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 2014 Tillman Scholar Dave Welker who is currently a student at University of South Florida, working towards his Master’s Degree in Nursing. Dave has aspirations of working as a Nurse Anesthetist in underserved communities. Welker ran his first marathon in 2014, joining Team Tillman and other fellow scholars participating in the Chicago Marathon and is currently preparing for the Flying Pig half-marathon in Cincinnati. Welker served four years in the military as a Pararescueman (PJ).
What made you decide to join the military and how did you decide on a role as a Pararescueman?
“I was attending Ohio State and knew school wasn’t right for me at the time and wasn’t really interested in college. During a college writing class I was doing some basic research on the internet and on accident I found information about Para rescue, I think it was actually on one of those pop up advertisements so I clicked on it and looked into it a bit more. My dad had talked to me about the military growing up but we never had a family member serve in the military. He also had colleagues in Special Forces so I had consulted with them and I learned about all the cool things they did and how respected they were because of their position and what they were doing. I never had medical experience so it just seemed like an honorable career field, helping people and worthwhile doing.
One week before September 11 I had talked to a recruiter and signed my name on the line. After that I stuck with my commitment while all the paperwork and everything fell into place. My experience in the military was one of the best experiences I have ever had.”
How many years did you serve in the military and why did you make the decision to leave?
“I served four years, two of which was training. I was stationed at Hurlburt in Fort Walton which is located in the panhandle of Florida. We basically were farmed out to different units, including a 3 month deployment to South America where we worked with our counterparts there going over basics teaching things like preventative medicine. We had clinics in villages where we had people come and get basic medical treatment. When I came back from my tour in South America I headed to Afghanistan for about 3 months and stayed and then headed to Iraq for about two months before finishing my military career. I returned from Iraq around Thanksgiving and got out about two weeks later.”
How did you learn about the Tillman Scholar program and what made you decide to apply to be part of this prestigious group?
“I was in school at USF and would receive emails about the scholarship program and I was also connected with a couple of USF Tillman Scholars whom I talked to about it. My fellow scholars would take time out of their day to talk to me about the scholarship. Through Tillman Scholars Ed Woodward, Richard Mendez and Anthony DeSantis, I learned about the network and everything that goes along with the financial aspect of it. Their insight was very helpful in learning the whole scope of what being a Tillman Scholar means.”
What did it mean for you to receive the call and be notified that you had been selected as a Tillman Scholar?
“From a financial aspect it was a huge relief given the Anesthesia program I’m going through right now is a six-digit cost and with two kids and my wife working part time. Thanks to the Tillman Scholarship I’m able to do what I want to do from a career aspect and be able to get out in the community without having to repay as many loans. The people we have the opportunity to meet as Tillman Scholars are amazing – just knowing Ed, Richard and Anthony for the limited time I did, was an honor in itself. I’m looking forward to getting out in the community and getting as much experience as I can in my field. I’m very interested in the mission field and going out to third world countries where the medicine is limited. I have had the opportunity to meet a few people through the Tillman Scholar program who have talked about care and reaching people. It was amazing helping in South America and seeing how appreciative people were for the little things like water. To be able to continue to provide help for people who have the bare minimum would be great.”
What has the Tillman Scholarship done for you?
“The Tillman Scholarship has opened up a lot of networking opportunities. A big thing for me is mission work, which I don’t have a lot of time for right now but when I can I get out there as much as I can. I really enjoy doing events like running for Team Tillman. This year I started a Tampa Children Shriners Hospital team through our class who is going to run in Cincinnati in a couple of weeks. We work with the Shriners Hospital down here doing clinical work and my wife is from Cincinnati so it was fitting for us to do.
I also participated in the Tampa Bay Frogman Swim in January for the NAVY SEAL Foundation and afterwards there was an interest gained in desire to help the Tillman Scholars. Through the Tillman Scholar Program I’m able to get involved in the fundraising aspects with the limited time I have, while meeting a lot of people.”
Describe what the Frogman Swim with fellow Tillman Scholar Anthony DeSantis was like for you given it was a 3.1 swim in Tampa Bay.
“I had not done an open water swim for over 10 years and wore my old military wet suit. I also learned I needed a kayaker so I convinced my brother to do it with me in the kayak. I had heard a lot about and the race sold out in 30 minutes so we knew it was a big deal. It was an amazing event…they had an amazing ceremony prior to the start which was a very emotional experience.
For the race, each swimmer was given a lanyard with a picture of a fallen Seal on it. When I got mine I thought the name sounded familiar as did my wife. The seal on my lanyard was an individual that was on a Chinook bird that went down a few years prior. At a social following the swim I was standing in line for food and spotted a picture of a guy on the table. The picture was that of the seal whose picture I had on the lanyard around my neck and as it turns out, the family was there. It turned out that a couple of seals I knew were there and also on the Chinook that day. It was an amazing experience.”
You ran your first marathon last year with Team Tillman in Chicago and are currently training for the Cincinnati Flying Pig Half Marathon in a couple of weeks. With everything going on your life with school, being a dad of two, etc. how did you find time to train and what was the marathon experience like for you?
“The marathon was a great time! I flew in the night before the race. The dinner the night before the race was the coolest part as there were people there supporting the foundation who had no strong personal ties to it. The race itself was really cool even though I didn’t do any training prior so I just wanted to finish. I could have run all day just because of the crowd and the enthusiasm. It was a great time running with fellow scholar Ed Woodward and his friend Mike. It was awesome to see the excitement surrounding the foundation throughout the entire experience.”
What would you say to someone who is considering running a marathon but has never run with a “team” like Team Tillman, where more than just the runner benefits?
“Other than just suffering together, as crazy as it sounds, it was great just running with people all going through the same thing together. People were cheering for the Pat Tillman Foundation as we ran along and were just excited in general. The best part was suffering together with a team. I definitely could not have run the whole race by myself so to have others there with me made it that much more exciting and certainly helped me through it.”
Do you have any exciting plans for the near future?
“My hope is to come back from this half marathon, healthy and alive. I’m debating running the Chicago marathon again. I’m also trying to figure out my clinical rotation schedule as December is the push to the finish for that. Always enjoying time with family and looking ahead to the next thing we can do.
For a while my two daughters kept bugging my wife and I to let them grow out their hair for Locks of Love. For two years I’ve been growing out my hair so In June my daughter and I are going to finally cut our hair and donate it. I usually have a buzzed head and am rocking a man bun now.”