Forward Marching, After War

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Alex Horton

Former Army medic Samuel Innocent, in Chicago last week.

Where do I go from here?

Veterans stripped of a sense of purpose and mission often find themselves asking that question once they leave the service after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With objectives complete and platoons disbanded, former military members are left to their own devices—and tremendous potential is either realized or squandered after billons invested by U.S. taxpayers.

‘Potential’ was the watchword at the Pat Tillman Foundation’s Leadership Summit last week in Chicago. And this year’s crop gathered in what could be the most impressive collection of young veterans and military spouses out there.

Ivy League MBAs and future doctors and lawyers were interspersed with urban planners and social workers—a defiant rebuke to the idea veterans can only excel in rigid military-like structures.

The non-profit group, which has raised $4.1 million in scholarships for 290 veterans and family members, held its scrum for new and current Tillman scholars at the downtown campus of Roosevelt University.

A theme of continued service emerged early in the summit during a panel on how to scale social movements. Representatives from Team Rubicon, The Mission Continues, Team Red White and Blue and Student Veterans of America gave insights on how their groups invigorate local communities while filling the vacuum of purpose and identity that opens after the uniform is packed away.

These groups represent a tectonic shift in the veterans community. The preexisting model for a veterans group was one of charity, of baseball ticket giveaways and sappy commercials to assuage the perceived pain of broken bodies and souls. The new crop of veterans organizations—profiled recently in a Time cover story—doesn’t ask for anything except the next opportunity to serve.

Each Tillman scholar was chosen precisely to build on a life of service. For Samuel Innocent, a former Army combat medic studying biology and political science at the City College of New York, he just had to look to his past to solidify his future.

Raised in a single parent household in Brooklyn, Samuel was rudderless after stints at Wal-Mart and college before enlisting. After seven years in and a deployment to Afghanistan, he’s back to serve neighborhood kids just like him—left to the odds of coming out strong with just one parent in the picture.

“Once you have that attitude that instilled character to serve your nation, to contribute to the greater cause, the greater purpose,” he said.  “It never leaves you.”

Sam’s adaptability moving from home to home helped tremendously in combat situations, when imperfect information in a hostile environment translated into a fluid and unpredictable operations tempo.

But his outlook for the kids in his neighborhood—where he hopes to stay and earn either a Master of public health or work as a physician’s assistant—has moved from adaptability to stability. The mentors he accrued in and out of service lead him to be a mentor himself, where his time is compounded into something meaningful in the lives of children in a crossroads of life.

“For some of these kids, it means the world to be able to have something,” he said.

The need to tell the stories of the scholars was strongly emphasized during the summit, with a panel and workshop for writing. Veteran authors articulated the process and described their inspirations. Media outlets and popular culture often view the veteran experience through a distorted lens, so a direct route to books and the op-ed page can help reshape the discussion on veterans without the middleman.

Scholars mingled in between panels and breakout panels, with discussions swirling about their programs and future perhaps even more than their common threads of war experience.

The summit was fittingly capped with a service project on the south side of Chicago, where scholars converged to revitalize facilities used to house the homeless, including veterans.

Marie Tillman, who co-founded the Pat Tillman Foundation after her husband’s death in Afghanistan, explained that the scholars embody his tenets of service and community, culminating in service projects throughout the year.

For every scholar that rotates through the program, a conduit of enormous potential heads once more unto the breach to impact and transform the lives of others.

“I love to chat with them, to hear about where they’ve been,” she said. “But also where they’re hoping to go.”

Alex Horton is a public affairs specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where he writes for the department’s blog, Vantage Point. He served for 15 months as an infantryman in Iraq with the Third Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division.