Caregivers awarded full-ride scholarships

Pillars of Strength rewards hidden heroes caring for wounded vets

June 22, 2018 - 1:12 pm

Six months pregnant, with a husband suffering from PTSD.  A high school best friend who promises to care for her broken warrior classmate after his marriage falls apart due to his traumatic brain injury.   An Army vet who gave up her own military career to become the main breadwinner for her family because her retired military husband suffers seizures from TBI.

These are typical of the hidden heroes who put their personal lives on hold to care for their loved ones who are suffering post-deployment.

These are also some of the amazing caregivers selected for the Pillars of Strength Scholarship Program for the upcoming year.

Six caregivers of severely injured servicemembers have been chosen to receive the full scholarships to attend University of Maryland University College (UMUC).  Pillars of Strength was created in 2013 specifically to help these exceptional volunteers—often spouses, friends or parents -- who have sacrificed their own careers to help their loved ones recover from serious physical injuries or psychological trauma while serving in the military.

Pillars of Strength scholarships are made possible by The Blewitt Foundation, in alliance with the National Military Family Association (NMFA) and UMUC, the nation’s premier global provider of higher education to the U.S. military since 1947.

“These six new scholars demonstrate exceptional courage and sacrifice in helping their loved ones recover from serious injuries,” said Richard F. Blewitt, founder of The Blewitt Foundation, in announcing the 2018 class. “Higher education can play a pivotal role in transforming their lives and helping to provide a path to a fulfilling career and a more secure financial future for them and their families.”

“Caring for a loved one through visible and invisible injuries isn’t a role anyone expects to sign up for,” NMFA Executive Director Joyce Wessel Raezer said. “Yet thousands of people answer the selfless call, often putting their own ambitions on hold to provide support when their service member needs it most. We are honored to support and recognize these hidden heroes.”

Since its launch, the Pillars of Strength Scholarship program has awarded 22 full scholarships to volunteer caregivers. Two recipients have graduated from UMUC, while three more are on target to complete their degrees in 2019.

Meet the Pillars of Strength Class of 2018:

Sasha Dunne was six months pregnant when her husband, Colin, was discharged from the Marine Corps nearly five years ago suffering from severe PTSD.  She never had expected that her young married life would revolve around caring for her disabled husband who had been the family’s primary breadwinner. They moved to Illinois to be closer to family but navigating the maze of regulations at the local VA hospital proved daunting.

“I spent hours on end, day after day, trying to figure out who to call, where to get help for Colin and for our family,” Dunne said. “After two years and hundreds of hours of research and tears, we finally began getting him regular treatment, and I started to believe we might be okay.”

Dunne said she had been forced to put her college career aside as the need to provide care intensified. But just lately, she has been able to go back to complete the 36 credits needed for a medical coding certificate and qualify for a job she thought she could do from home and provide for her husband’s care at the same time.

She was wondering how she possibly could pay for what she really wanted—a bachelor’s degree that will open the door to non-profit management and her goal of running a group to help veterans—when she saw a mention of the Pillars of Strength Scholarship and applied.

“I was just so excited to get the call,” Dunne said. “It is a huge relief not to have to figure out a way to pay for school to get my bachelor’s degree.”

Dunne already is involved in the local caregiver and veteran community through Hearts of Valor.  She volunteers her time to assist others in getting through the VA bureaucracy.

“I hope to be able one day to open a non-profit that meets the needs of veterans and spouses that I see,” she said. “I would like to help with dental costs, preschool and childcare costs, and relaxing retreats for veterans, caregivers and their families.”

Marie Gibson said she had just dropped her husband off for yet another medical appointment when her cell phone rang and she pulled over to take the call that she thinks will change her life: She had received a Pillars of Strength Scholarship.

“I cried on the phone,” she said. “I kept crying. This means the world for us.”

In January 2016, her Marine Corps husband was medevacked to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) where he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis with complicated perianal abscess and other inflammatory diseases.  In addition, he was suffering from depression.

With three children, the family has depended on his military pay and he is about to go off active duty. Now Gibson sees the necessity of finishing her college education so she can become a nurse. But at the same time, she must care for the many needs of her ailing husband.

“A lot of what he has is internal and mental,” she said. “I go day by day. When things go well I try to keep a smile on my face and be the supporter I’m supposed to be for him.”

She already is working on a UMUC associate degree.  This scholarship means that she can complete a four-year degree and meet her goal of becoming a nurse with a psychology background.

But Gibson said the best thing about the scholarship is that it will allow her to be a role model and highlight for her sons the need to attain an education.

“I want to teach them how education is important,” she said. “I want to be an example to my sons, not just talk about it, but do it.”

Amberlynn Heffron said her husband refused to admit how badly he was hurt during his deployment to Iraq in 2005.  Instead, he returned for repeat deployments—to Iraq in 2007-09 and to Afghanistan in 2010-11 and 2012-13.

Finally, in 2016, after being injured one last time, Heffron said he admitted to her—and to himself—that the time had come to leave the service.  He entered the Fort Belvoir Warrior Transition Unit in November 2017.

“While technically, I was not his caregiver until then, I have been his caregiver since he came home in 2006,” Heffron said.  “He had trouble with sleep, dreams, memory and more.  He has PTSD, chronic back problems, pain throughout his legs and severe migraines, as well as a host of other problems.

“The hardest challenge to me is seeing his body becoming older before its time,” she said.  “Not long ago, he ran every day, hiked mountains with a smiling baby on his back, and had energy to spare.  At times, he doesn’t have the energy to make it to bed; waking in the morning has become a struggle.”

Yet, her husband still has not officially retired from the military.  He is being examined by VA doctors to determine the full extent of the damage he has sustained and whether more treatment will allow him to stay in the military for the next five years until his normal retirement.

Heffron said her own upbringing had been difficult.  The daughter of heroin addicts, she coped with homelessness and foster care.  She still was the first in her family to graduate from high school, and she has two associate degrees, one in graphic design and advertising and the other in applied sciences in massage therapy.  Her interests have drawn her to want to help elderly people, she said, and she plans to use her scholarship money to get a bachelor’s degree in geriatric studies.

“They are my kindred spirits, veterans from the Vietnam era who are getting older before their time, who are getting cancer before their time,” she said.

She and her husband have a dream to work with the Serve Our Willing Warriors organization to create a campground based on her Native American heritage as a member of the Mewack tribe, where disabled veterans could relax and find care.  Heffron says the facility would have areas ranging from traditional tent sites to tiny houses and envisions a roundhouse for cooking and gathering, as well as a longhouse that would serve as recreation space for woodworking and metal working on one side and artwork, such as painting and sculpting and massage therapy, on the other.

It was this dream that prompted the organization to invite Amberlynn and her husband to serve on the organization’s board.

Maggie Keelty was a Marine Corps wife through-and-through for 14 years, raising three children during five moves and her husband’s three combat deployments.  “We were all very driven as a Marine Corps family. Daddy moves and daddy goes,” she said.

She had spent so much time volunteering with the Navy Marine Corps Relief Society that she received the Presidential Volunteer Service Award in 2016.

But all of that changed last December when Keelty’s husband was diagnosed with pituitary macroadenoma while they were stationed on Okinawa.  He was in and out of the intensive care unit over a month’s time before the tumor was detected. Now they are in Maryland as he undergoes treatment at Walter Reed.

“As my husband begins the transition to civilian life, there are many unknowns,” she said.  “On top of his new chronic illness, we are unpacking the baggage of combat deployments and active duty life.  We are still learning our new normal.”

While she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Baltimore in 2013, Keelty believes she needs an MBA to make her competitive in the business world. The UMUC scholarship will make that possible.

“This is going to help me in my field and help take the financial burden off of him so he can focus on his healing and transition from being a Marine to a civilian,” Keelty said. “My husband is very excited for me.  My 12-year-old son thinks it’s pretty cool that mom is going back to school.”

Justina Knoefler was not a military wife, but she is a veteran’s caregiver. She first met Curtis when they both were in high school in 1986.  They were good friends then, but they went their separate ways.

Knoefler joined the ministry as a praise and worship leader, inspirational speaker and songwriter—she made an album called “Sugared Dreams” (her second album is scheduled to be released in July 2018). She did concerts in the Dominican Republic to raise awareness about sex trafficking. She founded Grapevine, a ministry in Wisconsin, that helped people who were struggling emotionally or were in short-term hospice care. She had married and had three children.

Meanwhile, Curtis had pursued a military career for 21 years and was deployed twice to Iraq.  He also had married and had four children.

“With life and his deployments, I saw my fun-loving friend slowly disappear,” Knoefler said.  In 2006, Curtis was shot in the chest by an Iraqi sniper.  He came home on life support, and his marriage disintegrated after his family life changed dramatically.

Knoefler’s marriage had also ended and, in 2015, she moved to Maryland to be Curtis’s full-time caregiver.

“He needed a caregiver and knew I had a nursing background, and I needed a place to live,” she said. “Even though he went through struggles of his own, he offered me a safe environment and a purpose.

“He said I brought sunshine into his life. That’s how it started. He was patient and never pressured me into a relationship. It sounds hokey, but love came softly.”

Curtis, who suffers from traumatic brain disease, struggles daily with chronic PTSD, depression and panic disorder. He has many physical challenges resulting from multiple gunshot wounds and degeneration of his knees, ankles and back due to 21 years of service.

While the VA pays Knoefler for 10 hours of caregiving a week—even though caring for Curtis is more than a full-time job—she knows she is not marketable in the workplace without a degree to support her life experiences. She had started toward a degree, a double major in social work and psychology, and has been taking out loans that would be daunting to repay. Without the Pillars of Strength Scholarship, a degree would be difficult for her to attain, she said.

“For my family, this is a life changer. When you take away the financial strain, and you have an organization that says it believes in you … well, that’s beyond humbling.”

Lauren Warner had to give up her own Army career in 2017 to become a full-time caregiver to her husband.  He had been deployed about a year before they met at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, and began dating. She soon began to notice dissociative episodes that evolved into seizures.

When he was admitted into the Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic at Fort Belvoir, she had to become responsible for getting him to and from appointments and, eventually, had to drop work and give up her army contract. Her husband’s seizures happen two to five times a day, sometimes incapacitating him for most of the day. So, Warner carries most of the burden for maintaining him and their home.

Her husband was medically retired in December, also making her their main income producer. And with most of his treatment now at the VA Medical Center in Washington, DC, they had to leave base housing and move to Maryland to be closer to that facility, she said.

Warner has a bachelor’s degree from Penn State in English and journalism as well as a certificate in business management from Georgetown University’s continuing education program.  She seeks an MBA to make her more competitive in the marketplace and increase her employment options—perhaps to work from home or start her own business while caring for her husband.

“I think this [scholarship] is going to be a good way to solidify my ability to be the sole income provider for the family,” Warner said. “I don’t know how long the treatment process will be or if he will ever be fully healthy. This will take some of the weight off and alleviate his stress.”

MGM National Harbor will sponsor a ceremony and reception for the new scholarship recipients this year. MGM has a long history of support for our military service members and veterans, both internally and in the communities where they do business. 

University of Maryland University College is a proud partner of Connecting Vets.

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