Unique Scholarship Program Recognizes Volunteer Service of Family Members and Friends Who Care for Severely Wounded, Ill or Injured Military Servicemembers
Adelphi, Md. (June 30, 2021)—Twelve caregivers of wounded, ill, or injured military servicemembers were awarded full scholarships to attend University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). That is the largest number of scholarships the Pillars of Strength program has ever awarded in a single year.
Of the 51 recipients of scholarships since the program began in the fall of 2013, 13 have now graduated and four more are expected to join them by December.
“Pillars of Strength is truly a marquee program for UMGC,” said President Gregory Fowler. “It continues our long tradition of service to the military and aligns precisely with our goal of bringing education within reach for underserved populations, thus improving lives and strengthening communities around the world. We are so proud of this year’s recipients, so grateful for their service to injured and wounded military personnel, and so pleased to be able to support them as they work to overcome the challenges ahead and improve their own lives and the lives of those they love.”
“We are once again pleased that we have been able to expand the Pillars program even further with 12 more full scholarships to our great recipients,” said Richard F. Blewitt, founder and CEO of The Blewitt Foundation, which established the Pillars of Strength program in association with UMGC. “We are proud to remain the only program of its type providing full scholarships to the caregivers of our military heroes.”
The scholarships are designed to help volunteer caregivers, usually spouses of servicemembers. These scholarship recipients have had their worlds turned upside down as they take over day-to-day caregiving responsibilities while maintaining a household, earning income to make ends meet and, often, raising children.
The restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic made those challenges much more difficult. Among other things, they complicated the caregivers’ ability to be present when their servicemembers and veterans, who often had memory problems, visited doctors.
These caregivers receive few, if any, educational benefits from the federal government, yet academic degrees are often essential to their ability to support their families. UMGC’s fully online programs allow these students the flexibility they need to earn college credit on their own schedules.
“Caregivers give and give and then give some more… often losing themselves in that cycle of care,” said Besa Pinchotti, executive director and CEO of the National Military Family Association, a partner organization in the scholarship program. Providing scholarships to these 12 caregivers isn’t a gift, but an investment in the future of their families who gave so much to our country. It’s an honor to work with The Blewitt Foundation and UMGC who are making it all possible.
Melissa Allen, one of this year’s Pillars of Strength recipients, said it felt like a weight had been lifted when she learned she had been chosen for a scholarship. “I let out a huge cry and sigh of relief because it finally was like those bricks that were on my shoulders? They fell off.”
Although the specific circumstances surrounding each of this year’s recipients—all wives—were different, in many ways their experiences were the same.
They talked about how the “invisible wounds” of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder often went unrecognized while the servicemembers were in the field. These injuries also were not obvious to the public, and the caregivers faced critics who wondered why their husbands were not working. What the public could not see were the sleepless nights, the psychotic spells and the struggles to manage the most basic needs.
Caregivers married to men who were committed to their military careers said their husbands did not want to accept that they were wounded, ill, or injured, even as they were sent back into battle.
These women had to come to grips with how to help relieve the pain and psychological suffering of their loved ones while still raising children, working to support their families and handling most of the household finances and decisions. They had to become quick studies in disorders with long, complicated names. And they had to learn how to take care of themselves so they could continue to have the strength for their work and their caregiving duties.
The bureaucracy of the Veterans Administration often was overwhelming, many said. One recipient has gone to work for the VA with the express purpose of using her experience to make it easier for other injured veterans and their caregivers to get the attention they need.
“I want to help the veterans and their families in this journey, especially the new ones who are coming into the system,” said scholarship recipient Karen Lopez. “I’ve heard a lot of horror stories—how patients would fall through the cracks, how family members struggled to get appointments for their spouses. I want to make sure the gaps in the system don’t happen to them, at least on my watch.”
Here are the stories of 12 remarkable women who are setting off on a path to remake themselves and build the resiliency of their families.
Melissa Allen, Bloomingdale, GA
Elisabeth Baugess, Springfield, VA
Volha Butkouskaya, North Potomac, MD
Sasha Clarkin, Bayville, NJ
Lelia Cottner, Kissimmee, FL
Karen Lopez, Kissimmee, FL
Amanda Martin, Fort Bragg, NC
Connie Ozmer, Bonney Lake, WA
Lisa Shaw, Monroeville, PA
Anna Soler, Tacoma, WA
Alison Storemski , Bowie, MD
Elisa Zanni-James, Fort Mill, SC