For a long time after her husband died in Afghanistan, Marie Tillman wanted to disappear. Losing Pat, her high school sweetheart, was devastating, but learning he had been killed by friendly fire in 2004-not an enemy ambush as the Department of Defense first reported-was worse. As the nation publicly mourned the Arizona Cardinals defensive back who'd given up an NFL career to become an Army Ranger after 9/11, his widow, just 27 years old, retreated into private grief. For a few years, she says, "I was trying to find my way-how do I live with this and not get stuck in the past?"
She chose to focus on other people's futures and not dwell on what might have been for Pat. "I didn't want to become bitter because of all that had happened," Tillman, now 35 and the author of a forthcoming memoir, The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss & Life
(out in June), says. "I saw that I had an opportunity to do something positive."
In 2008, after quitting her job as a sports-TV talent coordinator, she began working full-time for the Pat Tillman Foundation, a nonprofit she founded with his family and friends, and created the Tillman Military Scholars program to help post-9/11 veterans, active service members and their spouses get an education to pursue public service. "By investing in this community, it's really going to pay back," says Tillman.
To date, the program, which requires community service by recipients, has helped 171 men and women with tuition, childcare and rent costs. "The GI Bill wouldn't cover my expenses," says Lyndsey Anderson, 28, a former Army National Guard sergeant in the inaugural class of Tillman scholars. Anderson, who served in Iraq, pursued a master's degree in museum studies. "I'm working to develop programs for individuals with Alzheimer's and touch tours for the blind and partially sighted, and for students who have never been to a museum in their lives," she says.
Korey Calloway, 29, a retired Marine corporal who was wounded by a bomb in Fallujah, Iraq, and a two-time Purple Heart recipient, is using his scholarship to finish a graduate degree in public administration. "In Baghdad I saw people living in poverty with almost no hope of overcoming it and got interested in why disadvantaged groups end up the way they do," says Calloway, who hopes to be a legislative aide. "Marie has become a real champion for these men and women," says her childhood friend and fellow board member Benjamin Hill. "Pat would be proud."
Tillman believes he would be, and that Pat would have wanted her to "move forward," but she still struggled with one aspect of that: "I felt a lot of guilt if I would go on a date," she says. "I wasn't ready for years." Last April, just before completing her book, she met Joe Shenton-a divorced father of three boys and an investment bank director from Chicago-at a business dinner set up by a mutual friend. "We had this instant connection. I felt like he just saw me," she says, rather than the widow of an American hero. Shenton, 39, says the second he saw Marie he was smitten. Then a few hours later, he told their friend, "I think I'm in love." Soon, "we were talking on the phone for two to three hours every night; we just fell in love," he says.
By Labor Day the couple were married and in January welcomed a son, Mac Patrick. Today Tillman has found a comfortable balance being a new mother, stepmom and wife, living in Chicago, even as she is working with veterans who know her because of her fallen first husband. "The unlived life that was taken from him motivates me," says Tillman. "But I do it for me too. I like the work I do. If I don't make the most of my life, that's a tragedy too."
This story is one in a series that will run in PEOPLE in 2012 about the lives of recent veterans