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Stories Worth Telling: Honoring Military Service at AU

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Men and women in military uniform holding the American flag.
The 2017 Veterans Day ceremony on the Quad. This year's event will occur on Friday, November 9.

To honor individuals who have served their country, American University is planning special events around this year’s Veterans Day. On Friday, November 9, AU will host its third annual Veterans Day ceremony from 10:00-11:00 a.m. on the Eric Friedheim Quad, followed by a reception from 11:00-12:00. On Monday, November 12, American University Washington College of Law will hold an observation on the WCL Quad between the Yuma and Warren buildings. It will take place at noon, with a few speakers and a reception.

It’s been more than 45 years since the US ended the military draft. An all-volunteer military is less visible to the wider public, with about 0.4 percent of the US population on active duty. According to AUWCL student Robb Davies, that’s why it’s important to chronicle the experiences of American veterans.

“Culturally, servicemembers aren’t necessarily encouraged to focus too much on themselves. On the other hand, what we did, or are doing, while serving in uniform, is becoming an increasingly rare thing in our society,” says Davies, a former Marine. “So, veterans need to make sure that they’re representing themselves and telling these stories to our counterparts.”

In that spirit, here are four profiles of veterans and military-affiliated individuals on AU’s campus.

Tony Hollinger; Director of Initiatives for Student Engagement and Diversity in OCL

Even as a former Marine who served in the first Gulf War, Tony Hollinger didn’t always contemplate his military background. He’s only recently coming to terms with the full meaning of his experiences.

Man in Navy football uniform

“I’m identifying with service because it’s an affirmation of something that’s very important in my life. But it’s also to encourage others who have served honorably to draw strength from it,” says Hollinger.


As director of initiatives for student engagement and diversity in American University’s Office of Campus Life, he has several key responsibilities. They include working with student veterans, which is something he’s clearly passionate about. He’s an adviser for the AU Vets student club, chair of AU’s Veterans Liaison Network, and adviser to the Washington College of Law Community and Economic Development Law Center (CEDLC) project with the American Legion. As a member of the President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion, he hopes to ensure military excellence is a component of inclusive excellence.

“This is the American University, which has come to mean something special to me. And I’m interested in what it means to the AU campus community. I think there should be this notion of citizen service. Specifically, but not solely, the idea of military service,” he says.

Hollinger grew up in the Germantown area of North Philadelphia. He’s the eighth of nine children, but he never felt lost in the shuffle of his large, close-knit family. Two of his brothers were Air Force career men, and Hollinger’s father was a Korean War Army veteran. His dad passed away in 2015 on November 10, which the younger Hollinger notes is the Marine Corps birthday and already carried personal significance.

“My dad had a great life and we had a great relationship, so it’s actually a very affirming thing each year,” he explains.

Hollinger got a scholarship to attend William Penn Charter School in the city. A football injury during his junior year put him in a half body cast, which he still counts among the most difficult challenges he’s overcome. At the time, his high school coach joked that if he could withstand that injury, he could make it through a military academy. Sure enough, Hollinger took interest and was recruited to attend the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He played football there—during one game against Indiana University he notched three touchdowns—and he earned his degree in engineering.

As a Marine Corps officer, Hollinger was part of Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, when a US-led coalition ultimately expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991.

After earning his Harvard MBA, Hollinger applied his engineering and business skills in the private sector. He worked at Comcast in Philadelphia and DC, the Walt Disney Co. in Orlando, and he cofounded a startup during the boom in Silicon Valley. He joined AU in 2013, starting here as director of facilities operations management during a period of substantial campus expansion. Hollinger never expected to work in higher ed, but he also had a connection to this school: His wife, Kathy, is an AU alumna (SOC ’92).

“AU, as a higher ed institution in the nation’s capital, can tremendously benefit from acknowledging, embracing, and supporting its military veterans,” he says. “I’m committed to helping make that happen.”

Tyronda Brown; Graduate Student, School of International Service

Tyronda “Ty” Brown completed nine years of active duty in the Navy, followed by two more years in the reserves. The Navy afforded her the chance to see the world: She’s been to a dozen countries, including China, India, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, and Mexico. And while reflecting on her travels, she thinks about service to her own country.

“Our laws, our democracy, how we push equality, and how we push equity—there are a lot of great things about the United States that I believe are worth fighting for,” says Brown, now earning a global security-focused master’s degree from AU’s School of International Service.

Three woman together at a conference.

Brown was born in California and lived there until she was 12. She subsequently moved to her mother’s home state of Mississippi, spending six years in Meridian and working throughout her high school years. With limited means, she didn’t have money for college and joined the Navy at 18.

While civilians might hold a narrow view of what Navy service entails, Brown’s experiences were remarkably deep and varied. She started out in San Diego as a navigation specialist on a guided missile destroyer. That included some electronic navigation, but she often took on the role of human GPS.

“I would tell exactly what the weather is like, and what it’s going to be like. And I’d also do celestial navigation, so telling you where we’re going to be based on the moon and the stars,” she says. “We used to have to calculate the sunrise and sunset.”

Brown was later stationed in Jacksonville, Florida, where she served as a corrections officer and a community liaison with a local school district. She helped out so much at an elementary school, the military recognized her with an outstanding volunteer award. Brown notes how the Navy wants to bridge the gap between the military and the community.

“There’s this stereotype that military people are closed off. And don’t get me wrong, we do have our own little world, with our own courts of justice and laws and jails,” she says. “But when we’re not in uniform, we’re here. We’re citizens and civilians like everybody else.”

Brown also did mobile security work—essentially, protecting military supply ships from pirates or drug smugglers—in Bahrain.

After completing her Navy service, she earned her bachelor’s degree from University of Texas at San Antonio. She utilized her GI Bill benefits, but also stacked her classes so she’d have money left over for graduate school. Brown came to Washington for a State Department internship and, acting on advice from a mentor, enrolled in the SIS graduate program in 2017.

Brown is a 2018 Veterans in Global Leadership (VGL) fellow. She was pleasantly surprised when president Sylvia Burwell appeared at a meeting at VGL—which is not affiliated with AU—and Brown commends AU’s attention to veterans’ issues. “She was also with us when we did Explore DC, and we went to the Armed Services Retirement Home,” Brown recalls. “I’ve met her on a few occasions and she has been just absolutely supportive in every possible way.”

Brown is currently interning at the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. With an interest in both conventional and unconventional weapons control, she’s considering future work in both areas. But, like her Navy service itself, she has a variety of side interests, such as designing evening gowns and reading sci fi. “I’m definitely all over the place,” she jokes. “Once this is all done, I dream of my retirement in a house by a lake with a library.”

Robb Davies; JD Student, American University Washington College of Law

Robb Davies is a Marine veteran and current Washington College of Law student. But on the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he was just a high school junior and far away from the carnage. When asked about his belief in service, he still remembers that Tuesday morning.

Man in Marine uniform in Iraq

“That was a day that my whole world got bigger. Now, mind you, I was 3,000 miles away from the attacks in a suburb of Seattle. But it was still such a profound experience for me,” he says. “The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think, were really what’s characterized my generation. And I knew that, in some way or another, I needed to take part in that.”

Not that his eventual desire to enlist was easy for his family to swallow. He was just 19, and it was 2004, a time of increased concern about the US mission in Iraq. “It was a bit of a controversial decision when I seriously started considering the idea,” he recalls. “They eventually came around, and they were tremendously supportive.”

Davies started out in the Marine Corps Reserve and went to a local community college. He was first deployed overseas in 2008, to the Anbar Province of Iraq. It was the tail end of the “surge” in Iraq, and he says violence in the region had significantly declined. Yet it was unusual for a Washington State kid who’d only ever left the US to visit Vancouver BC across the border.

“My first overseas experience, when I was 23 years old, was to go to war. In retrospect, that’s just absurd. And I think the experience really gave me a connection to the world, and I wanted to explore it more,” he explains.

He was already majoring in Middle Eastern studies—he’d eventually get his degree from University of Washington— and he subsequently spent nine months based out of Damascus, Syria.

“I was studying Arabic, seeing the sights, trying to expose myself a little bit to the culture. And I’d had a beautiful experience over there,” he says.

Upon returning home, he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. He later worked in the Marine Corps Security Cooperation Group, which establishes military relationships with American allies. In 2015, he left the Marines and spent time working in defense and foreign affairs policy in the US Senate.

Davies enrolled at AUWCL in 2016, where he’s president of the Civil-Military Society and participates in Mock Trial. He’s been out of uniform for three years, but his heart is still in national security and public service.

“I want to make sure that whatever I do, I represent my community with the core values I was taught in the military,” he says. “Veterans are in a special position of trust with the American people, and it’s up to us to develop that and strengthen that relationship.”

Sophie Nowak; Undergraduate Student, College of Arts and Sciences

Sophie Nowak is now a sophomore in ROTC Army on campus, and after she graduates, she’ll be committed to eight years in the service. Though she’s just starting her military career, there’s a noticeable pattern to her life. She’s energetic and active, making the physical challenges of the military a logical next step.

Growing up in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, Nowak participated in dance (jazz, tap, and ballet), sports (volleyball, basketball, soccer, and Taekwondo), and music (piano, while dabbling in saxophone and cello).

Army unit running during physical training

Nowak also became curious about joining the military. Her mother did ROTC for a year in college, but Nowak really had no veterans in her family. When she first considered ROTC, her parents were reluctant but supportive.

“They’ve always been very protective of me. But they also have always honored my dreams and ambitions and goals. Although it may have scared them at first, I think they knew from very early on that the path that I wanted to take wouldn’t be a conventional one,” Nowak says. “When the time came, they just said, ‘Hey, if that’s what you want to do, go for it.’”

She initially wanted to join the Marines, but AU doesn’t have that program. She started the ROTC application process—AU was the only school she applied to—then decided to delay the military component. But after arriving on campus, she met some student participants and started ROTC during her second semester.

The co-ed program does physical training three times a week: sprinting, long-distance running, and rucking, which is extensive walking with weight on your back. They also have military clubs—which for Nowak includes two more days of running PT—and military science class.

This already sounds intense, before you factor in her regular course load. Nowak is an Arabic Studies major, with a double minor in justice and law and religion. This summer, she is hoping to study abroad in Jordan. Long term, she’s considering work with human trafficking victims in the Middle East.

Nowak previously interned on Capitol Hill for Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-Pa. On campus, she’s a leader in the Christian group, Chi Alpha, and she’s a member of the Student Advisory Council for the President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion.

She clearly thinks there’s more than one way to serve her country. “I firmly believe in giving back to communities that have blessed me. And I love being an American,” she says. “Being able to make sure that the freedoms and the people I love are protected is something that’s very important to me.”

The best part of the experience, Nowak says, is the camaraderie among ROTC students. “It’s not something that we’re competing against each other with. We’re all doing it together,” she says. “It’s such an amazing environment, because they do really want to see you get better as a person, not only as a cadet.”

*Second Photo: Ty Brown (left) with AU president Sylvia Burwell and AU alum and Navy vet Jessica Houghton. Fourth Photo: Sophie Nowak, running behind student in orange vest.