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 2013 Tillman Scholar Sean Inkelaar-Cruz who recently earned his Master’s degree in Urban Planning from the University of Southern California. Born and raised in Los Angeles, splitting his time between the housing projects in Boyle Heights and attending school in the San Fernando Valley, Sean has spent over 15 years in the military, serving four years active duty with the Army prior to currently serving with the California National Guard. Sean currently works for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and also serves as the Aide-de-Camp to the Deputy Commanding General Support of the 40th Infantry Division.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO JOIN THE MILITARY?
“When I was in high school a college counselor told me I wasn’t going to get into any colleges, so that discouraged me a little bit to pursue college. I went straight to the Army recruiter on campus and met with him to discuss what my options were and before I knew it I was off to basic training in South Carolina at the age of 17. I joined the military September 11, 2000 during a very peaceful time when no one could have anticipate the events of the following year on that same day (I was active duty at Fort Campbell Kentucky with the 101st at that time).”
HOW MANY DEPLOYMENTS DID YOU SERVE AND WHAT WAS YOUR ROLE DURING THAT TIME?
“I deployed twice – once with the 101st in the initial invasion in 2003 and then with the National Guard for 16 months in 2005. I was actually home nine months between deployments where I had separated from the active component and gone to the National Guard and had my number called as soon as I got into the guard. During my first deployment I was in an analysis control team which is part of a Military Intelligence Company where we were direct support to the First Brigade Combat Team (Bastogne). My job was tracking our friendly assets whether they were human, signals, ground surveillance, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and sending higher requests to Division for assets to support the brigade commander so he could make more informed decisions on the battle field.
My second deployment was interesting because I had never been in a logistics unit before and wasn’t sure what to expect. I was the tactical intelligence Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC) and eventually assumed the role of the tactical intelligence Officer in Charge (OIC) when my supervisor had to return to the States. My focus was more on roadways and enemy actions that could affect convoys that were shuttling personnel and equipment to bases all around Iraq. Although I didn’t feel as heavily vetted in the fight as I was the first time, my role was equally important because there were still American forces on the ground needing resources and equipment in order to fight the fight.”
WHAT DID YOU LEARN DURING YOUR CHILDHOOD THAT HAS MOTIVATED YOU TODAY IN THE CIVILIAN WORLD?
“I grew up splitting time in East Los Angeles where my grandmother lived in Boyle Heights in the housing projects and half the time in the San Fernando Valley in school because my mom didn’t want me to live in the environment she grew up in. She did the best she could as a single mom to move us out of that environment and get our education in the Valley. During the summers and the winters, she couldn’t afford childcare so we would be back in Boyle Heights in the housing projects with my grandmother.
Growing up I started to grow a lot of concern for people in general. I was shuttled back between a real high area of poverty and low public service and goods, and was shuttled back to the valley which was a little bit better. I saw the disparity of people living so close together and felt it was unfair and have always kept that in the back of my mind. I’ve been offered jobs in places other than LA but have chosen to stay here because I’ve always believed that if I want to improve an area, I’d rather do it where I grew up and actually see the fruits of my labor.”
HOW HAS YOUR CHILDHOOD UPBRINGING HELPED YOU BECOME THE PERSON YOU ARE TODAY AND WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM THAT THROUGHOUT YOUR FIRST 17 YEARS UP UNTIL THE POINT YOU JOINED THE MILITARY?
“Growing up in a ‘less desired’ area required me to have a bit more mental agility when I was on the streets, and as a result I really took a lot of that street smarts and used it to overcome obstacles I faced. I’ve always used the chip on my shoulders – when people tell me I can’t do something or I won’t succeed, it fuels me to prove them wrong. From the beginning when my counselor told me I wasn’t going to get into college to when I was told I wasn’t going to make it through Air Assault school and I breezed through that course; I went to ROTC at USC and was told I wouldn’t do well at LDAC and I got the highest score at the camp – so coming from where I did, I’ve always been able to rise above and beat the statistics. The only kind of statistics I’ve ever wanted to be was a positive statistic, and I’ve always used that as motivation to propel myself forward. I always look back at where I came from; even now where I work, I look out my window I can see where the housing projects were that my family grew up, it’s very humbling and keeps me grounded.”
JOINING THE MILITARY AT A VERY YOUNG AGE RIGHT OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL, LOOKING BACK, DO YOU FEEL THAT IT WAS THE BEST THING THAT COULD HAVE HAPPENED FOR YOU?
“Being a young kid right out of high school I didn’t want to just stay at home and linger around and the military was an honorable choice for me. I wasn’t too concerned with the physical aspect of the military, it was more about being transported out of my world where I would play video games all day or play hoops at the park all day. In the Army we’re on a very strict regimen of getting out of bed at 5:00 a.m., doing PT and being shuttled to the chow hall and learning basic military history and field craft. Through that experience I learned a sense of appreciation not just for the Army but the entire military and all of the highly renowned soldiers and sailors that came before me – I felt honored to be part of the heritage and history. I also learned a lot about myself and the Army values and feel very strongly towards those. At my first duty station, I developed leadership skills and the self-confidence that has helped propel me to my career now in the civilian world. I owe a lot of that to the military and in retrospect it was the best decision for me.”
WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF DURING YOUR TIME IN THE MILITARY THAT YOU MAY HAVE NOT KNOWN BEFORE?
“One thing my mom always harped on me when I was young was the importance of education. I knew it was important but when I was young I was more interested in sports and anything but school. Through my time in the military and being an NCOIC I realized how important education was to career progression, so I translated that education in the military to education in the civilian world – which ultimately is important to my career progression after my military career is over.
During my first tour in Iraq, I was doing security on the perimeter, sitting on a berm looking out as the sun was setting and thinking to myself , ‘there has to be more than just sitting out here in the desert not knowing what’s going to happen to me.’ I wanted a little more control in how I defined my path moving forward. I knew once I got out of the active duty component, education would help pave that path for me. During my time in the military I learned to believe in myself and left with the self-confidence to tackle any obstacle before me. Before my time in the military I lacked some self-confidence.”
WHEN YOU WERE ACTIVE DUTY IN THE MILITARY AND DEPLOYED SITTING ON THAT BERM PULLING SECURITY, WHAT WAS YOUR MOTIVATION IN TRANSITIONING INTO THE RESERVES AND ULTIMATELY PURSUING YOUR EDUCATIONAL GOALS?
“I left the active duty knowing I was going to come back and pursue my education. I had started the enrollment process at the community college before I left active duty and was zeroed in on coming back and starting my education. When I came home from my first deployment on active duty things just didn’t work out that way as nine months later I was back in Iraq. I loved my experience with the 101st and being part of that history and heritage was an honor for me. I loved the active duty Army component but just wanted to pursue my own personal passions of education. The National Guard gave me the opportunity to pursue my education and continue to serve my State and Country.
In August 2004 I enrolled in my undergrad course work at Los Angeles Valley College (LAVC). I had to put that on pause for over a year and when I came back I earned my Associate’s Degree from LAVC in 2008 and was admitted into USC for my undergraduate work in 2010. I later enrolled in the Urban Planning Master’s Program at the USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. I always knew if I’m going to be a planner, I’m going to do it in Los Angeles and help the communities I grew up around.”
NOW THAT YOU’VE EARNED YOUR MASTERS IN URBAN PLANNING FROM USC, WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO APPLYING WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED TO YOUR CHILDHOOD NEIGHBORHOOD AND ULTIMATELY SEEING THE FRUITS OF YOUR LABOR?
“I was able to earn a job at Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (METRO) – a job of which I actually started as a Metro Trainee as I transitioned from my officer training course in 2012. I was starting my Master’s program at USC and working at Metro trying to get a feel for how everything works. They had a veteran’s grant that they needed someone to work on and that’s what initially got me in the door. I was able to work on a project that was going to directly benefit service members and their families so I was really excited. It wasn’t the traditional planning I went to school for, but it was definitely a project I could get behind and help my brothers and sisters who were trying to get out of the Army and better themselves – as a lot are not prepared to jump into school or even look for work.
I created a resource portal for veterans, service members, and their families and I had to tie it all into transportation. It’s a portal where veterans look for resources that will be beneficial to them and we help them get there as a transportation agency.
We’re getting ready to wrap VetsGo511.com up and incorporate it into the larger Southern California 511 information resource portal (Go511.com) for Los Angeles and have also used it as a pilot program to test personalization with a specific demographic and we eventually want push it to students and those with disabilities.”
It’s specifically focused towards veterans, service members and their families – service members who are currently in the active component looking to come back. It has a step-by-step toolkit on how to come back to the civilian world, what are the contacts they want to get in touch with and who do they need to talk with at the VA to get there, GI Bill benefit explanations, if they’re looking to buy a house and finding the best location. Right now it’s centered in LA County, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura County.
It’s a mobile responsive website that also works on your smart phone and is a resource portal for anyone in the veteran community looking to find specific resources whether it be in healthcare, education, legal, community, transportation and education. Anyone looking for resources within LA County, we’re trying to populate it so you have enough information to make an informed decision with choices that work for you.”
WHAT HAS THE TILLMAN SCHOLARSHIP PROVIDED FOR YOU THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE OTHERWISE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO DO?
“When I was in my officer training course in 2012 and was deciding to go to grad school, I was running out of GI Bill benefits, but the Tillman Scholarship helped me fill that gap where otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to cover. Financially it definitely helped me achieve my Master’s degree but the financial assistance aside, it provided another community of like-minded individuals who want to continue their service through whatever professions they choose. The way the Tillman Scholar network is able to help each other individually is amazing – I’m so humbled by all the other scholars and lucky to be part of this community.”
DO YOU EVER PINCH YOURSELF, KNOWING WHERE YOU CAME FROM TO WHERE YOU ARE NOW?
“At least once a month I go to our conference room at work where I have the best view of the neighborhood where I grew up as a kid and I say to myself, ‘I can’t believe I’m here – Things could be really different for me right now.’ I’m proud of the path I chose and the path that I continue to follow. I read ‘Where Men Win Glory’ and I always go back to a lot of things that Pat said in his journal and one that resonates with me is when you hear that voice inside you, you’re better off following and trusting your instincts. My experiences in the Military have given me the strength to listen to that voice and stay humble along the way.”
WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS FOR THE UPCOMING YEARS?
“Short term goal is to continue working on VetsGo511 and maybe get a few more transportation or planning specific projects under my belt and see how it goes. I’m not opposed to new experiences with the city planning department as I would be impacting communities like where I grew up – which I’ve always wanted to do.
Long-term master plan, I’m still on the fence but I think I do want to go into politics one day because I think that I can make a greater impact and have a positive influence in a political role.”
YOU RECENTLY HAD ONE OF THE MOST AMAZING AND SUPRISING EXPERIENCES WHILE BEING A TILLMAN SCHOLAR IN BEING SURPRISED WITH TICKETS TO THE SUPER BOWL IN ADDITION TO REPRESENTING THE PAT TILLMAN FOUNDAITON AT EVENTS SURROUNDING SUPER BOWL 50 IN YOUR HOME STATE. WHAT WAS THAT EXPERIENCE LIKE FOR YOU?
“First and foremost I want to thank my employer for allowing me to partake in the opportunity as I had recently been promoted a few days prior and then I asked if I could take time to go to San Francisco on behalf of the Tillman Foundation. I kinda felt like I was leaving high school again, nervous because I didn’t know what to expect once I got to San Francisco, but I knew I had overcome a lot in my past so I felt good about doing what was asked of me in representing the Tillman Scholar community as well as the Pat Tillman Foundation.
I was honored to have a one-on-one kicking session with Adam Vinatieri, one of the best in the NFL. The few field goals I got in were awesome, with the exception of the time I hit the GoPro – you know I always said I like to beat statistics and when Adam told me there was no way I would hit that GoPro I proved him wrong and nailed the GoPro!
Having the opportunity to hang out with other scholars and get to know them and their stories is always an amazing and humbling time. The experience in general was awesome.
Pat’s spirit resonates with all of us and we as scholars need to make sure that we honor him as we move forward with our schooling and careers, not forgetting his ultimate sacrifice. Kicking field goals with Adam was great, but being able to kick them while wearing number 40 was Awesome! I never lose sight that I got to come home, now I just want to be able to leave a positive impact wherever I go or with whatever I do in life.