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, nearly 350 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, technology, 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’s Tillman Tuesday features 2012 Tillman Scholar Laura Tillman whose husband Jack served in the Army Reserves for eight years, deploying twice for 15 months at a time. Laura and Jack met in college at University of Minnesota during the time between Jack’s two deployments (2005). After dating for a couple of years, Jack and Laura got engaged and during that same weekend learned that Jack would soon deploy, resulting in planning their wedding in five months. In May 2014, Laura graduated from University of Minnesota with her doctorate as a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner as is currently employed at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare where she specializes in Orthopedics.
How did you first hear about the Tillman Scholar program and what made you decide to apply?
“I heard about it during the first year of my doctorate program and received several emails about it which eventually got me thinking about applying. I decided to apply because I really liked how it was so much more than a scholarship. The Tillman Scholarship asked me to do something more than just go to school but also be a leader in my community and give back to my community. I really like how it’s very unique from other scholarship programs.”
The foundation is currently in the process of selecting our seventh class of Tillman Scholars. Do you recall what that moment was like for you when you received the call you were selected to be included in the amazing group of Tillman Scholars?
“I remember the moment like it was yesterday. I was sitting in my living room with my husband when I saw the caller id on my phone and I just took a deep breath before I answered. It was one of those moments where my heart skipped a beat when I was told I was selected as a Tillman Scholar. My husband elbowed me because I was speechless and he was encouraging me to say something. It was such an awesome feeling to be selected as part of that group.”
How did that moment change your life?
“I had no idea how much it would change my life and all the opportunities it would afford me. Being able to travel to Washington D.C. and talk to elected officials and being part of the Leadership Summit was simply amazing. It was so much more than just a scholarship and I wasn’t prepared for how much more it was. It also afforded me to finish my doctoral education without the added pressure of having to work full time. I was able to graduate without any debt and it connected me to a network of amazing individuals.”
All too often when military service members deploy, a lot of the focus is on them and how they’re doing on their mission or tour of duty. How were you able to manage during your husband’s two 15-month tours throughout six years?
“It’s so much more difficult than I ever could have imagined. I thought I knew what I was getting myself in to but it turned out to be one of the hardest years of my life. During the deployment, I graduated from college, my friends moved away and he wasn’t at my college graduation.
So many emotions from everything to waking up in the morning and wondering how you’re loved one is doing. Trying not to listen to the news too much but also wondering how he’s doing when you hear of a casualty then as a result feeling guilty knowing it was someone else’s loved one. Doing house tasks alone that Jack and I would do together and just realizing how much you rely on your partner for the everyday things. However, I was very fortunate to have my in-laws close by because we spent the first year of our marriage being separated.”
What is the greatest reward from being a military spouse?
“Being a military spouse can be rewarding in the sense you’re very proud of your loved one and what they’re doing though sometimes you don’t understand those challenges until you’re actually going through them.
There were also times when I was able to help people because of my experience having gone through a deployment. Once I was doing a well-child visit and noticed something wasn’t quite right with the mom. I had eventually learned the dad was deployed and mom was having a hard time with the deployment. Through a deployment, there is an anxiety that follows you around every day; I wouldn’t have made that connection had I not been through a similar situation myself.”
Both you and your husband live by the creed ‘I should not get without giving in return’ and both pay-it-forward when opportunities present themselves. As a very active member in your community, what are some of the most fulfilling events you’ve been part of or had the honor of being associated with?
“It’s been rewarding to be able to volunteer with other members of the Tillman Scholar community whether it be stocking local food shelves, sorting items at a local shelter. I also volunteered my nursing skills through a local organization that helps elders to continue to live at home. It’s rewarding to hear their stories and be able to help them whether it be with their medications or answering questions they may have. It was a great opportunity to work one-on-one with those individuals and it’s those opportunities that are the most rewarding.”
Your passion for giving back and being involved in your community also helped you choose a career path. How did you choose to pursue a career as a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner?
“I knew early on, even in high school, that the medical field was something that really called to me. Being a nurse, I started in pediatrics and I learned as a community we are so passionate about helping our children, but when you sit down with kids one-on-one, especially with health needs, I realized they were an underserved population. I wanted to learn how to help them get to the best health their ability allows. Helping kids make the little milestones as small as sit up in a chair, hold a pencil and gain other skills is so rewarding.”
This past year, you ran the New York City Marathon as part of Team Tillman. What was your motivation for running your first marathon and raising funds for future fellow Tillman Scholars?
“It was a way to give back to the Tillman community. I had run several half marathons in the past but had never thought of doubling my miles. How could I say no when knowing this was something that would shed a little light on what some of my fellow Tillman Scholars are doing throughout the world? I chose the New York Marathon because it’s so iconic and if it’s the only one I ever do, it’s a great one to experience. My husband suffered an injury throughout his training but he was still there to cheer me on as well as my brother and sister-in-law who live in Brooklyn. It was such a great experience and I appreciated everyone’s support so much. People that handed out tissues will never know how thankful I am because it was so windy that day and I needed a lot of tissues!”
You obviously share the same last name as the man whose legacy you are carrying forward as a Tillman Scholar. How many times have you been asked if you’re related to Pat Tillman’s family and have you had any interesting encounters or stories in relation to your last name being the same as that of Pat?
“It certainly comes up a lot. I have probably been asked more times than I can count! I’ve also learned when I do community events with fellow Tillman Scholars in the Minnesota community that I have to clarify in my email signature that I am not related to Pat’s family. When we were fundraising for the New York City Marathon we had to continually explain to people they were not giving us money directly but that it was going to the Pat Tillman Foundation – which is no relation to us.”
Among the Tillman Scholars, it’s known that you’re the ‘sweetest woman alive’ and it’s clearly evident with all the community work you do as well as your chosen career path. How do you stay so positive and giving with all that is going on throughout the world?
“It’s the little things that make life worth living. Something that has always resonated with me is the starfish story with the little girl throwing all the starfish back into the ocean one by one…If I can make a difference in one person’s life, it’s a great day.”
What’s next for Laura and Jack Tillman?
“I’m settling into my new career and my husband is actually thinking about going to go back to school next year. He currently works at University of Minnesota as a Plant Breeder, where they created the Honey Crisp apple. I get to try some of the new apples that they’re working on before they’re released to the public. Right now, my spare time is dedicated to more learning and reading articles for my field. In February, I also just started learning how to play the fiddle and make stained glass windows for our house.”