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 sat down with U.S. Air Force veteran and 2015 Tillman Scholar Erik Mirandette, who talked to us about his life changing experiences journeying through Africa, losing his younger brother in a terrorist attack, and finding his own path of service. The author of ‘The Only Road North: 9,000 Miles of Dirt and Dreams’, Erik is currently attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pursuing an MBA with a focus in Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO JOIN THE U.S. MILITARY?
“In high school I was a pole vaulter and was good enough to be recruited by a couple of schools. With that, my college options were limited to the schools that recruited me, one being the Air Force Academy. I was really impressed with the Academy and loved its sense of purpose and the people. I was the first person in my family to consider the military, so I didn’t know much about it or its culture, but I liked everything about the Air Force Academy. That’s where I decided to go.
After my sophomore year, I left the Academy for a year to volunteer for a non-profit in North Africa and then that experience turned into another two-year trip across Africa. It was at the end of that trip from South Africa to Egypt that we were bombed in a terrorist attack in Cairo. I was injured real badly and my younger brother Alex lost his life. It took me a year after that attack to heal up to the point where I was physically able to take care of myself and then return to service at the Air Force Academy.
I came back to the Academy with a different focus – a much deeper sense of purpose. Prior to coming back to the Academy I had been working in North Africa in an Arabic culture and had a much deeper understanding and appreciation of Arabic language and culture, so when I came back in 2006 I was eager to help out in the war effort.”
WHEN YOU FIRST JOINED THE MILITARY, WHAT WAS YOUR GOAL AND WHAT DID YOU ENVISION IT WOULD BE LIKE?
“Initially, I envisioned that I would serve as a fighter pilot– that was a viable option that I certainly could have pursued. However, I came back from three years on my own in Africa where I was able to accomplish an objective with my own team and learned how to navigate certain situations – including coming face to face with insurgents. After that, I realized I wanted more out of my military service.”
WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF THROUGHOUT YOUR MILITARY CAREER?
“After the suicide bombing killed my brother, I knew I wanted to be on the ground up close to the groups we were at war with. I figured given my experience abroad and knack for language, intelligence work would be a good fit for me. It took me a few years to get there, but I eventually did. During a deployment to Afghanistan in 2013, I was proud to contribute in a meaningful way.”
COULD YOU SHARE SOME INSIGHT ON YOUR ADVENTURE TO AFRICA DURING YOUR ACADEMY LEAVE AND WHY YOU DECIDED TO TAKE ON THAT JOURNEY?
“I left the Air Force Academy in 2003 after my sophomore year and moved to North Africa. Initially, I started working with the sub-Saharan and West African refugees to trying to reach Europe. They were living in very tough conditions. Disease was rampant in the camps and many were dying. I was 20 years old and it was a shocking experience. I wanted to understand why people would willingly subject themselves to that environment with a one in ten chance of making it to Europe. What prompted the trip was the desire to see and experience the places where these refugees were coming. I wanted to understand what was happening in their countries in the six months I had before returning to the Air Force Academy. Over the next year or so, that desire began to take shape. I thought, ‘what’s the wildest thing I could imagine that’s doable but just barely?’
I still wanted to see and experience Africa but public transportation was non-existent, hitchhiking wasn’t viable, I needed reliable transportation on very bad roads. I was pretty comfortable on a dirt bike and figured they would get us where we needed to go. So we took out loans, shipped a couple bikes to Cape Town, South Africa and set out toward Cairo, Egypt. We were set to stop with various non-profits along the way, but I didn’t think we would accomplish anything material during the journey. It would be an adventure, and we would walk away with some firsthand perspective of what was going on in those countries that I couldn’t get by hearing the refugee’s stories.”
WHAT DID YOUR PARENTS SAY WHEN YOU TOLD THEM OF YOUR PLANS TO DIRT BIKE THROUGH AFRICA?
“I don’t think they were surprised to hear something like that come out of my mouth – though I don’t think they expected to hear that exactly! I was adamantly opposed to my brother Alex coming with. It took him about six months to wear me down. I was a very protective older brother but eventually I relented.”
IS THERE ANYTHING FROM YOUR EXPERIENCE WORKING WITH THE NON-PROFIT IN AFRICA THAT MADE YOU REALIZE YOU JUST COULDN’T SAVE EVERYONE NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU TRIED AND AT WHAT COST?
“What I was doing with the refugees was important because they were people in a horrible situation. The little good I could do didn’t even begin to adequately address the immediate need before me, much less address the underlying causes of the problems they faced. But, I did have the ability to make some of those situations less horrible. With the refugees, there was an immediate need that had to be met with food, medical supplies and shelter. Often, I felt like I wasn’t doing anything because the need was so great. Then I’d see someone take a blanket or a meal and I’d be reminded that that was something. The little good that you can do is still worth doing. Even if it’s not enough, it’s better than staying home and doing nothing.”
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO WRITE THE BOOK, ‘THE ONLY ROAD NORTH: 9,000 MILES OF DIRT AND DREAMS’?
“I wrote the book because my brother turned into a man during the last year of his life and I was the only one that saw it. I really love and respected him in such a profound way. I wanted his story to be known by other people because it was such an inspiration to me. Initially, I didn’t think it would ever be a book but wrote as a means to of catharsis. It was in the quiet moments when I would just sit and write everything down I remembered. To see it written down… it was like I didn’t have to carry it if I wrote it down. I’ve grown a lot since I first wrote that book, and it’s sort of uncomfortable when I meet people who have read it because they know a much younger, much rawer version of me. That said, I wouldn’t change a thing about the book. It was a raw and conflicted time and it should come across as such.”
WHY DID YOU MAKE THE DECISION TO LEAVE THE MILITARY AFTER SIX-AND-A-HALF YEARS IN THE AIR FORCE?
“The life style and time away was beginning to take a toll on my family. I didn’t want to leave my team or not be a part of the mission, but it was time.”
WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO CHOOSE YOUR PATH AND WORK TOWARDS YOUR MBA AT MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY (MIT)? WHAT DO YOU INTEND TO DO WITH YOUR DEGREE?
“I’m excited about the start-up space and the ability to take an idea that has value and change things in a meaningful way. One of the greatest things about MIT is the sheer number of brilliant people walking around. If you stop and have a couple conversations with anyone here, it’s hard to believe there is a problem that can’t be solved. I am still determined to help create solutions to the problems I saw in Africa, Afghanistan and in Asia, and I believe that the private sector is best equipped to do so. ”
WHY DID YOU APPLY TO BECOME A TILLMAN SCHOLAR, AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR YOU TO BE A PART OF THE SCHOLAR COMMUNITY – ESPECIALLY IN BOSTON?
“When I first began applying I didn’t think I had a chance of being selected, but as I got to know Pat Tillman’s story, I recognized there were a lot of parallels that I could relate to. By the time I submitted it I thought maybe, maybe I had a shot. I was thrilled to learn I had made it to the final interview and when I received the call that I was selected, I was ecstatic. The Tillman scholarship helps open up opportunities that have the potential to be high impact but that are less financially certain.
This isn’t just about a scholarship, it’s about being part of a community. The Tillman Scholars are a great group of people with overlapping experiences and common goals. It wasn’t until I attended the Leadership Summit that I realized how involved fellow scholars are. I didn’t expect to develop such close friendships with fellow scholars and with the Tillman Foundation. When I got to Boston and was going to a scholar function for the first time, I was waiting for fellow scholar Adrian Perkins – I had never met him before and didn’t know a thing about him. I met him for the first time on the street and we were instant friends. He could come from any background in the world but the moment he walked up, I know he’s a good guy and friend because we’re part of the Tillman Scholar community. People value relationships in this community.”
LAST QUESTION! WHERE DID YOUR INTEREST IN POLE VAULTING COME FROM?
“I played football and ran middle distance track and did the long jump in middle school, and was good at both but hated running! When I got to high school I was convinced I wanted to do anything but middle and long distance in track. I had a buddy who I grew up with who was a good pole vaulter, so he took me under his wing and let me give it a shot. The coaches saw me and thought I had potential (I was adamant that I didn’t want to do middle distance)! They gave me a shot and said if I was good enough at pole vaulting I could stay on the team, but if not I would have to go back to the middle distance. I got pretty good, pretty quick! I won state my junior year and was top two or three in the state of Michigan, clearing 15 feet, but in college I was mediocre.”