Caregivers Awarded Pillars of Strength Scholarships

For Sandralee Jensen, the decision to apply for a Pillars of Strength Scholarship that would provide her free tuition to complete a master’s degree at University of Maryland University College (UMUC) was not easy.

Jensen is the mother of six children, including a daughter with special needs, and has been the primary caregiver for her Army-veteran husband since he returned from Afghanistan severely wounded with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Taking on a rigorous academic program―even one provided for free―seemed too daunting.

“I deleted the application three times,” she said.  “I just had too many things to juggle.”

But, perhaps, in the end, it was a flock of geese landing in her backyard that made her realize that she could rise to the challenge.

Jensen described the turmoil of her life since her husband, Chris, was medevaced out of Afghanistan―how she had to uproot her family from Utah and come to Virginia while he underwent treatment at Fort Belvoir.

“I have felt like I have been on a rollercoaster, not on my own free will or choice,” she said. “I just got on the rollercoaster ride, and there’s no way to get off.”

She described the “soaring heights, plummeting depths and unexpected twists and turns” of the journey as she acted as “a cheerleader, an advocate, personal secretary, chauffeur, facilitator, exercise coach, treatment coach, stabilizer, record keeper,” and took on “the critical responsibility of financial provider.”

All she had wanted in life was to be a wife and mother, to help her career-Army husband get ahead as they moved from base to base and expanded the family.  After 30 years of marriage, she had felt fulfilled. Advancing her education was not something she had considered.

But now, she said, “finding balance and financial stability has at times been elusive.”

The rollercoaster ride wouldn’t end.

“There have been many times I have just wanted to get off,” she said. “Or I have felt we were nearing the finish line and able to get off the ride, and, all of a sudden, there was a big loop and a turn when we discovered new challenges that we needed to overcome and new hurdles that needed to be conquered.”

But then came this application.  The Pillars of Strength Scholarship is a combined effort of the Blewitt Foundation, the Yellow Ribbon Fund and UMUC that seeks out caregivers of wounded veterans and, in compensation for their sacrifice, offers them the opportunity to advance their education.

Jensen was one of five recipients of the scholarship awarded on June 8.

“To our knowledge, we are the only group awarding full university scholarships to the caregivers of our injured military,” said Richard Blewitt, who has spearheaded this program.  “We are proud to be able to play a small role in easing their burden while showing our gratitude for all they have done for us and our nation.”

For the Yellow Ribbon Fund, which provides support for wounded veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, as well as when they return to their homes, the scholarships are a missing link in the needed help for caregivers, said Dave Tarantino, the Fund’s board chairman.

“We recognize the central role that caregivers play―an often neglected role,” he said. “It’s astonishing to see it first hand.  We recognized the need and value and duty to have a caregiver program.”

And for UMUC, the scholarship weaves into the university’s fabric, underscoring its nearly 70-year history of providing educational opportunities for military personnel, veterans and their families, said UMUC President Javier Miyares.

“These volunteer caregivers are often invisible, their service to our country is forgotten or overlooked―except, of course, by those whose very lives depend on their daily sacrifice,” he said.

For Jensen, as the days ticked by to the application deadline in February, she pondered how she could take advantage of this opportunity.

“One day I had a conversation with myself,” she said.  “I just thought, ‘it’s February. I could go ahead and apply for this scholarship, because I don’t know where my life will be in August, and maybe [then] my life will be in a better place where I could take on this challenge and do the things I need to do to prepare for the future.’”

And she realized the circle of support she had, not only with her husband and immediate family, but also with her extended family that bears a long military tradition, as well as the friends and supporters who have been with her along the way. Now, she said, that support group includes the Blewitt Foundation, the Yellow Ribbon Fund and UMUC.

And that’s where the geese come in.

Her special needs daughter was being homeschooled, and she became fascinated with a flock of geese that had landed in the orchard behind their house.  Chris stopped what he was doing and he and their daughter started researching geese.

And what they found was a good lesson for caregivers.

“Geese fly in a V-formation,” she said. “The flapping of wings on one goose creates an uplift for the goose immediately behind. Flying in a V-formation adds at least 71 percent [more] to their flying range than if each goose flew alone.

“When the goose in front gets tired, another goose will take over the front position,” she said. “Geese will honk to encourage those upfront so they can maintain their speed.  Geese have strong affection for each other.  If one is injured, another goose will stay with him until he is ready to fly. They will fly together until they catch up with their group.”

So when the call came that she had received the scholarship, she knew she could do this.

“It’s not August yet, and I’m not ready yet,” she said. “I am still on my rollercoaster and trying to figure out the balance. But the support I have received from the Yellow Ribbon fund, from Mr. Blewitt and from UMUC has been incredible.  It has generated within me a can-do attitude. I know that there is going to be someone who is going to provide uplift for me as I go through this journey. It provides evidence of how much people care, and how much we can do when we work together.”

Now, she said, she is ready to juggle this one more thing.

“I would say to fellow caregivers out there, don’t worry about the burden,” she said. “Take a step or a leap of faith and trust there will be others who will be there to help you.”

Joining Jensen in receiving the scholarships were:

  • Terri Jo Yarnell of Iola, Kansas, whose husband was in the first Army unit to set foot in Baghdad during the 2007 surge. He was honorably discharged in 2008 because he suffered from PTSD, and Jo has been caring for him and their three children, including a 12-year old autistic daughter. She says the UMUC bachelor’s degree would allow her to work with the Veterans Administration to help treat other vets.
  • Valerie Gray of Elgin, South Carolina, has been caring for her husband since he was severely wounded in Afghanistan in 2011 when his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED.) He suffers from PTSD and needs constant care. And to add to her burden, their daughter was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in 2012 when she was three.
  • Jessica Brewer of West Lafayette, Indiana, had to fight with her Marine husband to convince him to get surgery for a leg wound and mental health treatment for his PTSD. The burden of giving care became greater when he separated from the military, prompting them to move with their daughter across the country to seek family help.  She is hoping a UMUC master’s degree will lead to a better paying job since her husband has not been able to hold one since sustaining his injuries.
  • Marli Jakubisin of Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, has been caring for her Marine husband for the past four years since he was injured by an IED in Afghanistan, resulting in an amputation, broken bones, burns, lung trauma, TBI and PTSD. During his three years at Walter Reed, she served as his sole support system, and when he returned home, her caregiver duties expanded as he dealt with his PTSD. To provide the care, she dropped out of Ohio State University and quit her job. She hopes the UMUC degree will allow her to get a job to support the family.