‘No Lies. No Excuses. Never Quit.’
Purple Heart recipient, former UND student Tony Drees perseveres in face of adversity
In an event honoring Veteran’s Day, Purple Heart recipient and former UND student Tony Drees addressed the campus community on Wednesday, urging attendees to serve their community by “finding the thing you love more than anything.”
Drees’ presentation, titled “No Lies, No Excuses, Never Quit,” included a screening of his award-winning film, “One For All.” The event was held in the Memorial Union Ballroom.
UND President Andrew Armacost welcomed Drees back to Grand Forks, calling him “an inspiration to many.”
Drees enrolled at UND upon graduating from Red River High School as a 17-year-old, but dropped out after his first semester to enlist in the Army. A lifelong calling to serve led him to put his education on hold, he said.
“From the time I was a small child, I was very aware that I was likely to be in the military,” Drees said. “I was born on an Air Force base – an Air Force brat, as they call us – and I just always felt compelled to go toward the Army. I had a pretty traumatic childhood prior to that. There was a part of me that wanted to be of service, but also part of me that physically needed to blow off some steam in a constructive manner.”
Drees spent the next four years – the entirety of his first enlistment — stationed in Germany. He then returned to Grand Forks for a second stint at UND, participating in the university’s Army ROTC program and Ranger Challenge Team, qualifying for the national championship with the latter.
However, Drees’ time at UND was once again cut short.
“At the same time my team was going to nationals in Colorado Springs, I got a letter re-enlisting me into the Army to deploy to the Gulf War,” he said.
Then on the evening of Feb. 25, 1991, an event took place that would forever change Drees’ life.
Just nine days after his deployment to Operation Desert Storm, an Iraqi scud missile struck the barracks where Drees and his fellow troops were stationed in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The attack was the deadliest of the war, killing 28 and wounding nearly 100. Drees sustained severe injuries to his right leg, requiring 58 surgeries over the next nine months.
Despite doctors recommending amputation, Drees persevered, and regained strength in his injured leg.
“When I left the hospital, I jogged out on the leg they told me I’d never walk on again,” he said. “From there, if you didn’t know me or hadn’t read about my story, you couldn’t tell. I was big, strong, healthy – no one knew.”
After recovering from his injuries, Drees returned to Grand Forks and re-enrolled at UND. He later earned a bachelor’s degree in business management, and a master’s in management, both from the University of Phoenix.
Drees said his educational journey – which by his account involved “starting and stopping college seven times” – was informed by a lesson from his father.
“He told me, ‘Tony, what you have to learn to do, is find the thing you love more than anything. When you do that, you’ll get so good at it that no one else can be better than you.’ What I learned was, my seven attempts at college were me doing exactly that – every time I started, I would learn something else. I may not have been able to complete it at that time because of my life circumstances, but I also learned enough to make me want to keep going back.”
Drees tied his love of learning to UND’s Strategic Plan, citing the pillars of equity, discovery and service.
“Nowadays, the access we have to school is much more equitable than it was when I was a young person,” he said. “It gave me the opportunity to find the way in which I like to learn. Then I was able to discover my gifts. They happen to be speaking, business and the connection of people. I was able to discover that that is of great service.”
Drees has embraced a life of service beyond his military career. In 2015, he was involved in a campaign for the University of Phoenix that received recognition at the NAACP Image Awards, resulting in an initiative granting 40 full-tuition scholarships to underserved Black students.
From 2017 to 2019, Drees also served as executive director for Veterans Passport 2 Hope, a Colorado nonprofit. He helped the organization raise nearly $1.5 million, helping over 17,000 veterans and their families.
Then in 2015, 24 years after his initial injury, Drees began to feel ill. After consulting with physicians, it was revealed that the open wound on his right leg was infected. While he was under anesthesia, a doctor closed the wound, and shortly thereafter, Drees was diagnosed with cancer, requiring the amputation of his leg in 2018.
Despite initially feeling indignant toward his circumstance, Drees said the experience motivated him further.
“I’ve been doing this life of mine long enough, that cancer or anything else is not going to mess me up,” he said. “I’m not going to suffer, and I’m not going to stop doing what I was already doing. It kind of accelerated me, because it told me that I’m not invincible and that my time is not infinite.”
Since having his leg amputated, Drees has taken up skiing, logging upwards of 100 days a year on the slopes of Colorado, where he has lived since 1993. He said the sport has brought him close to his children, who are avid skiers. He also met his wife, Maria — a longtime instructor at Aspen-Snowmass Resort — on the slopes.
“I had skied years before when I was in the Army, just as a beginner – I had maybe two weeks on skis,” he said. “My sons are all about skiing. When I was sick, I took them on ski trips and stayed in the lodge while they went skiing. I had plenty of time to think and said, ‘after I get my leg cut off, I’m going to have a lot of time on my hands, and I’m going to take up skiing.’”