Marie Tillman didn’t have to ask, she already knew.
Three soldiers and a chaplain waited outside her Seattle office to break the dreaded news she had already begun processing. Pat Tillman, her husband of two years, a former NFL safety with the Arizona Cardinals and Army Ranger, had been killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004, only three weeks after arriving in the war-torn country.
Marie remembers that night as though it happened minutes ago, recalling every sad detail. There was the call to Pat’s mother, Dannie, which ended with a dropped phone and a pained scream on the other end.
Pat and Marie Tillman, courtesy of Marie Tillman
Marie has dedicated every moment to living since Pat’s death.
Marie even smoked a cigarette that night, despite not being a smoker.
To the entire world, it appeared as though the story had a tragic ending. A professional football player gone soldier, dying in the line of duty. A waste of a brilliant life with potential unfulfilled. A widow left behind, wondering how she could fill the silence and space left in her shattered heart.
The story was only beginning. In the future, thousands of lives would be touched in a profound way by the man who was gone too soon and the woman who promised him to live on long after his death.
As Marie wrote in her memoir, The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss and Life, Tillman penned a letter to Marie with the words "Just in case" written across the front of an envelope. Just in case had sadly come. One paragraph caused her to cry uncontrollably:
"Through the years I’ve asked a great deal of you, therefore it should surprise you little that I have another favor to ask. I ask that you live."
The Pat Tillman Foundation was created in 2004. Marie, who heads the foundation, has dedicated every moment to living since Pat’s death. She has been aiding those who risked the same sacrifice as Pat. By doing so, she has helped others live as well, helping them to be all they can be.
In 2008, the Tillman Military Scholars program was founded as an integral part of the foundation’s mission to help military members and their spouses get an education. The program serves as a supplement to the GI Bill, covering everything from tuition and books to study-related expenses and fees for any full-time student.
A stunning decision
"He was definitely a thoughtful person", Marie Tillman said. "When we were growing up he would make me presents."
Pat and Marie began dating during his senior year at Leland High School in the suburbs of San Jose. They’d known each other since they were small children. As his time at Leland ended, Tillman earned the last available athletic scholarship to Arizona State University in 1994, earning playing time as a hard-nosed linebacker despite being listed at only 200 pounds.
Tillman went on to earn high praise both on and off the field. The man who enjoyed reading Ralph Waldo Emerson essays and working for non-profit organizations earned a degree in marketing with a 3.85 GPA in only three and a half years. He was named the 1997 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year as a senior.
His lifelong NFL dream came to fruition when he was selected by the Arizona Cardinals in the seventh round of the 1998 NFL Draft. He spent four seasons in the NFL before deciding to enlist in the United States Army in 2002.
"It was a difficult decision, I think it was something he felt very strongly about but he put a lot of time and effort into researching it," Marie Tillman said. "He laid out the pros and cons. It was really a process that we went through together."
It was a stunning decision for the nation to grasp, an athlete in his prime leaving a lucrative contract offer on the table to be thrust into a war zone.
At 38, Edward Eugene Woodward has lived through more tragedy than Shakespeare could write, but there’s no trace of pain in his voice.
Ed and his twin brother, Eugene Edward Woodward, grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla. They lost their father to heart disease at 15 years old, six months after losing their maternal grandmother.
After high school, Ed and Gene were accepted into the University of Florida. Ed graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Nutritional Science in May of 2000. Gene graduated with a dual degree in Microbiology and Nutritional Science.
Gene planned to go to medical school. Ed decided his career was in the Air Force, and was scheduled to be commissioned on May 1, 2000.
On the night of June 3 that same year, with Ed awaiting security clearance from the military, he served as the designated driver for his brother and two of his classmates celebrating the completion of their first year of medical school. A drunk driver traveling 120 miles per hour rear-ended the car as it drove along I-275. Ed and Gene’s two classmates crawled out of the wreck, but the car exploded while Gene was still trapped inside.
Ed Woodward was commissioned by the Air Force in January 2001, after the Air Force concluded he had done nothing wrong in the accident that killed his brother.
He thrived in the Air Force. Woodward served two tours, six months in Operation Iraqi Freedom and two months with a tanker unit during Operation Enduring Freedom, along with three missions in Northern Watch.
After his time in combat, Woodward was selected for pilot training.
"While I was training in the F-15 Eagle, I had a blood clot in the left Sigmoid and Transverse sinus in the vein that drains the blood from your brain to your heart," Woodward said.
Woodward received a medical retirement in 2008, despite fighting to stay in the service.
Photo courtesy of the Pat Tillman Foundation
"It changed my life. It gave me hope."
Following his military retirement, Woodward bounced around searching for a future. His grandfather from his mom’s side, Jim B. Taylor, dying of pancreatic cancer, offered up a suggestion from his deathbed:
Finish what Eugene started.
Woodward took the advice to heart, starting his journey toward earning a Medical Doctorate. He enrolled at USF where his brother had been. Woodward completed the first step by accruing a master’s degree in Medical Science in August of 2013 before applying Oct. 1 to USF’s medical school.
While in the master’s program, Woodward met a fellow classmate, Josiah Hill, a Tillman military scholar, who turned Woodward onto applying to the foundation.
Finding out he was eligible only one day before the deadline to apply for a scholarship, Ed wrote two 400-word essays to the Foundation before going through the interview process. He was accepted, and starting this August will receive $40,000 over the next four years of medical school.
Woodward plans to pursue a career as a neuropsychologist dealing in ophthalmology, something dear to his heart.
"It changed my life," Woodward said. "It gave me hope. Here at South Florida it is a huge deal to be a Tillman Scholar. When I was awarded the Tillman Scholarship that was an integral piece for my application to medical school. It highlighted my candidacy and my story."
For most, the story would be complete. A man who suffered through massive heartaches finally catches a well-deserved break from a group of people who understand and appreciate his struggle.
"You get to meet this group of people who knew exactly what you have been through; they know exactly how you are feeling," Woodward said. "I want to take my medical knowledge and help people just like me, with invisible injuries."
Instead, he decided to give back, running in last year’s New York City marathon to raise $5,500 for the Tillman Foundation. He plans to run in the upcoming Chicago Marathon this October.
"When I was selected to become a Tillman military scholar, it brought me back into a group of people I knew I wanted to be a part of," Woodward said. "I never wanted to leave the Air Force."
"... I want to continue to achieve, continue to work hard, and continue to be an advocate for people just like me. I told them they could give me $10 a year and I would still want to be a Tillman military scholar. That’s the character of people they are."
Not a gift, but an investment
Since the beginning of the Tillman Military Scholars program, the venture has awarded more than $4.6 million in direct scholarships for 290 Tillman Military Scholars at 85 academic institutions nationwide.
The money dispensed to the scholars is not seen as a gift, but an investment. Many scholarships and grants from other foundations are given based on past performance, a reward for a job well done. The Tillman Foundation sees the money as an investment in a person’s future, banking on the idea that its money will be used to further the careers of bright minds that have seen the world; at times the best and worst of it.
Roughly 70 percent of the scholarships awarded have gone to those seeking graduate degrees, and 29 percent have been used for a doctoral program, showcasing the ambition of these returning soldiers.
"We had focused on education from the beginning," Marie Tillman said. "It was something that meant a lot to Pat."
Daniel Cho graduated from West Point in 2005. From there, the 23-year-old second lieutenant was sent to Iraq and tasked with leading his platoon of 38 soldiers, many older and more experienced than him. He fretted over earning the respect of those under him.
Photo courtesy of the Pat Tillman Foundation
"I would never tell soldiers to do something I wouldn’t do."
"The hardest part was the complexity," Cho said. "On one hand, you are in charge of the safety and well-being of your soldiers, and to accomplish a goal. On the other hand, you don’t know everything. You are the greenest soldier in the platoon so you need to consider advice."
Cho’s unit, Cobra platoon, was responsible for reconstructing broken fiber-optic cables in a ring surrounding Baghdad. In order to accomplish this mission, it required climbing into sewers, avoiding whizzing bullets and hoisting cables into the air via massive pulley systems. Throughout the operation, Cho’s most pressing worry began to dissipate.
"I would never tell soldiers to do something I wouldn’t do," Cho said. "These soldiers often had officers sit behind desks and tell them what to do and that brings resentment."
All 38 soldiers in Cobra platoon survived their ordeal.
Once back in the United States, Cho opted for education, heading to Harvard University for his MBA. Cho heard about the Pat Tillman Foundation through another Tillman Scholar, Jon Choa, a classmate and friend. Cho applied and received a scholarship before his second year. Cho declined to talk about specifics, but said the foundation gave "a good chunk."
"I see far too many of my classmates, even at Harvard, who see their massive financial debt and they feel they need to get a lucrative job right away even if it isn’t in their realm of passion. Isn’t that such a waste? The grant from the Pat Tillman Foundation helped me pursue my passion and not worry about paying down my student loan."
Cho and William Maio, his associate, co-founded Macho Travel in September 2013, as "multi-modal, a doorstep-to-doorstep search" for travel services in the Northeastern U.S.
Being a Tillman scholar has also helped Cho adapt back into civilian life, in part by seeing the good things the foundation does. Cho reached out to other Tillman Scholars to participate in a program to help homeless veterans. The response was so overwhelming that the initiative ended up with more volunteers than homeless vets.
"This is the culture I grew up in and this is comfortable for me," Cho said. "They are all doing such amazing things in all sectors of the world."
Excel beyond expectations
Tillman Scholars are expected to be more than ordinary students. These men and women are supposed to be leaders within their community; a beacon for all that is good in the United States and abroad.
On average, the Tillman Foundation gives $10,000 per year to each scholar, an amount renewable for each year of study.
All told, the foundation has paid out just under $9 million in educational support for scholars and Arizona State University Tillman Scholars, who are civilians.
Not surprisingly, the Tillman Military Scholars have excelled well beyond expectations. On average, a Military Scholar graduates with a GPA of 3.5. Incredibly, 97 percent of Military Scholars have fulfilled their scholarship requirements. Furthermore, 38 percent of the aforementioned have become first-generation graduates.
Perhaps the biggest struggle for the foundation is choosing which applications to select for scholarships. The sixth class of Military Scholars will be announced in May, chosen from a record number of 7,500 applications. In the first five years, the foundation has awarded 60 scholarships. This year, 75 will be granted in honor of Pat’s 75th Ranger Regiment.
Lyndsey Anderson, a slender five-foot-two blonde, never expected to be in the middle of combat. She was happy growing up in Iowa, experiencing high school like every other teenager when a recruiting officer came to her high school. In need of a new challenge at Ankeny High School, Anderson decided to enlist in the Army National Guard in January of 2001 as a junior with the support of her parents, Jody and Rich.
"I really didn’t have many expectations other than it would be an opportunity to take me out of the Midwest and my comfort zone," Anderson said.
She graduated and moved onto the University of Iowa, going through her first two years of school like any other kid, sans one weekend a month to serve the National Guard. During her junior year, in December 2003, Anderson was deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom as a sergeant in the Iowa Army National Guard.
During her time overseas, Anderson was faced with some of the most terrifying experiences imaginable. She described it as an average tour for a soldier, showing the strength both she and all of her comrades must have.
Photo courtesy of the Pat Tillman Foundation
"Compared to most, I feel blessed."
Anderson was stationed along a main supply route. She and her company were mortared nearly every day.
"I was scared to death the entire time but there were individuals who were doing significantly more dangerous missions every single day," Anderson said. "There were a few times where I really thought this could be it ... Compared to most, I feel blessed."
Anderson was able to return to the United States unharmed, but changed forever. She had seen the world outside of Iowa, and wanted to finish her education and start a career in service of others.
Anderson returned to the University of Iowa in 2004, and changed her focus to a double-major in anthropology and art history. Anderson became president of the university’s veterans association. A Facebook post about the Tillman Foundation gave Anderson the idea to apply.
"I couldn’t fathom I would ever be accepted, but I worked diligently on an application, sent it out, and I remember getting the call in New York," Anderson said. "It was really exciting to be part of such an amazing organization.
The money given from the Tillman Foundation helped Anderson move on quickly to pursue her dreams. Anderson moved to New York and earned her graduate degree in museum studies at New York University in 2010. She took a job in September of that year with the Rubin Museum of Art.
Anderson currently is in charge of visitor experience and access programs, specializing in helping patrons with disabilities including the blind and deaf amongst other varying special needs. This sense of service was rooted during her time in Iraq.
"A lot of soldiers treated the locals like they were disposable, weren’t kind to them ... I started thinking about different ways to help those who weren’t frequently treated with the respect all humans deserve," Anderson said. "It’s something I reflect on a lot in my career."
Anderson has never been one to rest comfortably on goals accomplished. Despite holding two degrees, the former sergeant is currently enrolled at Bank Street College in New York, in a two-year program for a master’s in leadership and education.
Anderson is unsure of her future in the professional world, but she knows she wants to stay acutely involved in the non-profit ranks. The key for her is giving back, hoping those helped will one day be willing to reach out to others. The credo rings similar to the Tillman Foundation, a notion far from coincidence.
"There are plenty of military folks who choose not to live a life of service," Anderson said. "This foundation provides a ton of service ... it’s a network of people who inspire me. It’s unbelievable."
A day to honor and remember
The biggest annual event on the Pat Tillman Foundation calendar is Pat’s Run, held every April since 2005 in Sun Devil Stadium at Tempe, Ariz. The event takes place April 26 this year, with 34 simultaneous runs happening across the globe, as far away as Afghanistan.
The run began with the help of family and friends, a simple day to honor and remember the life Pat led before his premature demise. This year, the 10th annual run, is a shining example of how far the foundation has come. It also serves as a testament to the enduring memory of the hero who once roamed the campus.
The race is 4.2 miles and registration is $42 in honor of Pat’s jersey number with Arizona State, a jersey that was retired by the school in Nov. of 2004.
All of the proceeds fund scholarships for Tillman Military Scholars, with the goal of fundraising more than $1 million for the program.
Fittingly, the run ends on the 42-yard line. For many of the men and women in this race, the journey that led them to the symbolic marker began in the same stadium with a man known for his ferocious style on the field and a large heart off it.
This year, Woodward will partake in Pat’s Run alongside his six-year-old son, Tylor, who participated in 2013 as well, making the trip from Florida to be present.
Dennis James graduated from West Point in May 2004. From there, he went into the infantry, and was sent to Fort Benning for four months of training, including airborne school, a mortar leader course and sniper school.
James was sent to the Schofield Barracks in Hawaii as part of the 25th Infantry Division, with wife Tiffany accompanying him. On Dec. 7, 2007, the 66th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, James was deployed to take part in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"That is the hardest part," James said. "Getting up that morning of Dec. 7 and you have to get up, give a hug and a kiss and say I will see you 15 months from now."
Photo courtesy of the Pat Tillman Foundation
"Just because you are out of the military doesn’t mean service is over."
James was the chief logistics officer of the first battalion, 21st Infantry, comprised of 850 soldiers. His job required a bevy of tasks, including building combat outposts and constructing bases.
James also took on the responsibility of recovering vehicles that were seriously damaged as well as the personal effects and bodies of soldiers killed. The job would prove to be life-altering.
"We have these big armored vehicles and soldiers would move around the area in them," James said. "They are also targets of (improvised explosive devices). On Feb. 8, 2008, we had just been there for a little bit, not long enough to be seasoned vets.
"One of our vehicles rolled over a huge IED. It completely destroyed the vehicle. Ripped the bottom out and killed four soldiers instantly and injured the rest of the crew. My part in that was recovery.
"We establish rescue to the soldiers and medical attention; secure the area. My responsibility is to recover the vehicle and anything that went with it. There were some of these soldiers destroyed inside of it. I remember bringing it back late that night to base and having to go through it. There were remains of soldiers that I knew inside of it. It’s something that you can never forget."
James returned to the United States on Feb. 15, 2009. He stayed in the reserves and lived in Washington D.C., working in a military intelligence unit.
James enrolled in Columbia University in 2011 to pursue an MBA in business. During his first year, James approached Neal Rickner. Rickner was a Marine pilot and Tillman scholar.
James applied and was accepted after his first year. He received $10,000 toward his degree, which he earned in May 2013.
"The money was welcome and great but it wasn’t the main draw. For me, the camaraderie was awesome. The thing I really liked about the Pat Tillman Foundation was it is different than other veteran organizations. There are a lot of vet organizations doing a lot but it’s different. Marie says ‘We’re making an investment in you, this isn’t free money. You can do something better.’
"I love the idea of purpose and community. Just because you are out of the military doesn’t mean service is over. I really liked and respected that and the vision they have."
James interned at Google during the summer of 2012. After taking a full-time position last summer, James now works on the enterprise team, helping companies use, deploy and adopt the company’s products. Now 34, he sees a long-term future for himself at the tech company, helping it grow even more.
Service is still a major driving force in James’ life, and he’s still involved with the Tillman Foundation.
"Veterans shouldn’t be taking, but giving, and that is what the foundation is about," James said. "There is an expectation. It’s not just about getting a degree but continually giving back."
It’s been 10 years since Pat Tillman made the ultimate sacrifice.
His legacy and the indomitable spirit of those he left behind helped forge a foundation committed to making the lives of those involved in the armed forces better. In turn, it is the responsibility of the scholars to serve others.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote "It is not the length of life, but the depth of life."
He might as well have been writing about Mr. Tillman.
MCT via Getty Images
The Pat Tillman Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit; donations can be made here.