The urge to serve still runs deep in this UO veteran

Dallas Gray remembers vividly the day his father told him something that would inspire this kid from rural Minnesota to serve in a war halfway around the world before landing him on the doorstep of the University of Oregon.

It was the kind of talk fathers and sons have been having forever, about the future and direction and finding meaning in life. But the words went deep and became Gray's guidepost, leading him into the Minnesota Air National Guard, the Air Force and two tours in Afghanistan.

 “He said the key to a life worth living is to sacrifice yourself to a greater good and to give back more to society than you take,” Gray said. “He said that in some way after high school I had to give something of myself to some greater cause. As 15-year-old, that struck me as pretty profound.”

Now Gray is a master’s degree student in architecture and the UO’s latest Tillman Scholar, one of the premier awards for military veterans. And it all goes back to that day his dad drove him out to an aunt and uncle’s farm and gave him “the talk.”

Gray is one of only 60 veterans named as Tillman Scholars this year. And he chose to use the scholarship to attend the UO, one of only 18 Pat Tillman Foundation University Partners.

It wasn’t a hard choice. Gray’s interest is in sustainability, and even before applying with the Tillman Foundation he had picked the UO as his top choice for graduate school because of the top-ranked program in sustainable building design.

Nor is it a coincidence that someone who puts such a high value on service also is interested in sustainability. Gray sees promoting and expanding sustainability as another way of giving back, especially if he can help bring the techniques and practice of sustainable design to developing nations and poorer communities.

That idea really clicked during his two tours at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, where getting the most use out of scarce resources was a necessity. It was need-based sustainability: cargo containers used as barracks, wood pallets turned into shelving, packing materials made into furniture.

“You needed to find a way to reduce your dependency on resources,” he said. “That’s where the concept of sustainability sunk in, where I picked up the ball and decided that’s what I wanted to carry forward. That’s what sparked the passion in it for me.”

At that time, Gray already was on his way to an architecture degree at the University of Minnesota. But he had delayed the start of his university education to spend a year doing basic training and job training with the Air National Guard, and then after he enrolled he had to pause his education twice to complete his tours in Afghanistan. “It was like jumping between two polar extremes,” Gray said.

He finished his degree and spent four years working in architecture after that. That convinced him he’d found the right career. He wanted to focus on sustainable design, wherever it took him.

When Gray applied for the Tillman scholarship he didn’t know much about the organization. He was mostly just looking for funding to supplement his remaining G.I. benefits.

“Once I realized what the Tillman Foundation was, that became secondary,” Gray said. “I realized this was an organization of some of the greatest human beings I’ve ever had the fortune of meeting. How could you not want to be part of the Tillman Foundation?”

The foundation honors the legacy of Pat Tillman by investing in military veterans and their spouses through academic scholarships. In 2002, Tillman put his NFL career with the Arizona Cardinals on hold to serve his country. Family and friends established the Pat Tillman Foundation following his death in April 2004 while serving with the 75th Ranger Regiment in Afghanistan.

“We are proud to be one of only 18 Pat Tillman Foundation University Partners,” said Justine Carpenter, the UO’s director of nontraditional student engagement. “This designation is a result of the University of Oregon’s commitment to provide student veterans with the services and support they need as they transition from military life to civilian and student life.”  

As the UO’s newest Tillman Scholar, Gray will be honored at a Veteran’s Day commemoration at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 11, in the Guistina Ballroom in the Ford Alumni Center, one of several events recognizing veterans. For a list, click here.

 “Veterans Awareness Week is an opportunity for us to honor our veterans and recognize the contributions they make on our campus as students, staff, faculty, and administrators,” Carpenter said. “Our student veterans provide unique perspective and life experience to our campus and classrooms.”

The Tillman scholarship will allow Gray to graduate with little or no debt, freeing him to look for the kind of job that lets him continue to serve without worrying too much about the salary.

Gray said his personal mission statement for his time at the UO is “to help shape the built environment in a long-lasting and sustainable way.” But like all good service members, he wants to do more, for those that need it the most.

“If I can go above and beyond that and start practicing sustainable design in communities and countries that need help, that’s what I’d like to be doing,” he said.

—By Greg Bolt, Public Affairs Communications