Three GW Students Named Tillman Scholars

The service and compassion of military service members and family is rewarded with $70,000 in support for studies at the university.

July 7, 2017

GW's Tillman scholars

Leilani Attillo, Aaron Banas and Jessica Blake.

Three George Washington University students have been chosen as 2017 Tillman Scholars in recognition of their service, leadership and potential: Leilani Attillo, a nursing practice doctoral student; Aaron Banas, who is pursuing a Psy.D in psychology, and Jessica Blake, a doctoral candidate in physical therapy. 

The award was named after Pat Tillman, who put his NFL career with the Arizona Cardinals on hold after 9/11 to serve in Afghanistan. He died there in 2004. More than $1 million each year is dedicated to scholars at universities and colleges around the country to cover the cost of books, housing, tuition and other expenses related to study for active-duty members of the military, veterans and military spouses.

Leilani Attillo

Her mother’s care of dialysis patients inspired Ms. Attillo to enroll in nursing school. She joined the military as an Army ROTC candidate to help protect the dream of her parents who immigrated to the United States. When the terrorist attack on Sept. 11 occurred, she signed up to show gratitude and support for the country that welcomed them and served as a critical care nurse in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When Ms. Attillo left military service, she began working as a public health nurse in underserved communities. Her focus was on people in recovery from drug abuse. She educated methadone clients about drug overdose prevention and advocated for greater access to naloxone, an emergency treatment for drug overdoses.

“Closing the gap in ideologies can only be achieved if we place dignity, respect and compassion at the foundation of our personal and professional life,” she said.

Ms. Attillo said she was compelled to return to clinical care because of the stigma people with drug addiction face in healthcare. The three-year, $30,000 Tillman scholarship will support her participation in the GW Family Nurse Practitioner program that she hopes will position her not only to advocate for better drug policies for patients, but also to train new nurses who can follow in her footsteps.

Aaron Banas

After serving as a U.S. Navy Corpsman, Mr. Banas said he felt lost. He knew he needed change so he spent six months in the wilderness seeking a way to live each day with mindfulness and appreciation, a journey not unlike that taken by the legendary Greek hero, Odysseus, who went to war and became lost trying to find his way home. It’s a story Mr. Banas has shared with combat veterans at retreats he coordinated to help them find a path to recovery.

Mr. Banas learned while working in the military that saving a life didn’t just mean stopping the bleeding. It also meant helping others to find meaning and to recognize that they are not alone in their suffering. He wants to apply that experience toward the doctoral degree in clinical psychology he is pursuing at GW that is now supported by a two-year, $20,000 Tillman scholarship.

“Life is about recovery after battles both physical and emotional,” said Mr. Banas. “As a psychologist, I will help others recover from life’s hardships and find their way home.” He plans to create a collaborative community that is educated to accept psychotherapy as normal and can work with mental health providers in helping veterans make the transition back into the community.

Jessica Blake

For three years, Ms. Blake, an Army wife, worked as a physical therapist aide in the recovery of injured soldiers at an Army health clinic. The drive and determination of patients, including special needs children and service members,  to overcome severe injuries and chronic conditions inspired her.

With her husband and her family’s encouragement, Ms. Blake enrolled at GW to become an orthopedic physical therapist. “I know what it’s like to experience a lengthy recovery process after trauma,” she said. “I want to help my patients achieve their goals through rehabilitation.”

The two-year, $20,000 award from the Tillman Foundation will go a long way toward her goal of giving back to a community whose commitment to service has taught her so much about coping and recovery.