By Marie Tillman

Last November, the USO invited me to join a tour to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. It was an unforgettable experience that included a visit to the USO center built in 2005 and named in memory of my husband, Pat Tillman.

Pat was honored to serve his country and I very much wanted to make this trip to visit with the men and women who are stationed there, and have a chance to see the Pat Tillman USO Center. This was the first center built in Afghanistan and for the service members who have the opportunity to spend some downtime there it is a little reminder of the comforts of home.

I met so many amazing people during my tour and felt so honored to hear their stories of service – especially their appreciation and admiration for Pat.

Prior to the events of September 11, 2001, the life Pat and I were living, and our plans for the future, did not include a military career. Just as it did for many families across the country, however, the events that unfolded that day, and the weeks after, made us reconsider our lives and focus on something greater.

While Pat was serving, and after his death, I often felt disconnected and isolated from the world around me. There were times I struggled with what to do next, but I remembered the feeling of being focused on a cause greater than myself and wanted to channel that feeling into something positive.

In the weeks after his death in 2004, I, along with close family and friends, started the Pat Tillman Foundation. From the day the news broke about Pat’s passing, people from around the country sent letters of support and unsolicited donations in Pat’s memory. The Foundation became an outlet for everyone who wanted to do something in his name. For me it became a continuation of the journey of service Pat and I started together.

In the early years we focused the Foundation’s efforts on establishing a leadership program named the Tillman Scholars-ASU at his alma mater Arizona State University.

While he grew up in a northern California suburb, Arizona was Pat’s second home and his time there was key to many aspects of his life. At ASU, his time on and off the football field and in the classroom allowed him to meet many great people who not only made an impression on him personally and professionally but, as it turned out, also were impacted by knowing Pat.

When the scholars program at ASU was fully endowed the Foundation had the opportunity to expand the number of people the Tillman Scholars program impacted. With that prospect we founded the Tillman Military Scholars program.

More than two million veterans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Each year over 300,000 service members complete their military service and return to school or work. More than one million children have had a parent deployed since September 11, 2001.

Our intent with the Tillman Military Scholars program was simple – help service members and their families get an education. In July 2009 the inaugural class of 52 Tillman Military Scholars received $642,000 in scholarship support. These men and women currently span the country at 21 different universities and are pursuing their education at every level from freshmen undergraduates to PhD candidates.

Knowing firsthand that it’s not just the solider who serves during a time of war, but the entire family, we specifically designed the Tillman Military Scholars program to aid not only the veteran or active service member but their direct dependents, children or spouse, as well.

We know these veterans and their families have a unique desire and ability to serve their country and their communities. We view military service as the greatest leadership training program in the country. For the men and women who want to further their education, we strive to make the Tillman Military Scholars program a way to do so.

Nearly two million service members and their dependents are eligible for educational benefits under the new Post- 9/11 GI Bill. However, even with this benefit, military families face challenges in pursuing their educational goals. The Tillman Military Scholars program covers not only direct study-related expenses such as tuition, fees and books, but also other needs, such as room and board and child care. The Foundation aims to remove any and all barriers to service members, or their dependents might encounter while trying to further their education.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many of the men and women from the first class of Tillman Military Scholars over the last nine months. Retired Marine Corps Corporal Richard Garcia is one of these outstanding individuals.

Richard is currently pursuing his Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology at the University of Maryland. His current environment is far removed from his childhood in East Los Angeles, the son of two deaf parents. Coming from Section 8 housing and welfare, Richard never imagined he would find himself living 3,000 miles away from home and attending college.

As a young man, he found the Los Angeles Police Academy magnet program to be refuge from his surroundings and he learned the value of service and education, which eventually led him to join the Marine Corps. After two deployments to the Middle East, Richard, now in his mid 20s, returned with a greater sense of self, and a greater sense of adventure and courage. With that he took a chance and moved cross country to pursue his educational dream.

Once he completes his Bachelor’s degree, Richard will pursue a Master’s degree in hearing and speech. His goal is to take his childhood experiences and the leadership skills he developed in the Marines and return to East Los Angeles. There, he’ll continue serving by using what he has learned to fight to remove the inequities faced by the deaf community.

Everyone at the Foundation is honored to be able to help him and his fellow Scholars make a difference in their lives so they can go on to do great things in our communities and ultimately make a difference in all our lives.

We’ve all heard about how the “Greatest Generation” returned from World War II and then, aided by the GI Bill, were able to go on and find great success. They now serve as CEOs of major companies, and as political, government and community leaders. I believe we are at the forefront of the next “Greatest Generation.” Given the proper tools and support this new generation of young veterans will come home and continue to lead.

I am honored these current and future leaders have an opportunity as Tillman Military Scholars to carry on Pat’s legacy of education, community and service. Every day I am so thankful and humbled by the support the Pat Tillman Foundation receives from across the country and around the world.

I never expected my path in life would lead to the place I am today, but I value the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of our veterans and military families every day.

–Marie Tillman is the founder and chair of the Pat Tillman Foundation.