Published in the Arizona Republic, April 20, 2012
By: Dianna M. Nanez
Heroes visit the Pat Tillman Veterans Center at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus every day.
On Friday, Marie Tillman made her first visit to the center she believed would live up to the fallen soldier’s legacy when she gave ASU permission last year to name the center after her first husband, Pat Tillman.
She visited with veterans before and after, saying a few words to thank ASU for opening the center in support of soldiers and their families.
“ASU was a part of Pat,” she said. “He will always be a Sun Devil.”
The Tillman center opened last August as a one-stop shop for veterans to get help with their military benefits, visit with career counselors and ensure that every soldier who wanted an education wouldn’t fall through the cracks in the transition from active service to civilian life.
Eight months later, the Tillman center has become a second home for veterans, their family and a dedicated staff of mostly former soldiers or reservists whose mission is to make sure every fellow soldier who walks through the door knows they are not alone.
Marie announced Friday that the Pat Tillman Foundation, which provides college scholarships to veterans and active-service members and their dependents, would forge a new partnership with ASU.
Tillman’s alma mater is now on the growing list of American universities that partner with the foundation to provide the Tillman Military Scholars program.
Tillman’s friends and family formed the foundation following his death as a legacy and tribute to Tillman’s commitment to leadership and service. Tillman, a former ASU and Arizona Cardinals football player, famously turned down a $3.6 million contract to join the Army Rangers. He died as a result of friendly fire in 2004 while serving in Afghanistan.
Marie said she could never have foreseen the flood of community and financial support that would come to the foundation after it launched. Marie knew how much Pat meant to her, and it wasn’t long before she would realize how much he meant to the nation.
Today, more than 35,000 people will participate in Pat’s Run, including volunteers, runners and spectators. The run starts and finishes at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe and has become the foundation’s annual fundraiser in support of its military scholars program. Thousands more will join Pat’s Run Shadow Runs in 25 U.S. cities.
Marie said Pat’s Run has grown to represent something much more important than one man’s legacy.
“I think people see it (Pat’s Run) as a way to thank every soldier and their family,” she said.
The foundation awards educational scholarships annually and has provided more than $2.2 million to 171 active service members, veterans and their dependents.
Marie said the connection between Tillman and ASU was so strong that, when they started the foundation eight years ago, the first college scholarship fund was for ASU students. Tillman was a student who believed in the power of an education, so endowing a scholarship at ASU was a perfect fit for the foundation’s first efforts, she said.
At the time, the scholarship was open to any student, not just veterans. It just so happened, Marie said, that two brothers who had served in the Marines were awarded scholarships to attend ASU.
“We realized, partly through these brothers, that there was a real need to help with the transition (for veterans returning from service),” she said.
Visiting the center Friday, seeing with her own eyes the commitment ASU has made to veterans, and launching the Tillman Military Scholars program at ASU, made Marie feel like her journey and Tillman’s legacy has “come full circle.”
Likewise, the Tillman center and Tillman Foundation have become lifelines for soldiers.
On Friday, as veterans awaited Marie’s arrival, Eric Crawford, a 25-year-old Marine Corps reservist, sat in the center at a computer helping Samantha Larsen, a 21-year-old Army reservist, use the gibill.va.gov website for the first time.
Crawford said he joined the Marine reserves to “make his kids proud.” Larsen said she was carrying on a family legacy of military service.
Crawford helped Larsen navigate the website to sign up for her military benefits so she can enroll at ASU in the fall. She wants to be a nurse, but the first step is accessing the financial aid she is entitled to as a military veteran.
Larsen had a stack of papers with information that needed to be entered into the government database.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” she said as she turned toward Crawford, who assured her they would get through the task together.
Shelly Burgoyne, 38, served in the Army; her husband remains on active duty. Each did two tours in Iraq at the height of the war.
Burgoyne was awarded a Tillman Military Scholarship to attend the University of Maryland.
Friday was her first visit to the Tillman center, and today she will participate in Pat’s Run for the first time. She said there aren’t words to express soldiers’ gratitude to organizations that support veterans.
“This place is priceless. It’s bricks and mortar. It gives veterans a place where they can come to be a part of a community,” she said.
Marie said she hopes to see veterans centers replicated at campuses across the U.S.
“For us as Americans to give back to every man and woman who served their country, to help them as they transition, is one of the most important things we can do as a country, I think,” she said.