Eric Metcalf's first mission in the Army was to help recover the body of a man serving with the 75th Ranger Regiment in Afghanistan.
"Of course, I didn't realize who we were recovering," said Metcalf, who now has a semester left at Texas A&M University before receiving a master's in wildlife science.
In the country a month, Metcalf found himself in a Blackhawk helicopter on a mission to return a man he admired to the main airfield so his body could be flown back to the United States.
Eight years later, that story has come full circle, as Metcalf was selected as a Tillman Military Scholar for the 2012-2013 academic year, a scholarship named to honor the legacy of Pat Tillman, the man whose body he helped recover.
"When he died, I was one of the ones to recover his body . I was there when it happened. I flew him out," said the 39-year-old. "Now, it's like he's up there looking down saying, 'I got your back. I've got you covered now.'"
A&M and the Pat Tillman Foundation recently announced that Metcalf and fellow Aggie Chris Cartellone, a Ph.D. student in nautical archeology, were named Tillman Military Scholars for the 2012-2013 academic year.
Cartellone, an Army specialist from Cedar Rapids, Iowa., could not be reached for this story.
Metcalf enlisted in the Navy in 1989 at 17 years old, but after five years switched to the Army. In 2000, he went through the Army's flight program and he's been "flying ever since."
In two years, he'll retire from the Army with a master's degree and a financial burden relieved somewhat by the foundation.
Family and friends established the foundation following Tillman's death in 2004 to honor his legacy and commitment to leadership and service. Two years before his death, Tillman put his NFL career on hold, turning down a contract with the Arizona Cardinals to serve his country.
"For me, it's a huge honor," Metcalf said. "I was a part of the recovery team. Their scholarship and the whole foundation is pretty big to me. I envy what Pat Tillman did when he gave up his football career and joined the military."
The events surrounding Tillman's death on April 22, 2004 were riddled with controversy.
Three years after his death. the Defense Department's inspector general released a report alleging the chain of command made critical errors in reporting his death, which led to inaccuracies, misunderstandings and perceptions of concealment.
Overwhelming evidence sustained that Tillman's death was caused by friendly fire, the report stated.
Cartellone and Metcalf each will receive financial support to help cover traditional study-related expenses and other needs such as housing, transportation and childcare.
The scholars program was established to support educational opportunities for service members and military families by bridging financial gaps.
Hunter I Riley, the foundation's director of programs, said the organization received 1,280 scholar applicants. Those were narrowed to 59 candidates who will join the fourth class of Tillman Military Scholars. More than $3.2 million in scholarship funds have been awarded to 230 scholars over the past four years.
"These scholars represent leadership in the military, classroom and community, and we're proud to invest in their education and support them in making a positive impact into the future," Riley said.
Texas A&M is one of 14 campuses serving as a Tillman Military Scholar University Partner for the 2012-2013 academic year. Texas A&M President R. Bowen Loftin said in a prepared statement that the university prides its record of attracting veterans and active-duty military personnel and serving them well while studying there.
"Our ongoing commitment to the young men and women who serve our country with distinction in military service is a natural extension of our proud military heritage," Loftin said.
Metcalf said he plans on using his master's degree in wildlife science to eventually become a game warden with the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife. Married with three boys, he hopes his continued path in education, even at a "late age," sets an example for his children.