BEVERLY, Mass. – Leadership. Relationships. Comradery. Those three words are consistent when speaking to current student-athletes and alums who have long since finished their days of intercollegiate competition. They are even more prevalent when speaking with student-athlete alums who have made the selfless decision to go on to serve our country in various branches of the United States armed forces. From active military both abroad and stateside, to now serving as a police officer while remaining active in the National Guard, Meagan Hillengas ‘09, Brian Harutunian ’08, and Todd Strong ’08 continue to protect The Nest in various capacities around the world.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW
Meagan Hillengas graduated from Endicott in 2009 after competing for the field hockey team for four years as a defender. Now a Staff Sergeant (SSgt) in the United States Air Force, she is currently stationed at RAF Alconbury in the United Kingdom with the 423rd Security Forces Squadron. Now entering her seventh year of service, Hillengas was previously stationed at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, and Aviano Air Base in Italy.
Brian Harutunian, a 2008 graduate who competed for the football team for two seasons, currently serves as a Captain in the Army National Guard and as a police officer for the city of Cambridge, Mass. As a Captain in the National Guard, Harutunian is the Commanding Officer of the 772nd Military Police Company where he is in command of over 180 soldiers. After starting as a U.S. Army Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) Cadet at Endicott in 2004, the Beverly, Mass. native was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division stationed at Fort Drum in New York upon graduation when he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. From 2009-10, his unit was deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom before then being deployed from 2011-12 to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. He remained on in active duty until he was Honorably Discharged upon which he immediately joined the Massachusetts Army National Guard.
Todd Strong, also a 2008 graduate, was a member of the baseball team for four seasons before joining the U.S. Navy, where he currently serves as a Lieutenant, Surface Warfare Officer. The Topsham, Maine native is currently in Surface Warfare Officer Department Head School as he prepares for his next job as Chief Engineer on the USS Bulkeley (DDG-84). From 2009-13, Strong was stationed on the USS Jason Dunham (DDG-109) where he served as the Damage Control Assistant, First Lieutenant, Helo Control Officer and small boat officer. From 2013-15, he worked for Destroyer Squadron TWO as the Material Readiness Officer and Staff Tactical Action Officer deploying on the Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) as embarked staff. During his service, Strong has deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Inherent Resolve.
“I lived overseas for many years as a kid and was able to really appreciate what it meant to be an American,” Hillengas stated when asked what led her to serve. “I was a freshman in high school when the 9/11 attacks happened and the tragedy of that day made me always want to give back to my country and protect my homeland and family.”
For Harutunian, it was something that he had longed to be his entire life. “I always wanted to be a soldier and a police officer. When it came to deciding on a college to prepare me for my career, I chose Endicott because of the Criminal Justice program, the Army ROTC offering, and to continue to play football,” he stated. “Some of my fondest memories from serving to date are protecting our country on foreign soil in Iraq and Afghanistan, and domestically during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.”
Strong’s desire to serve was in his blood. “It was a very easy decision for me to join the Navy. I spent the entirety of my childhood moving with both parents in the Navy as they both retired as Commanders. My brother is currently serving as a Naval Aviator as he is a Lieutenant Commander. There is an enormous sense of service in my family and it dates back to my grandfather serving in World War II. After graduating from Endicott and working in sports marketing, I went to Virginia to visit my brother. After spending time with him, I knew deep down I wasn’t going to be satisfied until I served my country as well. It quickly became a goal of mine to join the Navy and to perform to the best of my ability.
In corresponding with all three, it is evident that while playing intercollegiate athletics may or may not have played a direct role in their decision to serve, that the experiences they encountered while being part of a team correlate directly.
Speaking of how being a part of a team at Endicott helped prepare her for the Air Force, Hillengas immediately spoke to the discipline and accountability that comes with being part of something bigger than yourself. “The first thing that comes to mind is the discipline that I learned from playing field hockey for Endicott, and how that helped my transition to the military. Being held accountable by coaches and teammates is something that translates directly to the military. More importantly, though, I feel that the bond you create with your team is what I see most in the military. Every time we would step on the pitch, we all knew how important it was to be there for our teammates and to support them. The military has the same bonding requirements, only with some higher stakes.”
Strong drew a direct line between his time at Endicott to his current career in the Navy. “I believe that my success in the Navy is directly related to being an intercollegiate athlete. As a Naval Officer, you are expected to use your professional skills and leadership abilities to inspire the best in others. You are the leadership and management of the Navy. As an athlete, I was forced to juggle an academic workload and an athletic workload. As you get to be a senior at Endicott, you are mentoring and helping the younger players on your team get acclimated to the college lifestyle and helping them with that same balance,” Strong stated. “This is the same in the military. There are incredible demands placed on you while you try to personally qualify in your warfare area, but you are also expected to lead a division or department of junior sailors to carry out the ship and the Navy’s mission.” He went on to speak towards the physical demands of each as well. “As an athlete, you need to be in shape to play the sport you are participating in, while in the Navy, there are physical standards you are required to meet as well. I believe being an intercollegiate athlete prepared me mentally and physically for the military.
Following along the same lines of comradery that Hillengas had spoken too, Strong mentioned, “You cannot do anything by yourself in the Navy. You always have to depend on one of your fellow shipmates, especially when it relates to damage control. This is the same in baseball as you are on the field with eight other teammates and you depend on them to makes plays when you need to. I am a firm believer that the way I was treated as an athlete by the coaching staff is the way that I approach my junior Sailors. You want to bring out the best in them and see them succeed together.”
For Harutunian, while athletics did not directly make him pursue his decision to serve his country, his experiences on the football team and throughout his time at Endicott helped to prepare him for his military career. “Endicott as a whole helped prepare me for my future, from academics, relationships, and friends to the challenges and responsibilities. The military and law enforcement are both based on a network of challenges and trust that focus on mental discipline, physical fitness, professionalism, and most importantly, thriving in a team environment.
In the military, you need to know that the soldier next to you understands, trains, prepares, and will perform to the best of their ability. My time on the football team was the exact same. I needed the player next to me to make his block, tackle or catch to allow the team to succeed. All sports teams thrive on those principles to succeed. I believe that the most important principle that I have seen in both college athletics and my time serving, is the ability to deal with adversity, and possessing the fortitude to support your team, unit, partner or fellow soldiers to move on and face the next challenge,” Harutunian concluded.
THE FONDEST OF MEMORIES
As they continue to travel the world and serve, the trio cherishes their respective times at Endicott.
“My fondest memory of my playing days,” Strong recalls, “is the day we won the Commonwealth Coast Conference championship. I can still remember the look on Gavin Softic’s '08 face when he was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded to bring home the winning run. It was an incredible sense of comradery with guys that had become like a family. It is hard to explain in words, but playing 40 games in a little over a month brings you incredibly close to your teammates. Tom Warner '08 was my roommate all four years of college and is like a brother to me today. It is those long weekends on the field and in the dugout that leave lasting memories,” Strong concluded.
For Hillengas, she couldn’t pinpoint just one instance that she is most fond of, but rather, she looked back on the entire experience at Endicott. “I don’t think that I can really pick just one moment,” she said. “Every day was special and/or important in its own way.”
Harutunian echoed Strong’s sentiments of comradery, but also spoke more directly to one tradition in particular. “The team comradery is something that I will always look back on, as well as the relationships that have remained strong to this day. In terms of one moment, however, it would have to be the National Anthem before every game, and the feelings that come over you. Those are, without a doubt, my fondest memories.”
As we celebrate our country's Independence Day, the 241st in the history of the United States, we want to take a moment to reflect, and also say, "Thank you," to all who have served and continue to serve. We hold you and your service in the highest regard, especially those former Gulls.
(Photo Credit - Nick Grace)