Pillars of Strength Scholarship Recipient: Melissa Allen

Pursuing a Career that Will Support her Family

When she married Scotty Allen, a member of the Army infantry, Melissa knew what she was in for.

Her father had been in the Navy. Both her grandmothers were military nurses and her grandfathers were servicemembers. Her brother was an Army chaplain. All of her uncles were in the Air Force, Navy or Marines. And she had previously been married to someone in the military.

Scotty joined the Army in 2004 shortly after he met Melissa. He thought it was the only way he could earn enough to provide the life he wanted for them. They married on Veterans Day, and he shipped out to Germany two days later. From there, he went off for his first deployment.

“I knew all too well, unfortunately, that there would be a different man returning home,” Melissa said. “He returned from that first deployment, just as I expected, a changed man. I knew my role was to support him in navigating his new normal and our new normal together.”

When Scotty went to Iraq in 2006 on his first deployment, it was extended to 15 months instead of the usual 12. He was in Ramadi—the most intense area of the Iraq fight—at the front line of everything, seeing the worst of it all. At one point he was even attached to a Navy SEAL unit, earning a Navy Commendation Medal. Along the way, he endured multiple concussive blasts; bullet fragments to his knee, shoulder and ankle; back injuries; and overall physical strain. He also experienced significant post-traumatic stress after the deployment.

Melissa said he would neither talk about what he had seen nor admit he was suffering. But she could see how much he was struggling.    

He wasn’t seeking out the help he needed, and Melissa knew she had to do something. But, after just a year, he was off to a new deployment. His second deployment was termed a “stop-loss,” an involuntary extension of his active duty. That meant he could not get out of the military or go to a different duty station.

“I knew his conditions were compounded on top of one another, but there was nothing that was happening to fix them,” she said. “I decided to go back to school and pursue a degree in psychology at UMGC while I was in Germany, with hopes of becoming a counselor.

“I wanted to be able to understand how to help—and what I could do to help not only him but possibly others,” she explained.

When he finished his second deployment, Scotty finally admitted that he couldn’t keep doing what he was doing, and he started transitioning out of the Army. Melissa became a caregiver as he struggled with a condition that only worsened. Not until last year –10 years later—was he diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI). For that test, they had to go outside of the VA system.

Scotty had kept saying he had the symptoms of a TBI, Melissa noted. He was mortared more times than he could remember. There were concussive blasts when he got blown back. But the effect didn’t show up on scans until his most recent one in October 2020. That’s when he was told he had severe TBI.

In the years after he left the Army, Melissa said, they both struggled with severe depression, he because of the loss of his mental and physical abilities and difficulty in finding employment, and she from post-partum depression after the birth of two children.

The Allens now live in Savannah, Georgia, near Fort Stewart. Melissa is a teaching assistant in the public schools. Scotty’s mental capacity has been deteriorating. As Melissa reaches out to the nearby military community, she finds now that she gives as much support to others as she gets because of her decade-long experience working the care system.

Melissa found out about the Pillars of Strength Scholarship after joining an American Red Cross organization called Military and Veterans Caregiver Network. She watched a UMGC scholarship webinar and decided to apply. She knew she had to get a master’s degree in teaching to provide the level of income to support her family.

She was stunned when she got the call saying she had won the 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,” she said.