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Constructing a life of honor

November 1, 2022

Pat Tillman Scholar recognized for his work with the Navajo Nation

Editor's note: This story is part of our Salute to Service coverage, Nov. 1–11. Learn about the schedule of events.

Ryan Benally knows what it’s like to do without the modern necessities of life.

There were portions of his childhood on the Navajo reservation when his family didn’t have running water, indoor plumbing or electricity.

As an Arizona State University graduate student and a leading voice in his tribe, he has been able to give back to his community, and frequently does.

It's part of why he was selected as a 2022 Tillman Scholar.

“I was really surprised I was selected because I hadn’t known about the Tillman Scholarship until a few days before I applied,” said Benally, a graduate student in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “When I discovered what the Tillman Foundation was all about and that I was joining a group of other scholars who are very involved with their communities, I was really impressed. And still very surprised.”

Man with brown hair

Ryan Benally

Benally shouldn’t be. His track record speaks for itself. He has served his country and his community with distinction, said the head of the Pat Tillman Foundation, who bestowed the honor on Benally in late June.

"We choose our scholars not as a reward for the service they've given, but as an investment in their potential to lead through action and grow within our community," said Dan Futrell, himself a 2011 Tillman Scholar. "From his time in the Marine Corps to his efforts to invest in his community in the Navajo Nation by improving infrastructure and basic services, Ryan doesn't just demonstrate that potential — he inspires it in others. We're proud to call him a Tillman Scholar."

Tillman Scholars are identified by the foundation as “remarkable military service members, veterans and spouses, empowering them with academic scholarships, lifelong leadership development opportunities and a diverse, global community of high-performing mentors and peers.”

The foundation receives close to 2,500 applications a year for its scholarship. This year, there were 60 scholars selected nationwide. Applications for the 2023 class of Tillman Scholars open Nov. 1.

The Tillman Foundation gifted Benally a $9,000 scholarship for his master’s degree program in the field of construction management and technology. He said he intends to use his education to help improve his community back home.

Home is Red Mesa, Utah, a small community of 8,000 tribal members that straddles the Arizona-Utah border. Like many communities in the Navajo Nation, it is mostly impoverished with a median household income of about $25,000 a year.  

“There are families there who are still in need of running water and electricity,” said Benally, who serves as a vice chair with the Utah Navajo Trust Fund, which helps oversee the health, education and general welfare of the Navajo residents of San Juan County, Utah. “There was a time when our family didn’t have the resources needed to sustain, so I have that perspective growing up. When people don’t have running water or electricity, it can only inhibit their ability to recover from something like COVID-19.”

Despite some hard times, Benally said his family had it better than most. His father worked as a welder while his mother attended college. Even though they were busy, Benally said there was always time carved out for giving back, whether it was helping to feed families or assisting his mother and sister with literary events at the Bureau of Indian Education and public and charter schools.

“As a young person, Ryan always thought of others first and is a person of compassion,” said his mother, Rebecca, a retired schoolteacher and principal, and former San Juan County commissioner. She is now the health promotion director for San Juan County. “In the wintertime, with the assistance of his Uncle Gregory, he would help people that were struggling. They’d hand out knit caps and gloves to people — I guess you could call them homeless. He is someone who walks the talk.”

Benally attended Navajo Preparatory Academy in Farmington, New Mexico, which he said prepared him for college life. It also helped shape his mindset toward academics and personal success.

“It was a top-tier tribal school in terms of academics. It prepared us to understand what was expected of us in terms of work, the infrastructure of school, what it means to study on your own, and emphasized self-motivation,” Benally said. “The school also taught us that we weren’t investing in ourselves but ultimately our community. We knew that one day we would be back to improve the standard of living.

After Benally graduated from the University of New Mexico with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Pat Tillman’s military enlistment motivated him to join the U.S. Marines in March 2002.

“That moment made me realize that it wasn’t enough to say, ‘I love my country,’” Benally said. “I wanted to protect and serve it. So, when that happened, it changed my idea of what it means to serve your community and serve your nation.”

In 2003, Benally was deployed to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom. He provided security detail for military operations, clearing explosive devices off the roadways — considered one of the most dangerous jobs during that mission. Benally saw several fellow soldiers injured and killed.

“It changes your perspective what we have here at home,” Benally said. “We seem to take for granted our security … just to go out for a walk or going to the grocery store or to gas up your vehicle. It’s a way of life we enjoy as Americans that we should not take for granted.”

Benally now extends that gratitude to his community by helping to improve it where he sees fit. As the community health worker program coordinator at Utah State University, he helped start an innovative program. Its mission is to certify people to become community health workers, reaching tribal members in the community and on the far reaches of the reservation.

“The pandemic showed us that we don’t have enough people to educate the community about the benefits and programs the tribe offers and what they could possibly be eligible for,” Benally said. “All of the people who are trained in this program are 100% Native Americans. This is what my education has helped me provide for my community.”

And he’s not resting on his laurels. Besides, it’s not what Pat Tillman would have wanted either, Benally said.

“It’s really sad how Pat Tillman passed away, but his influence continues on because he demonstrated that there’s always a need for service, whether it’s in the military or in your community,” Benally said. “I believe that’s something he would want for all of us, especially as Pat Tillman Scholars. He showed me that it’s not what you say but what your actions are that truly makes a difference.” 

Top photo: A bronze statue of Pat Tillman at the entrance of the Pat Tillman Tunnel at ASU's Sun Devil Stadium. The statue was erected in 2017 and was created by an ASU alumna. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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How universities can support the National Defense Strategy

November 1, 2022

The U.S. Department of Defense released the National Defense Strategy (NDS) on Oct. 27, the first in nearly five years. This comes on the heels of the Biden administration’s recently released National Security Strategy earlier in October. Together, these foundational strategic documents outline the federal government's priorities and approaches to core defense and security challenges. 

The DoD is the largest federal funder of research and development projects, with a heavy focus on critical and emerging technologies. Unsurprisingly, the National Defense Strategy and National Security Strategy both place United States leadership in the development of new technologies as central to the nation’s security and international stability.

Nadya Bliss

Executive Director Nadya Bliss

ASU News spoke with Nadya Bliss, the executive director of the Global Security Initiative, about the role of critical and emerging technologies in geopolitical competition and how universities can support these priorities.

Question: What are your biggest takeaways from the new National Defense Strategy and National Security Strategy?

Answer: My biggest takeaway is how central United States’ continued leadership in technological development and operationalization is to both of the strategies. Both documents note the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as our greatest strategic competitor, with the National Defense Strategy referring to the PRC as a "pacing challenge." U.S. efforts to keep up with the PRC are in part centered around the contest for global leadership in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, microelectronics and quantum computing. This technological competition will have major impacts on what our future looks like and is part of the reason President Biden has called this a "decisive decade."

Technological development permeates many of the other challenges and strategies outlined in the document, from the need to build resilience and adaptability to transborder challenges like climate change and pandemics, to how we deter and respond to "Gray Zone" activities aimed at altering the status quo without leading to direct conflict. Challenges like disinformation and cyber attacks often fit into this definition. Additionally, the NDS often refers to the cyber and space domains as presenting a unique, common challenge that can create unpredictable pathways to conflict escalation due to the lack of “collective experience, common understandings and established norms of behavior.”

A second big takeaway is how focused the DoD is on investing in the future of the military workforce and aligning that workforce to make sure it is supporting the U.S. technological advantage. As the document says, “People execute the strategy,” and upskilling and diversifying the military workforce is key to the strategy’s success. The strategy says the DoD will aggressively seek to fill specific technology gaps in cyber, data and artificial intelligence specializations and will look to work with universities to do so through a variety of pathways, from revising professional military education to rotational assignments with the private sector. The ability to train and educate a diverse universe of STEM learners interested in defense and national security careers is key to this effort, and an area ASU — with the largest engineering school in the country by enrollment — can clearly help.

Third, there is a heavy focus on the need to work with allies if the U.S. is to be successful in this geopolitical competition. President Biden has said the grand challenge of our time is the competition between autocracy and democracy as governing models, and both of these strategies clearly outline how important alliances and security partnerships like AUKUS are to U.S. strategy.

Q: One portion of the strategy reads: “Technology is central to today’s geopolitical competition and to the future of our national security, economy and democracy. ... In the next decade, critical and emerging technologies are poised to retool economies, transform militaries and reshape the world.” What are some of the technologies that will "reshape the world"?

A: The NDS outlines a few key critical and emerging technologies the DoD will focus on, some as the driving force for advancements and others as a "fast follower" to advancements made primarily in the private sector.

Areas where the DoD expects to "fuel research and development" are cyber, integrated sensing, hypersonics and directed energy, while seeding opportunities in biotechnology, quantum sciences, advanced materials and clean energy technology. Areas where the DoD anticipates the market taking the lead are microelectronics, artificial intelligence and autonomy, space and human-machine interfaces, with DoD taking on the "fast follower" role.

These strategies clearly build on recent legislation that is aimed at transforming the scale of research, development and production of new technologies in the U.S. The CHIPS and Science Act, for example, is a massive investment in building in-country capabilities to develop and produce microelectronics, mitigating our reliance on foreign supply chains and negating a major national security threat considering how vital microelectronics are to our society, defense capabilities and economy.

Q: The National Defense Strategy mentions the need for more resilience and agility across domains multiple times in order to meet today’s complex challenges — whether a targeted cyber attack from an adversary or the consequences of climate change. What does resilience and agility mean, and how can universities support the DoD’s goals?

A: Both strategies are premised on the idea that the world is growing increasingly complex and interconnected. In that environment, it is hard to predict and plan for exactly what is going to happen — better to build resilience to future shocks and agility to be able to pivot quickly based on changing circumstances. An integrated deterrence approach is a key element of the NDS and maps out the need for a holistic response to the most complex challenges and the ability to align “policies, investments and activities.” Effective deterrence shores up resilience.

Additionally, the NDS in particular calls out transborder threats like climate change and pandemics as major security challenges and drivers of the need to build more resilience into the system. One example is physical resilience around infrastructure like military installations — think multiple and redundant energy supplies so when one goes down, another takes its place.

Another element of resilience is being able to withstand coercive activities conducted by an adversarial nation — so building up people’s defenses against disinformation efforts or our cyber networks’ abilities to withstand sophisticated attacks. As the National Security Strategy notes, autocracies often abuse technology and the connectivity it can provide to undermine stability. The ability of the U.S. and our allies to be able to withstand those efforts is critical. One U.S. advantage in this competition is our emerging focus on socio-technical resilience — our ability to develop tightly integrated cross-disciplinary approaches that bring in advanced tech capabilities with expertise from social sciences, humanities, policy and law.

The Global Security Initiative is partially supported by Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund. TRIF investment has enabled hands-on training for tens of thousands of students across Arizona’s universities, thousands of scientific discoveries and patented technologies, and hundreds of new startup companies. Publicly supported through voter approval, TRIF is an essential resource for growing Arizona’s economy and providing opportunities for Arizona residents to work, learn and thrive.

Written by Nathan Evans