Almost every year Syracuse University adds at least one military-connected student to its growing roster of Tillman Scholars. In 2022, Syracuse was honored with four students being selected for the prestigious scholarship by the Pat Tillman Foundation. Aside from being the largest cohort of Tillman Scholars selected from Syracuse, this year also featured the first addition from the English Department at the College of Arts and Sciences, student veteran Anthony Ornelaz.

Ornelaz is a graduate student currently pursuing a master’s in creative writing with an emphasis in poetry. After graduating from Amherst College with a bachelor’s in history and sexuality, women, and gender studies, he was selected as a creative writing fellow with the Department of Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition at Syracuse University.

Anthony Ornelaz

For Ornelaz, creative writing has been both therapeutic and a calling throughout his life. He was exposed to writing early in life by his mother and continued to write throughout his military career. The military branches are not really known for the artistic talents of servicemembers, but artists have been among the ranks of servicemembers throughout history. When servicemembers and veterans do try and focus their time and energy on their artwork, they can struggle to have their voice break free from the specific military-related categories of their discipline. Ornelaz aims to bring attention to the unique voices of veterans that are often overlooked in creative environments.

 “I want to create a bigger space for veterans to come,” said Ornelaz, “I want to help facilitate more veteran voices in the creative space. For me, I was just kind of writing things that I observed in my world, my feelings. I didn’t even know that I was doing poetry at first.”

Originally from Wasco, a small agricultural town in southern California, Ornelaz was following a tradition set by his father and grandfather when he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. Like his grandfather and father before him, Ornelaz also chose to serve in a law enforcement capacity while in the military.

“I served in the Air Force for eight years as a security forces member, which is the Air Force’s version of military police,” said Ornelaz. “My dad served as a security forces member in the Air Force in the early nineties, and my grandfather served in World War Two.”

Ornelaz credits his military service with giving him the motivation and determination to accomplish his academic goals. He started his academic journey at Sierra College, a public community college in Rocklin, California, where he earned multiple associates degrees in history, social and behavioral sciences, and LGBT studies before transferring to Amherst.

Anthony Ornelaz

The Tillman scholarship is given by the Pat Tillman Foundation, named after the NFL player of the Arizona Cardinals. Tillman famously turned down a multi-million-dollar contract in order to enlist in the U.S. Army shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. He would later become an Army Ranger and deploy in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Tillman was killed in action while on a mission in Afghanistan in 2004, but months after his death it became known that his death was actually due to friendly fire.

The application process for the Tillman Scholarship is known for being challenging, often making military-connected applicants dig deep into who they are as a person and focus on what impact they want to make in their community. Ornelaz, has already enjoyed success as a poet, having been published in several magazines and, most notably, publishing a transcription of a Latin poem about Cleopatra to share with a more diverse culture. The Tillman Foundation application, however, made him take time to think about who he really was and what he was trying to accomplish.

“One of the biggest challenges when applying for the Tillman scholarship was I had to get into a conversation with myself about how much information that I want to put out there,” explained Ornelaz, “Was it a story worth telling? I had to overcome those feelings of insecurity.”

So far, Ornelaz has made his way through higher education with his writing, having been selected for several opportunities to develop his poetry and writing for free. He aims to use his G.I. Bill after his current graduate studies to continue his education. While writing is his passion, he is also pursuing a certificate in European politics and culture from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

Anthony Ornelaz

“I’m interested in international relations because I ended up serving a majority of my enlistment overseas,” said Ornelaz. “I spent some time in Kuwait, Turkey, and in Germany. I love the aspect of dealing with the host nation.”

 After attending the Tillman Foundation’s leadership conference in Chicago, Illinois, earlier this year, Ornelaz has found many surprises early in his journey as a Tillman Scholar. He met another veteran practicing law in South Carolina who he now exchanges poetry with.

“There’s this weird mishmash of people that come together,” Ornelaz said of Tillman Scholars, “I believed that I was going to meet a certain group of people that weren’t necessarily my people. The fact is, I’ve met a lot of people that come from diverse background and have diverse interests, they’re very genuine as far as helping, I’m always surprised by the genuineness.”

Asked if there was any advice that he would give to those military-connected students who may be interested in applying for the Tillman Scholarship, Ornelaz had one simple suggestion; “If you’re interested in becoming a Tillman Scholar, you need to start the process early and you need to just be yourself as much as you can be. They want to see who you are as a person.”