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July 6, 2010

Scholar Goes from Financial Advisor to Soldier to Law Student (UO Champions.org)

The following story is from UO Champions, a University of Oregon website highlighting some of the UO’s recent news-making students. Find this story and more at uochampions.org

Bryan Boender recently was named a recipient of a Pat Tillman Foundation Scholarship. The foundation awarded 60 scholarships in the U.S. A total of five UO students received a scholarship from the Pat Tillman Foundation.

Scholar goes from financial advisor to soldier to law student

The first time Bryan Boender earned an advanced degree and set out on a career path, history intervened.

A master’s degree in public policy from Rutgers University eventually led Boender to the New York offices of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. He spent the month of January 2001 training as a financial advisor in the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

A little over seven months later, Al-Qaeda terrorists flew two hijacked airliners into the trade center’s twin towers, killing 2,750 people. The attack drew the U.S. into its ongoing war on terrorism and changed the context of Boender’s life.

“I knew a few people who were there that day,” he says. “They all managed to get out safely.”

But his brush with the edges of fate stayed with him. He calls it “a significant factor” in his subsequent decisions to leave the financial field, reevaluate his life, join the U.S. Army and serve 15 month as a paratrooper in Afghanistan.

He’s back in college now, preparing to begin his second year at the University of Oregon School of Law. And an altered perspective is leading him in entirely new directions.

Boender is one of five UO students to receive scholarships for the 2010-11 academic year from the Pat Tillman Foundation, established in honor of the NFL player who left his athletic career to serve in the U.S. Army and was killed in Afghanistan.

Boender is receiving a $4,000 scholarship from the foundation, and also is working this summer as a law clerk in Salem for the Oregon School Boards Association. After completing law school in 2012, he plans a public service law career.

“Life moves very quickly, and can change either way in an instant,” Boender says, reflecting on the lessons he learned in Afghanistan. “You need to make it meaningful, or find meaning in it, in a way that can make a difference.

“I suppose when I came back, or maybe when I was over there, I realized that because of my age the way I was going to make a difference was not going to be as a paratrooper.”

That wasn’t so apparent following the attack on the World Trade Center. It contributed to growing sense of restlessness for Boender, who will turn 35 this summer. By Sept. 11, 2001, he had already left Morgan Stanley to join Merrill Lynch in his hometown of Seattle. But that didn’t last long either, and by early 2004 he was living in San Diego and “looking for something meaningful.”

That’s when he found himself staring at the photo on a magazine cover of a group of soldiers who were being deployed to the Middle East.

“I said, ‘Boy, what am I doing with my life?'” Boender says.

That moment of clarity resulted in a trip to an Army recruiter, where Boender announced he “wanted to see the war from the front lines.” He enlisted — even though he likely could have qualified for Officer’s Candidate School — and entered basic training at age 28.

He went on to graduate from the Army’s infantry and airborne schools, and was 31 by the time he deployed to Afghanistan with his unit from the 82nd Airborne Division in February 2007. Stationed south of Kabul and north of Kandahar along the Pakistani border, he served six months as a rifleman before — as he puts it — “they discovered I had an advanced degree.”

He was reassigned to radio telephone operator and operations noncommissioned officer for his company before eventually being promoted to team leader and then squad leader. But the personal transition was striking, shifting from a decision-maker in his brief financial management career to an Army foot soldier in an ill-defined war.

There were many patrols of 15 kilometers per day, carrying 80 pounds of gear on his back. And there were skirmishes.

“Of course I saw combat,” Boender says. “I was a paratrooper. That was my job.”

He started to think of life after the Army, and took his Law School Admissions Test while still in Afghanistan. He applied to law schools — focusing on the Northwest — as soon as he was redeployed to the U.S. in May 2008, and eventually was accepted into the UO School of Law.

He began his law school career last September, and even as a first-year student served as a board member and community liaison for the Oregon Law Students Public Interest Fund. But he carries experiences that most of his peers do not.

“I’m really just an average guy who felt a calling to stand up next to those who serve as professional soldiers,” Boender says. “My service was a tribute to them, not some sort of blind devotion to a cause.”

Boender, who was a sergeant at the time of his Army discharge, was invited to apply for the Tillman scholarship during the school year. He was married in March. And he feels he has found some of the direction and meaning that his life was lacking nine years ago.

“I’m very interested in working in public interest in some way,” he says. “That’s what I want.”

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