been taught and know of the neighborhood and that clashes with what the experiences people in the neighborhood are having. When I left Chicago I said I wouldn’t come back due to this dichotomy. It’s like a misunderstanding of worlds between two major forces, community and those who protect it. It feels like one of those old movies where everyone’s gun is drawn, the cat knocks over the milk and everyone shoots out of fear.”
DO YOU FEEL LIKE THE PERCEPTION ON THE OUTSIDE IS WORSE AS IT’S EVER BEEN OR IS IT REALLY THE NORM AND THERE’S JUST BEEN MORE FOCUS AND ATTENTION ON THINGS BY THE MEDIA?
“I feel that all aspects are playing a negative roles – each entity is playing their role in a negative space and it’s evolving. Look at it this way, take a neighborhood where a kid is being raised. Let’s say the mom is stressed from environmental factors, dad is stressed from environmental factors, that kid can have long-term cognitive development issues. The shear normalization of that stress can remove levels of apathy. So a lady crying and stopping to check on her turns into a lady crying and no one notices. Or the kid get so upset that he kills without guilt.
Now let’s add in media, which as a sidebar from a historical point has been used as a psychological weapon in war. The media showing images, not that they’re not correct, but the bombardment of it if you watch and don’t turn your eye to see something different, you become thinking this is the only thing that’s happening. There’s different concepts of war that happen and I’m not saying the media is trying to control that but the media itself does have a level of control and when you mix that with it and have a police officer who makes a mistake drives all these components to be magnified. The end result is that a kid in that neighborhood looks at life in such a way that someone in another neighborhood can understand because of the different subcultures. The way I saw Chicago when I was growing up is not the way I see Chicago now but the way that I saw Chicago when I grew up. And that’s mainly because I was fortunate enough to live outside my original subculture and escape so of the stressors.”
IN LOOKING AT ISSUES RELATING TO NON-MILITARY PTSD AND MILITARY-RELATED PTSD, WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING TO ACCOMPLISH THROUGH YOUR STUDY?
“In order for change to happen there’s this unfortunate, slower process that America functions on. This issue has to be proved, researched and put in front of the right set of people in order to start the process. For me, this is taking an angle at something that my experiences tells me is true – I’m just going about it in a professional, scientific way that says, ‘let’s study this, let’s prove it and see the magnitude based off the study, at which point I’m able to successfully achieve my goal. Maybe this is one piece of energy that can attract the right mind frames that refocus how we deal with issues. I would love for Chicago to kind of take a space where we don’t look at what is going on in other cities but rather let’s focus in on Chicago because right now we have a bad image media-wise. Personally, I feel I’m not just a south side kid, I’m not just a black guy – I’m a Chicagoan. Chicago circumstances helped me differentiate things because this city is such a melting pot that you get all angles. Inside the community I grew up in the mentality is different from outside that mentality. There are ways to do this as long as we come together and work together but if we keep the segregation the infested mentalities will get worse and as a result we may miss out on big opportunities like to host something like the Olympics and encourage people to come to Chicago in the state that it’s in. For me I think it’s more important and imperative that Chicago heals Chicago.”
UPON EARNING YOUR DEGREE, WHAT ARE YOUR PROFESSIONAL GOALS?
“There is a quote by W.E.B. Dubois that states, ‘The function of the university is not simply to teach bread-winning or to furnish teachers for the public schools or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.’ That quote really resonates with me so whether it is in a corporate function, under my own entrepreneurial umbrella, or in some non-for-profit realm my professional goal is to essentially embody those concepts as I move forward. I am also am thinking about putting my thoughts together in the form of a book in regards to my experiences and how they have help me channel a better sense of self.”
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR YOU TO BE PART OF THE TILLMAN SCHOLAR COMMUNITY?
“It means everything to me. I look at my sons and develop a legacy mindset that I have to do something for them in this world that they can experience a better place – thinking about what I can leave behind. Looking at Pat Tillman’s experience, I think it’s amazing that even after all this time his legacy is such a moving force that it helps me in the things I’m doing now through school and tying me back to the military. To be able to impact people and be part of this Tillman Scholar community means a lot because everyone has their story, they just don’t always speak it it. Being a Tillman Scholar for me is validation I’m on the right track.”
BETWEEN SERVING IN THE MILITARY, GROWING UP IN THE SOUTH SIDE OF CHICAGO AND BEING A FATHER OF TWO YOUNG BOYS, WHICH OF THESE HAS BEEN THE MOST CHALLENGING FOR YOU AND TAUGHT YOU THE MOST?
“Thinking about my boys’ lives has challenged me the most. I have a fear when I see police lights so how do I communicate to my kids what this thing called life is and how do you I give them a set of tools that help them succeed. There are a lot of things a person will say that they’ll do for their kids but I’m going to take the angle that I’m going to live for them and live in such a way that even in my flaws it shows them a template of how to deal with things and hopefully that is enough to help them make decisions. Instead of surviving for my kids, hustling for my kids, providing for my kids, I’m going to live for them. You only have so much time so you have to wake up every day and live in such a way that if it was my last day I have left a path that they can use as reference if need be in their pursuit of happiness.”