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 check in with 2014 Tillman Scholar Thomas Lefebvre who is a Bronze Star recipient for his heroic efforts during a Taliban attack while serving in Afghanistan in 2008. Originally from New Jersey and hailing from a military family, Lefebvre is working towards his M.D. at Duke University and plans to pursue a career as an Orthopedic Surgeon in order to assist fellow service members after returning from deployment.
Growing up in a military family, was joining the service always something you’ve wanted to do? Tell us how did made that decision.
“My dad, Paul, was a three-star General in the Marine Corps and I joined the Marine Corps ROTC while studying for my undergrad at Duke. One of my grandfathers was a Captain in the Navy and the other served in WWII. Initially I had joined to help pay for school and when September 11 happened I got more serious about joining. I had also been exposed to it as a kid growing up and watching my dad with the Marine Corps.”
With your dad serving as a three-star General in the Marine Corps, how much has he helped you throughout your career not just as a civilian but also professionally in the military?
“I would be a grease stain on a street in Ramadi if it wasn’t for my dad. I can’t put in to words what he’s like and what he’s done for me. He was able to guide me through my entire education process and lead me through joining the Marine Corps. There were so many points where I felt at a loss and would just call him. I certainly wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it weren’t for him. Now that he’s retired, hopefully he will slow down a bit soon so we can go out and play some golf with my son PJ!”
How long did you serve and how many times did you deploy?
“I served four years, deploying to Iraq in 2006 as an Infantry Officer and Afghanistan in 2008 as a Combined Arms Platoon Commander. During my deployment in 2006, we were partnering with Iraq police and patrolling. During the first five months we fought and then there was the awakening so I got to witness both sides of that when the fighting just stopped overnight.
When I went to Afghanistan in 2008, we were one of the first battalions to go back in so I spent six months fighting the Taliban, working with the British. My job specifically dealt with mortars as part of the QRF (Quick Reaction Force). Our platoon was often called because we could provide direct fire support so we ended up being in every fight during that deployment. It was exciting but at the same time it was exhausting. Throughout the deployment I spent a lot of time counseling my fellow Marines on how they stay sharp and deal with the mental challenges. I was looked to as a leader because there were a lot of 18 and 19 year olds on that deployment. The number one goal was to accomplish the mission but the second goal was to make sure these young guys were doing alright.”
What did you learn about yourself during your deployments that maybe you didn’t know before?
“When everyone graduates college, you think you know it all and have the whole world ahead of you. I trained six months for Ramadi and then was in the strong hold of Iraq before I knew it, which was a huge wake up call. With all of that being said, the biggest thing I learned was humility.
I had done well in college and athletics as the captain of the golf team, as well as at my USMC training. Then I got overseas and realized the gravity of the situation and what it meant to be a leader in those situations. My leadership was tested and my decisions had huge implications beyond our unit. I wasn’t as ‘hot’ as I thought I was and learned as much as I could and tried to be as humble as I could. Those experiences have helped me today throughout my career because humility as a Physician is a big thing with patients.”
Why did you choose the Orthopedic Surgeon route to focus your medical career on?
“While I was helping a fellow Marine I became interested in Orthopedics because he was going through some rehab. Additionally I had my wife’s perspective when she graduated from med school in 2009. I’ve seen so many young Marines go through deployment and have a lot of problems after they get out. My secondary interest is being around fellow service members and helping them in any way I can.
It was an unanticipated part of what I’m doing. Through a program at Columbia you have to do 200 hours of volunteer work so I was able to connect with a classmate and we went to San Antonio to the Center for the Intrepid and worked with fellow service members in a rehab capacity.”
What is your goal upon graduation and earning your Doctorate?
“Right now I’m close to finishing up my third year at Duke, which is my research year so I’m in an MRI modeling lab working with shoulder dislocations. It’s been such a great experience because it’s the first time this technology has been applied to the shoulder. Next year is my last year focusing on Orthopedics and at that time I’ll decide where I would like to focus on going for my residency.”
How has being selected as a Tillman Scholar changed your life?
“It’s awesome to have financial assistance, but that’s just a scratch off the surface. I had no idea about the community I was about to be joining until I attended the Summit. Every single Tillman Scholar I’ve met is not only a high performer, but a great person. Not only did I feel like I didn’t belong, it just made me want to be better and I think that’s what Pat was about. Those principles are what define the Tillman Scholars. It’s such an honor to put with my name that I’m a Tillman Scholar and associate with people who are trying to do such great things.”
Having been a great golfer on the golf team at Duke, are you still able to find time to hit the links?
“Not as much as I would like but I try to take my son PJ once or twice a week, so my hope is that he’ll pick up the game. It’s not really feasible to tell my wife I’m going to go play golf for 6 hours! I’ve put it on the back burner for now but when I do find the time to play it’s frustrating because I’m not like I used to be in my college days.”
Not only are you an impressive golfer, you made it clearly evident you’re a phenomenal runner as you sprinted neck and neck to the finish with fellow scholar Mike Christman at this year’s Pat’s Run. Though he beat you by a hair, he was kind enough to help pick you off the ground. Can you please clear the air and share who paced that race and if he was beating you the entire time or just at the finish?
“We met up in the beginning and decided we should run together so in typical fashion I thought I could run with Mike. We took off and I peeled away from him after about 200 meters so I’m thinking he was just hanging back behind me. He caught me again around 1.5 miles and we stayed together until mile three, running at about a 5:40 pace. After that I just couldn’t keep up anymore and let him go. The focus is not on that defeat but on next year’s rematch!”
With three kids, ages five, three and four months, and your wife also in the medical field as an Ophthalmologist, how is your time management?
“My wife is a very unique person in the sense that she has so much bandwith, can take care of all of her stuff with ease, and then help our kids with everything. She comes home from work energized and always in a good mood, doesn’t need much sleep and just takes everything with ease. She’s the rock of our family.”