Wesley Stiner, who served as a Marine, has shifted his focus from combat to the courtroom as an advocate for veterans.
As the son of a U.S. Marine, Wesley Stiner was raised early on with the motto "America needs warriors," and he felt compelled to serve in the Marine Corps because of his family's legacy of service and the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Although he was too young to enlist at the time of the attacks, Stiner watched the wars come home as his older brother deployed to Baghdad. Four years later, inspired by the example of his father and brother, he earned his own commission as a Marine and would successfully implement programming in support of service members in distress.
Stiner, a University of Arizona Law student, was this week named a 2016 Tillman Scholar in a cohort representing 60 U.S. service members, veterans and military spouses across the nation. The newly named class, funded by the Pat Tillman Foundation, will receive more than $1.8 million in scholarships to pursue higher education degrees.
"Each scholar stands apart for his or her unique perseverance and dedication to empower others,” Marie Tillman, president and co-founder of the Pat Tillman Foundation, said in a statement released on June 8.
"As a community of emerging leaders – now over 460 strong – they are joining forces to tackle some of the toughest challenges that our communities face in education, healthcare, civil rights, technology and foreign policy," Tillman also noted. "In Pat's spirit of service, we are proud to unite and empower them as dynamic leaders for our country and communities."
Other UA Tillman Scholars include Stiner's fellow Arizona Law peers Joshua Sparling (rising 3L) and Angela Menard (Class of 2016 graduate), plus four UA College of Medicine students and one master of public health student.
Tillman was a football player for Arizona State University and the Arizona Cardinals who left his athletic career to enlist in the Army in June 2002. He was killed in combat in April 2004.
After deploying in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, which began in 2001, Stiner became intimately acquainted with the stressors and difficulties faced by service members returning from combat deployment. This motivated him to develop an anonymous referral system within his unit. The system allowed Marines to identify those struggling with their combat experiences so that they could receive help without divulging their identity and condition to the entire unit.
"The most important lesson I learned from my service is a lesson that has guided me in difficult times and is how I articulate the tenacity of the human spirit," Stiner explained. "When faced with difficult times, it's necessary to look beyond the struggle, because we are stronger than we think. There will be greater challenges ahead, so stick with your commitment and don't avoid challenges. Take them on and power through. You will come out stronger and more capable for persevering."
Inspired by the bond and compassion within his unit, Stiner has shifted his focus from combat to the courtroom as an advocate for veterans.
"I felt I could have a greater impact working to increase the benefits of these veterans and by changing the public's perception of the men and women returning home," Stiner said.
At the UA, Stiner collaborated with the Humane Society to create Pets and Their Heroes, or PATHs, which engages veterans as volunteers to socialize and teach shelter dogs basic commands with the goal of a quick adoption.
Stiner also serves in the Veterans' Advocacy Law Clinic, where he has represented nearly 80 veterans charged with misdemeanors.
Stiner, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, also is working to upgrade disability ratings for veterans with the disorder and other service-related injuries. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that between 11 and 20 percent of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder in a given year.
Stiner also spends time drafting appeals to upgrade the discharges of other veterans so that they can receive the health care and education benefits they earned. Eventually, he intends to organize a co-op of lawyers in the community to serve as a free resource for veterans in need of discharge upgrades, disability rating upgrades and disability appeals.
"As a lawyer, my goal is to effect change in veteran reintegration policy that will provide for improved screening, evaluation, recovery and, most importantly, suicide prevention," Stiner said.
Of his time with the Marines, Stiner said military service introduced him to new experiences, opportunities and people.
"Every person is different. However, everyone looks the same because the uniform camouflages the colors of the individual," Stiner said. "The focus is on the unit and duties.
"Witnessing this devotion to duty changed my life. I thought I was selfless and a giving person, but it wasn't until serving did I realize what selfless was."
This story originally appeared on UA News.