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 2016 Tillman Scholar and Air Force veteran Adam Popp who overcame his own adversity following a combat-related injury suffered while working with an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team in Afghanistan in 2007. Adam has spent the past nine years working with men and women battling both invisible and visible injuries and is currently attending George Washington University pursuing a degree in Rehabilitation Counseling while also running marathons.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO JOIN THE MILITARY IN 1997?
“I was weighing my options around the time I graduated from high school and was looking to go to school to earn an Engineering degree or play soccer at a small school or the third option was joining the military. I had a cousin who served in the Air Force at the time, another that served in the Army as well as my grandfather serving in the Army and spoke to a lot of different family members about their military experience and it seemed like the best decision for me.
My recruiter presented me with a couple of different options including Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) – which sounded pretty interesting. Along with most of the population, I didn’t know what an IED was at the time but once September 11 happened everyone knew what an IED was. At that point I had my four years in the service and was at the time where I needed to make a decision to stay in or get out but saw my country was in a time of need and I liked what I was doing and the people I was working with so I re-enlisted.”
DURING YOUR 12 YEARS IN THE SERVICE, WHAT WAS YOUR ROLE WORKING AS PART OF EXPLOSIVE ORDNANCE DISPOSAL (EOD)?
“Right after boot camp I went to a two week EOD prelim course which is a weeding out process and started the school in 1997 as part of a joint service school, learning about being an explosive service technician.”
WHAT WAS YOUR DAY TO DAY TASKS THROUGHOUT YOUR DEPLOYMENTS IN THAT ROLE?
“We were the military’s bomb disposal team and were responsible for disarming any type of explosive threat. For example if it’s a military piece of ordnance found on the battlefield or some type of ordnance dropped on base from a piece of aircraft or if it was trying to be fired out of a mortar tube or grenade and something happened, that’s a ticking bomb. Our team would then go and figure out what’s wrong with it, figure out if it’s safe and remove it so training can continue. My main job while I was deployed was removing, making safe and disposing of IED’s.
There were people that did get to a point where they were dealing with live explosives and realized it wasn’t for them and could go and do something else. Once I got into the field there was never any second guessing for myself as I found it very interesting and intriguing.”
AT THE AGE OF 18, WHAT WAS IT LIKE BRINGING THE PAPERWORK HOME TO YOUR MOM STATING NOT ONLY THAT YOU WERE JOINING THE MILITARY BUT THAT YOU WOULD BE WORKING HANDS ON WITH EXPLOSIVE DEVICES?
“She was reading the paperwork which stated, ‘you’ll disarm weapons of mass destruction and terrorist weapons, work with chemicals, etc.’ and my mom was like, ‘uh, no way’ and obviously as a parent she was a bit concerned and started talking with my cousin who was in the Air Force questioning him on what he got me in to. My cousin assured my mom the school was really difficult and that I probably wouldn’t make it, so they were betting against me from the very beginning.”
WAS THERE EVER A FEELING OF UNEASINESS WHEN YOU KNEW WHAT YOUR JOB ENTAILED ONCE YOU MADE IT THROUGH THE SCHOOL AND DID YOU EVER WONDER WHAT YOU GOT YOURSELF INTO?
“Having joined prior to September 11 I didn’t really have this big picture idea of what could happen because those devices weren’t something typically happening. The other piece of it was to really understand what you’re working on and be in the person in control with the most knowledge and I took that very seriously throughout my career. That mindset began with EOD (Explosives Ordnance Demolition) school where I was studying every intricate piece of what makes that IED explode. I would rather be the person who has full knowledge of it rather than be the person that just comes across them and has no idea and has to turn and run the other way. Understanding and being in control of the situation makes me feel comfortable with the situation I’m in.”
COULD YOU PLEASE SHARE WHAT LED TO BEING A RECIPIENT OF YOUR PURPLE HEART.
“During my second deployment to Afghanistan in 2007 I was working for the Army on a three-man team in the middle of nowhere (near FOB Gardez), and we were responsible for going out with different units in the province, making the IED’s safe so they could operate, before turning the area over. While out with a unit doing a local medical evaluation for the city we received a call that there was an IED at another site. The IED was found underneath a culvert on the road, which was our team’s responsibility to remove the device so people could drive over the road. We couldn’t really get access to the entire IED because of its position underneath the road so we did as much as we could with the robot but couldn’t access one little last piece so at that point as the team leader I made the decision we were to go in by hand and remove the last piece.
I got suited up in the big green bomb suit that we’ve all seen in the movies and I headed down there with some equipment with my team about 50 meters away in the truck and I started working on the device and was able to get it out. Upon getting the device out and turning the area over to the town, we had to make sure the area was safe so I headed back a second time to be sure and on my second entry the detonation occurred. I was conscious but was thrown back about 15 feet and knew at that point things were not good and that I was injured. I wasn’t in a lot of pain initially but was lying on the ground helpless. Shortly after the detonation my team showed up and started rendering first aid along with the medics. I was lying in a ditch alongside the road and they pulled me out and continued to work on me. There was a point I knew I wasn’t going to die but I did know that my leg and arm were hurt. I was told I would more than likely lose my leg but my arm was uncertain. I ended up calling my dad back in the states to let him know what was going on. Within 24 hours I was waking up in Germany after surgery, missing my right leg but still had my arm so that was a good thing.”
HAVING SPENT ABOUT A YEAR AND A HALF AT WALTER REED, HOW DID YOU OVERCOME ADVERSITY AND PICK UP THE PIECES AND GET THROUGH THAT TIME?
“When you wake up as an amputee after being at the peak level of fitness serving in combat, I never thought it would have been a possibility (being an amputee). There are other combat injured veterans around you at different levels of their recovery. During my first week I had no idea what I could or couldn’t do but once you start working with different amputees you really start to understand what the possibilities are. Everyone’s situation is different and when you see other amputees at different levels of their recovery, you can really start to see what things will look like for yourself in 10 months. That community within the hospital is a really tight knit community which helps in bouncing ideas off of each other, what different prosthetics work and just having other people like yourself who have done the hard work sharing ideas with you and use what works best for yourself.”
BEFORE YOUR INJURY, HOW DID YOU ENVISION YOUR MILITARY CAREER AND WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF DURING YOUR 12 YEARS OF SERVICE THAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW BEFORE YOU JOINED?
“Before I got hurt I was in the process and on the fence as to whether or not to get out of the military or stay in even though I loved what I did. I wanted to at least give myself other options in the event I found a better option or fit for me and what else was out there. I would have like to have done 20 years and even still wanted to stay in after I was injured but obviously that simply wasn’t the case.
The military taught me a lot of discipline and working in small teams especially coming in as an 18-year-old kid and never having that team experience. I really credit the military for shaping who I am and molding me into an adult. The first few years in the military shaped who I became in life.”
HOW DID YOUR INJURY AND TIME SPENT AT WALTER REED INSPIRE YOU TO PURSUE YOUR FIELD OF STUDY NOW IN REHABILITATION COUNSELING?
“My time at Walter Reed definitely inspired me, specifically towards the end of my stay when I was recommended by staff members to become a peer mentor for the Amputee Coalition of America Program, mentoring other amputees coming to Walter Reed. I attended a class and did some mentoring and after leaving the hospital I got involved with the EOD Warrior Foundation and through them I did more mentoring and everything just snowballed from there. For the past seven years I’ve been working in the defense industry and did some nonprofit work on the side. There came a point about two years ago where I finally realized my job wasn’t really fulfilling and I’d rather pursue the avenue of the nonprofit space and that’s what I’m most passionate about.”
YOU’VE BEEN SUCH AN INSPIRATION AND LEADER BY EXAMPLE THROUGH THE MARATHONS AND ULTRAMARATHONS YOU’VE PARTICIPATED IN. HOW ARE YOU ABLE TO ACCOMPLISH SUCH FEATS?
“For seven years I couldn’t run – I had a broken hip and I never really saw running as an option so I tried to do other things that fulfilled and enriched my life. About two years ago I tried out an EOD canoeing event where I would take wounded guys out and we would do a relay event consisting of cross country ski, downhill ski, run, road bike, canoe, mountain bike and kayak. The first two years I did the canoe leg with another person and it only took upper body strength so I could do it. In April 2015 we needed a runner for an event and couldn’t find one so I tried it out, using it as an excuse and really it snowballed from there. Running is one thing but doing something that makes you happy enriches your life. Not everyone in the hospital or wounded veteran wants to run but just finding the thing that you want to do or the one thing that gets you out of bed in the morning is important. I think when people see an amputee running they think it’s incredible, because it is a physical activity and I have a physical limitation that is pretty obvious.
HOW DO YOU VIEW YOUR LIFE NOW COMPARED TO WHEN YOU JOINED THE MILITARY AND WITH ALL THE ADVERSITY YOU’VE HAD TO OVERCOME – ESPECIALLY GIVEN EVERYTHING YOU’VE GONE THROUGH IN THE MILITARY AND AT WALTER REED?
“I think one big event like I’ve gone through gives perspective so that was definitely an eye-opener for me. People always say, ‘oh you’ll bounce back’ and I don’t feel like you necessarily have to be the person you were before – you can use the event to shape your future and bounce a different direction than you were going. It obviously completely changed my life and gave me a lot of perspective and it doesn’t always need to take a life-changing event to do that – anyone can shape their identity at any point in time in their life.”
WITH PURSUING YOUR MASTERS IN PSYCHOLOGY, WHAT IS YOUR ULTIMATE DREAM JOB?
“Ultimately my dream job would be helping people achieve whatever their goal is. My program focuses on getting people back to work but that’s not necessarily everyone’s goal but I want to help people achieve whatever goal it is they want to – going back to school, pursuing a hobby, whatever it is – that’s my dream job.”
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR YOU TO BE PART OF THE TILLMAN SCHOLAR COMMUNITY AND HAVE THE RESPONSIBILITY OF CARRYING FORWARD PAT’S LEGACY AND PROVIDED YOU THE OPPORTUNITY TO DO THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE OTHERWISE HAD?
“It’s been incredible since I first attended the Leadership Summit in July. It means a lot to me to really focus on my community, making it better and having a platform to do so with all the resources that come with being a Tillman Scholar. To be able to focus on school and take away the struggles of going back to school allows me to focus on my program in order to achieve my goal.”