TILLMAN TUESDAY: Tillman Scholar Anthony Saffier-Ewing is on the Path to Advancing Treatment for TBI

Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, over 400 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, science, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community — all thanks to your support. This week we learn more about 2015 Tillman Scholar and U.S. Army veteran Anthony Saffier-Ewing who is earning his Master of Business Administration at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sloan School of Management. Anthony is currently working on a more cost effective and accessible digital treatment platform for those suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury, an injury he himself suffered while serving with during his 11 years with Special Forces.

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO JOIN THE MILITARY?

“My parents used to be hippies and that’s why I have two last names. They protested the Vietnam War — my dad went to Woodstock and my mom marched with Cesar Chavez. Joining the military was never a consideration growing up in the Bay area in San Francisco.

I’ve always been a high-powered nature kind of person. I completed my undergrad in Finance at Tulane University in 2002, just after 9/11. With the war kicking off, I remember sitting in my cubicle cold-calling people trying to sell life insurance and financial planning. I look over and I see these two ‘big dogs’ in the office raving about how they closed a big deal that day and remember thinking, ‘this is not me, I need to have purpose and make an impact.’ I realized this wasn’t for me.

During that same time, the war was really ramping up in Iraq and realized I was as able as anyone else and could do just as good a job as those fighting for me. My parents stopped trying to tell me what to do when I was 14, as I recall my mom talking to me when I was eight about being a Quaker so I could avoid the draft. It was a shock for them when I enlisted in Special Forces in 2004 but I was good for the Army and the Army was good for me.”

HAVING ENLISTED IN 2004 AND SERVING UNTIL NOVEMBER 2015, HOW MANY DEPLOYMENTS DID YOU SERVE AND WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT WHAT YOUR ROLE ENTAILED?

“Though I enlisted in 2004, I was in Special Forces training for three years and didn’t earn my Green Beret tab until 2007. Having enlisted with the National Guard and going through all the training, I was chomping at the bit to deploy, looking at all possible options. Ultimately I connected with another Special Forces guard unit that was going to Columbia, because they were back-filling 7th Special Forces Group which would normally go to Colombia but everyone was so busy in Afghanistan and Iraq. When we were going to Columbia I didn’t even know at the time there were hostages there. During the deployment my team was informed that our superiors had an idea where they might be. I had a very forward thinking Commander who put us down where the hostages might be, just in case. I had been out of the Qualification Course for about a year and was the first of my team to repel into the jungle.

To make a long story short, in the end our fellow Americans were rescued. That mission, Operation Willing Spirit, was the start to my career in (2007) Special Forces.”

COULD YOU PLEASE SUMMARIZE WHAT YOUR JOB DUTIES ENTAILED AS PART OF THE SPECIAL FORCES GROUP.

“Generally those that talk the most, know the least. Your initial training is your right to learn. You’re a baby Commando when you finish your initial training. When you make it to the force you really get to prove yourself and prove you have what it takes to be on a team. Beyond your initial training, very often you have to be a jack of all trades outside of your specialty — you’re 100 yards wide and one foot deep. Your specialty becomes getting the job done.”

THROUGHOUT YOUR TIME IN THE SERVICE, HAVING BEEN PART OF SPECIAL FORCES, WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF AS YOU WERE ‘SEARCHING FOR A PURPOSE’?”

“I learned what matters to me and what I’m made of. When you’re cold, wet, hungry, tired, and lonely in the dark. The darker sides to your DNA start to surface. Selfishly, you start thinking about not being cold, wet, hungry, and tired in the dark. Everyone is going through the same situation and you’re all working together to accomplish something together. With going through something like that, you really know who you are in bad situations. You can then confront your imperfections and improve. Adversity builds character and guys like us really have a lot of character.”

HOW DID YOU MAKE THE DECISION TO SEPARATE FROM THE MILITARY?

“I let my command know two years prior to actually separating from the military. I was reading a lot of leadership books and in the book, ‘The Score Takes Care of Itself,’ it talks about people on the team who were becoming negative and toxic, and I was becoming that. My decision to get out was not binary, it’s still a 60–40 decision. I’m happy with my decision to get out. I was not forced out, I was not fired.

In 2013 I was running around looking for my keys only to realize they were in my hand. I was doing this three times in the morning, looking for my keys and I don’t know what I’m looking for. I was having verbal and auditory aphasia, not getting restful sleep and was essentially falling apart and losing my mind. I realized I needed to go back to school and exercise my brain and so I started studying for the GMAT. I studied for nine months and finally got a score I was happy with.

In addition to school, I had two knee surgeries, have a bad neck, chronic headaches, TBI, arthritic shoulders, torn shoulders — my body started falling apart and I want to start a family someday as well. The same reason I got in, wanting to make a difference and an impact — I think I can make a bigger impact on the outside. What put me over the edge in separating from the military is that I honestly think I’ll make a bigger impact on the outside.”

BEING ENROLLED AT MIT AND CLOSING OUT YOUR FIRST YEAR, WHAT ARE YOU FOCUSING ON AS FAR AS YOUR STUDIES GO?

“I’m starting a business that will take the Traumatic Brain Injury treatment that I received at Walter Reed, which is incredibly expensive and has limited access due to throughput constraints. I’m leveraging technology to put many of the same treatments I received into a digital platform that will be much more cost effective and accessible. Even the Special Forces group guys don’t even know the NICoE (National Intrepid Center of Excellence) program exists. The program I went to is backed up nine months.

What they do at NICoE is they create the conditions for increased levels of Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is one of the things that promote neuroplasticity. They basically boost neuroplasticity and you rewire your brain growing new pathways. Your pathways get disrupted and now you can regrow the pathways — a lot of these interventions are a little cum-by-yah and are things I never thought I would advocate for. With the guidance of a provider, you can educate people digitally provide many of the NICoE interventions with information technology. I’m less concerned with the causes of how and why these things happen, I’m more concerned with fixing them. There are 22 veterans a day killing themselves and this is part of the problem.

With my background in medicine and technology and other things that I’ve done, I can speak the language and sound somewhat intelligent to where I can talk to the innovators and scientists and technicians and stress what the end-user requirements are. I’m not creating anything but rather taking stuff that already exists and making it usable.”

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR YOU TO BE A TILLMAN SCHOLAR AND BEING PART OF THE TILLMAN COMMUNITY?

“What resonates for me is the underlying purpose of what drives me and gets me out of bed in the morning. If you bust your tail and try to be excellent at everything you do, the money will come. It’s the drive to make an impact within the Tillman community.

I’m honored to be a Tillman Scholar with access to a community of like-minded people that are all trying to make a difference in their own disciplines. Everyone has an underlying purpose for the greater good. We can help each other out as the product is more than the sum of the parts. You get a bunch of people who want to make an impact together and we can be pretty powerful!”

WHAT’S YOUR SHORT TERM GOAL IN 2016?

“My goal in 2016 is to not let it pass me by. I look at the past 11 years and say, ‘wow I accomplished so much, it was so awesome!’ and I look back and think, ‘was I even there for that?!’ In the blink of an eye those years were over and I was barely there because I was so concerned what was going to happen in the next six months that I didn’t enjoy it. In 2016, I’ve blocked out white space on my calendar to do nothing but just enjoy it. Now, I do this crazy thing every once in awhile called smiling. I’m transitioning and it’s good. The big thing is blocking off white space and actually being present.

My drive to make an impact hasn’t changed and I am the master of my direction right now. Having been to about 25 different countries, I’ve enjoyed two of them, so I’m actually going to enjoy myself a little bit — not that I’m being selfish but just more effective.”

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