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.
In this week’s Tillman Tuesday, we talked to Army veteran Rae Anne Frey about her path to overcoming adversity while pursuing her Ph.D in Psychology at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Like 35 percent of Tillman Scholars, Rae Anne is a first-generation college student having earned her undergraduate degree in Elementary Education and Psychology. A proud mom of two, she served nine years with the Army National Guard, and deployed to Iraq in 2009 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Tell us about growing up in the rural town of Cadott with less than a population of 2,000 people, which is also considered to be the halfway marker between the equator and North Pole.
“I lost my mom when I was only five years old so I spent a lot of time at my grandma’s farm in Thorp, WI, which is where most of my childhood memories stem from. I would run around and try to find the kittens in the hay barn. At the age of seven, I drove the tractor while we picked rocks in the field, and by age nine was driving stick shift. I attended a small high school, which was also definitely an experience. Because my home life was very tough, the small town was great because I had a lot of people looking out for me. I was also fortunate to have a lot of academic and athletic success, so I had a lot of people helping me out with their support.”
Who had the biggest impact on your life and helped carry you the most throughout your childhood?
“It’s a part of who I am so I don’t mind sharing. My mom struggled with drug and alcohol problems and died in a car accident while under the influence. It was very tough to deal with that. We were one of the poorest families in my community and my dad was a single parent making little money as a welder. I also had an abusive step-mother for part of my childhood and the cops were at our house a lot.”
“My grandma Othelia took over the mother role and taught me about kindness and also taught me to read and write before kindergarten. My aunt Evelyn lived in Oregon and would fly me out there. She was the first to take me to the store and buy me a nice outfit so I could fit in with the kids at school. My middle school teacher Debra Harding also believed in me and always told me I could attend University of Wisconsin, Madison, where I completed my Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education and Psychology in 2007. She mentored me a lot. We had a safe word I could use if I ever needed to call her and have her come get me.”
What made you decide to join the Army National Guard at the age of 17?
“Even though my dad wasn’t educated past high school, he always instilled the importance of education in me. He was able to save $11.00 per pay check for me throughout his career to contribute to my education. I started working as soon as I could at the age of 15 at the truck stop in Cadott. In conversation with another cashier, she mentioned she was going to join the National Guard and that’s where I first learned about it. I wanted to join the Guard to kind of prove that I could despite my background. I wanted to break the cycle. Between my junior and senior year of high school, I went to basic training, followed by advanced training after my senior year, and then went on to college in the fall.”
How did your nine years in the service define or change you?
“Being independent at the age of 17 was very eye opening. I learned how to interact with people from different backgrounds and it taught me people skills that I apply in my life now. I also learned how to be adaptive on my own and discovered that there was another world for me outside of Cadott, which opened up opportunities. Loyalty and dedication are things I learned that I carry with me today. Joining the military was joining something bigger than myself and being given a chance at a life that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
Describe your duties when you were serving your deployment.
“I deployed from 2009 to 2010 to Camp Bucca, Iraq in a detention facility. When we arrived, we had 17,000 detainees. The soldiers in my unit were not only responsible for guarding the facility, but also transporting detainees around the facility. There were about 1,000 detainee movements a day. My Commander noted I had a college degree so I was able to work on staff and tracked all the movements of the detainees and our own soldiers as they were going to other areas, home on leave, etc. I got out of the service in 2010 because I wanted to start a family and be the best mom that I could for my kids.”
What were your biggest fears while serving in the Army and how were you able to overcome them?
“Since I was a little kid, death was such a part of my life, so that has always scared me. Once you deploy to a combat zone, you don’t know if you’re going to be coming back so you look death straight in the eye throughout your deployment. The military helped me appreciate and be more mindful in my daily life now and trying new things like shooting a weapon for the first time.”
Having already earned your undergraduate degree in Elementary Education and Psychology during your time in the service, at what point did you decide you wanted to pursue your Doctorate of Psychology?
“When I was deployed to Iraq I had been teaching for two years and always knew I wanted to do something with Psychology, having had the opportunity to mentor a lot of soldiers throughout my time in the service. I worked with about 20 soldiers who had trouble passing the PT test and it wasn’t just a physical obstacle, but it was also an emotional health obstacle. We didn’t have a Psychologist on our base, so I was trying to support fellow soldiers through tough times. I felt it was a contradiction risking our lives while trying to get help. It was at that time I decided I wanted to take that path.”
You not only have the challenge of school. What is it like being a mom to your young kids, Alex (3 ½) and Emma (2), and how do you juggle everything?
“My kids have changed my life and given new meaning to complete, unconditional love. Even now being a mom, I never thought I could do it. But they get up every morning and keep me going. They always keep me on my toes. Being a mom to them is more than I ever expected it to be. I have really good time management skills and learned early on how to juggle multiple roles, which was ingrained in the military. Naturally, I get overwhelmed at times, but know I can do it.”
How has being part of the Tillman Scholar community impacted your life?
“It’s a huge help having peace of mind knowing I can have my kids in quality childcare and not have to work full time so I can just focus on school. I’m able to be involved in service opportunities and in the veterans’ community on campus. Being involved means a lot to me. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to continue school without the Tillman Scholarship, but it’s made a life possible for me that would not have been possible and it’s something I can do for my children. With that being said, I’m able to pay it forward to all the people that have given to me throughout my life because I now have the knowledge with a Ph.D. Life is one foot at a time.”
What have you learned about yourself and the needs of other veterans throughout your life and career?
“The biggest piece that I have taken away from conversations with other Tillman Scholars is resilience. I realize that may be a loaded term, but I’m rewriting the veteran narrative. There are so many stories like mine out there not being told and many people are paying attention only to the PTSD narrative, but I want to bring to light all the things that are going right. All 347 Tillman Scholars are just a tiny sample of what’s going well in this country with Veterans.”