PHOENIX – Vivin Paliath served nine years in the Arizona Army National Guard, including a one-year combat tour in Baghdad.
Now he is a Ph.D. student at Arizona State, pursuing a doctorate in cybersecurity with an emphasis on using machine learning and AI technology to solve cybersecurity problems. That’s because in 2018, he was selected as a Tillman scholar.
“It’s the fact that you’re part of this community that is so engaged in giving,” Paliath said.
Today marks the 19th Memorial Day since Army Ranger Pat Tillman’s death due to friendly fire while on tour in Afghanistan. The legacy of the former ASU and Arizona Cardinals standout lives on as the Pat Tillman Foundation remains steadfast to continue its mission in developing future leaders.
After Tillman’s death In April 2004, Pat’s widow, Marie, and close friends and family of Tillman founded the foundation, a nonprofit organization aimed at helping military veterans and their spouses by supporting both leadership and educational development.
“We’re going to carry forward Pat’s legacy,” said Alex Garwood, who serves on the foundation’s board of directors and is Tillman’s brother-in-law. “We raise money every year. And we’ve raised enough money that all of our (Tillman) Scholars who are on scholarship and receiving money from us will continue that.”
The foundation has welcomed over 750 Tillman Scholars, supporting veterans as they pursue degrees across a wide range of disciplines, and invested more than $22 million in the process. The scholars comes from a variety of backgrounds and represent 166 universities.
From cybersecurity to healthcare to education, the Pat Tillman Foundation has remained committed to nurturing its scholars into pillars of their respective communities. It’s a commitment that CEO Dan Futrell does not take lightly.
“We are an organization that is always looking to grow,” said Futrell, who joined the foundation as CEO in 2019. “If we’re able to connect the dots with the individuals and corporations who want to financially support our cause, that means we have more resources to put towards scholarships. And then we’ll have more resources to hire people on the foundation team to offer more services to our Tillman Scholars.”
Futrell, a five-year Army veteran who was selected as a Tillman Scholar in 2011, has seen the impact and importance of the foundation’s work from both sides.
“As I continue to serve our Tillman Scholars, it’s good for me to have an experiential understanding of what they’ve been through,” Futrell said. “They’ve deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere. I know what that looks like and have some shared experiences with our Tillman Scholars. I can be a little bit more cognizant of what they might be going through as they re-enter school.”
While the scholarship has been a major financial boost, it’s more than that for Paliath.
“As a culture of service, a lot of that has helped inspire me and feel less alone about what it is I wanted to do, which is to have a positive effect on the world and society around me using my expertise and skills to do that,” he said. “What stands out about the Tillman Scholar community is that every Scholar you meet believes that, and that’s what they’re trying to do.”
Nurturing a large community of committed leaders is no small task. However, the foundation is committed to that charge. Futrell knows that despite the experiences most Tillman Scholars have coming into the program, the larger focus should be on the future experiences that are available to them.
“It’s easy to be impressed by the stories they come in with,” Futrell said, “but there’s a lot more ahead. There’s a lot more that they can do, are going to do and are doing. Our role has been to build out leadership development programming that amplifies the skills that they come to us with, so that whatever role or initiative they’re working on going forward, they’re actually more effective in what they’re doing.”
Marie Tillman still works with the foundation, serving as the chair of the board of directors. Her guidance has been a major help to those at the foundation, and she serves as a role model to those around her.
“I think we’re lucky to have her,” Futrell said. “I’m grateful she has taken this moment of tragedy in her life and has turned it into a glass half-full thing and has tried to leverage that moment for some positive good in the world. I think I speak for our scholar community to say that we’re lucky to have her there, and it’s inspirational to see her continue in that role now and going forward.”
Aside from the Tillman Scholar program, the Pat Tillman Foundation has several other programs aimed at connecting with the community and carrying forward Tillman’s legacy. Pat’s Run, which is a 4.2-mile run through Tempe, and Tillman Honors, an event that highlights and celebrates those whose leadership skills go above and beyond, are two of the events that the foundation sponsors, aimed at supporting the next class of Tillman Scholars and developing them into leaders.
“It’s not fair to say we’re looking for the next Pat,” Garwood said. “However, you can be like Pat by thinking for yourself, doing the right thing, educating yourself, stepping forward and making good choices, and speaking your mind. All of those things.”
The Pat Tillman Foundation is currently in the process of selecting its next class of Tillman Scholars. The 2022 Tillman Scholar class will be announced on June 28.