AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- As the proud owner of three master's degrees and a doctorate, Chaplain (Lt. Col.) John Tillery has dedicated his life to service in the U.S. Air Force. While it may seem that those who have attained a doctorate are among the ranks of the elite and the privileged, Tillery has proven an exception to that rule. "People would think that with my educational background that I had been groomed for that," he said. "In fact, nothing could be further from the truth." Growing up in a violent and chaotic home, education was not something he was given the opportunity to succeed in at a young age. Throughout Tillery's childhood, his young mother struggled to raise him and his brothers, often with the help of violent men.
"I've been tied up, I've been beaten, I've been burned with cigarettes," Tillery said with pain and difficulty. "One (of my mom's boyfriends) was particularly violent. He would use a cattle prod just to watch us jerk around."
A cattle prod is meant to usher animals with jolts of electricity, but the man used the prod to shock the feet of Tillery and his brothers while they slept.
"To this day, I can't sleep with my feet uncovered," Tillery said. The man would seek the boys out to punish them, he continued.
"We would all scatter like mice," Tillery added. The violence in the house was so overwhelming that at times, Tillery would seek out even the darkest of places in order to escape the brutality. "There was this little place I would go, built into the wall there was a little door, it was our dirty clothes hamper," Tillery said. "You know that man never looked there? Not once. It was a perfect little hiding place for me. When I hid there he never found me -- ever. It was a place that was safe." Because of the chaos in his home life, Tillery moved to two or three different schools every year and didn't learn how to read until the third grade. Even then, he was placed into the lowest reading group in his class because he was still working at a kindergarten level.
"I don't have a single memory of my mom, or any adult, helping me with my homework," he said. "When I went into the second grade, I didn't even know my alphabet." Despite the challenges he faced during his childhood, Tillery was able to regain hope for his future through the help of his teacher in third grade. "I had never heard, 'good job,' I had never heard, 'good boy,'" Tillery said. "I had never heard 'you can do it, try harder, I'm with you.' Those are words I had never heard. And so, in addition to those words, the most important thing she gave me was a smile." With the support of his teacher, he moved up to the best reading group and became one of the strongest readers in his class during the four months he was at that school, Tillery said.
The violence and upheaval continued throughout his childhood and into his teens, but thanks to his teacher, he now had a place to retreat to during difficult times, when he couldn't escape to his hiding place in the wall. "What I found was that when I was around (my mom's boyfriend) or any number of men that would come in and out of my mom's life, that hiding place was not always there for me," Tillery said. "What I discovered when I began to learn how to read was that I could go anywhere -- I could go to Greece, I could go to Rome, I could go to outer space, I could go to the old West -- it didn't matter.
"One of the fixed features of our home was fear," Tillery said. "With reading, I could go to a safe place in my own mind. For me, reading is not just a pastime and it's not merely an escape either. It puts me in a place where all is right with the world, no matter what is going on around me." Because of his upbringing, Tillery said he was fearful he would also grow into a cruel man like the ones he had known all his life.
"All growing up, I knew I was going to end up in prison, I knew I was going to become drug addled, and I knew I was going to do some kind of violent thing," he said. "But I remember very clearly deciding when I was 11 years old that I would not be a violent man." When Tillery was 15, his philosophy was put to the ultimate test. "My stepfather got a branch -- not a switch, a branch -- and he beat my younger brother and (me)," he said. "We were literally bloodied on the floor. My older brother went to get the gun and threatened to kill (my stepfather) if he was there when he got back." After that, Tillery and his brothers left home. His older brother joined the Army and Tillery went to live with his girlfriend's family and soon after had a child and was married. Shortly after his daughter was born, Tillery's wife left him, and he was left homeless and impoverished at the age of 17.
"During the draft, Jan. 11, 1972, I joined the Army," Tillery said. "I wanted to go to Vietnam because, as far as I was concerned, there was nothing worse than what I was already going through." Even though Tillery had never attended high school or even earned his GED diploma, he was selected to be a Russian linguist. However, during his first several months in training, he drank heavily and was considered to be unreliable. He was booted out of the program and moved to the artillery career field. While in the unit, Tillery began to turn his life around. He stopped drinking, made friends and began attending church. "I didn't believe in God, I had no reason to," Tillery recalled about his childhood. "If there was a God, he wouldn't allow to happen to people what I saw happen." Though Tillery was a committed atheist at the time, his friend Myron began bringing him to church on Sundays.
"He was a person of faith, but he didn't push it on me ever. On Sundays, he would leave for church and he would say in the morning 'I'm leavin' and I ain't coming back to pick you up. If you wanna go, you go with me now,'" Tillery said, laughing at the memory. "Sometimes I would resist, but the fun was always worth the pain of going to church." "I came to believe in God," Tillery said. "I began to gain a larger, greater sense of purpose and hope and meaning, and most importantly, forgiveness. I was able to forgive others, and ultimately, I was able to forgive myself." As he internalized the lessons he was learning, he began to feel compelled to join the ministry. He had never understood the value of chaplains until visited one for grief counseling after a shooting death in his unit.
"It was then that I realized you don't have to carry a weapon to be a warrior," Tillery said. "That's something you carry in your heart, not in your hands."
He once again found solace in reading, this time in the Bible, a book that he had always disdained in the past.
"I have read the Bible numerous times, I have learned Hebrew and I have learned Greek," Tillery said. "I love all of the wealth that goes behind that, that's underneath that. The Bible gets embedded in your heart in such a way that it controls your life, so that you do the right thing as a way of existing, as a way of being. It's my guide." After his enlistment in the Army was over, the boy who had never stepped foot in a high school earned an associate's degree, a bachelor's degree, three masters' degrees and a doctorate -- and joined the Air Force's Chaplain Corps. He has since risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel and has spent 17 years serving his country as a chaplain.
When his time in the Air Force is over, Tillery said he plans to become a teacher. "I find that ironic," Tillery said with a smile. "A boy who literally could not read wants to teach others to read not just words, but life."