Pillars of Strength Scholarship Recipient: Lelia Cottner

Focused and Fearless: Veering into Cybersecurity

Lelia Cottner’s husband, Linwood, is an Army veteran of multiple wars, from Bosnia to Afghanistan. He is also a former servicemember with a long list of health problems, including traumatic brain injuries, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), problems with memory, arthritis, nerve damage in both arms, migraines and chronic neck and back pain.

Linwood uses a cane, wears hearing aids because of tinnitus and has asthma from exposure to military burn pits where toxic and other materials were incinerated. He also suffers from a litany of sleep-related conditions, among them sleep apnea, insomnia, narcolepsy, hypersomnia and night terrors.

Even as the injuries and ailments built up over the years, Lelia said, Linwood was not about to quit the Army.

“He comes from a family of military,” she said. “His father was in the Air Force, his brother was in the Marines and his sister was in the Army. He just wanted to stay in and be the one who gets the most rank before he left.”

He accomplished that by retiring as an E-7, a sergeant first class.

The Cottners now live in Kissimmee, Florida, where Lelia’s life is a revolving door of medical appointments—that is, when she isn’t helping her husband get through the basics of the day. His arthritis makes dressing and even showering difficult. Linwood’s sleep apnea and PTSD, with attacks of night terrors, make it difficult for Lelia to sleep, too. For a while, five grandchildren were living with them.

“Since our transition and relocation from active duty a year ago from Fort Riley, Kansas, my husband and I have struggled to establish a new norm for our family,” she said.  “The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated our challenges. I fight with caregiver burnout and depression. We are finding a way, day by day, to establish a new norm.”

With the help of a Pillars of Strength Scholarship, that new way will include a giant life leap for Lelia.

Throughout much of her adult life, Lelia worked as a cosmetologist, specializing in manicures, pedicures and nail art. The work paid so little that she gave it up to be a full-time military wife and mother. Even though it had been nearly 20 years since she last attended school, Lelia in December started studying at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC).

As she cast about for what she should do with her college work, online career assessments indicated she was best suited for something in the internet technology field or in banking.  Since she had no interest in banking, she decided on a degree in cybersecurity.

“My husband has a lot of IT experience. He does some software work and website designing. He would share with me what he was doing, and I was able to pick it up pretty fast,” she said. “So I told myself, ‘OK, it can’t be that hard.’

“There’s something about cybersecurity that I’m really drawn to and passionate about. I’m just not quite sure why yet,” she added.

So far, Lelia is maintaining a 4.0 grade point average at UMGC, and she made the Dean’s List for the School of Cybersecurity and Information Technology. She is working toward  a certificate in computer networking this summer with plans to complete an associate degree in December.

She is managing the coursework, but it has been a struggle to pay for her education on a tight family budget. When she received a call with the news that she was a Pillars of Strength Scholarship recipient, she was excited but assumed the aid was for a semester, or maybe a year.  

“That’s when they told me everything was covered for up to seven years,” she said. “I wanted to scream … but I didn’t want to hurt their ears so I didn’t. I just started crying, and I couldn’t say anything.

“I was just in total shock. I just started crying. It’s amazing,” she said.