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At the time Junior Novas was shot in the shoulder in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province—after suffering a major concussion when his vehicle was struck by an Improvised Explosive Device in Iraq’s Anbar Province—he didn’t even know the woman who would become the mainstay of his life as his wife and caregiver.

But as the 25-year-old Marine was recovering from his shoulder wound at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, a mutual friend introduced him online to a 20-year-old college sophomore who was about to head out and study abroad for a year.

Now, seven years later, Cara Novas told a University of Maryland University College (UMUC) audience how she became first a good friend and then Junior’s wife as the experience of caring for him changed her life, giving it a new direction.

“I am thankful for the struggle because, without it, I would not have found my strength,” she said.

On June 28, Novas was awarded one of five Pillars of Strength scholarships given to caregivers of wounded veterans, which will give her free tuition to study for a master’s degree in cybersecurity.

The scholarship program, established in 2013, is made possible through a partnership of the Blewitt Foundation and the Yellow Ribbon Fund in association with UMUC, allows caregivers to complete the undergraduate or graduate education that will help them move on to the next stage of their lives.

“These five new scholars – like the 10 recipients that came before them – demonstrate exceptional courage and sacrifice in helping their loved ones recover from serious injuries,” said Richard Blewitt, founder of the Blewitt Foundation, in announcing the 2017 class of awardees. “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.”

Novas was the keynote speaker at the awards ceremony and reception honoring this year’s Pillars of Strength scholarship recipients. The event, sponsored by MGM Resorts International, was held at MGM National Harbor.  She spoke of how she was an uncertain college student readying to study abroad when she was introduced to Junior.

“We began chatting online, mostly keeping each other company,” she said.  “As time went on, the friendship grew. For him, I was someone he could talk to and someone who would listen . . . someone who cared about his well-being.

“For me, studying abroad was my first foray into the world as an independent young adult. The idyllic image of forging a life in a new country often fails to compare to the loneliness, culture shock and alienation. During my time [away], Junior was a constant that kept me tethered to home, giving me the confidence and freedom to explore my new surroundings, branch out and make the most of my experience.”

When she returned, they got together and found that they had a mutually beneficially relationship. It started as a joke and then it just became true.  “I’m your right side,” Novas said she told Junior, referring to his wounded arm with the bone loss and atrophying muscles. “And you’re my strong side.”

“It is difficult for me to stand up here and talk about the things that we have done over [the] seven years we have dealt with his injuries,” she said. “As you can imagine, the transition from an active-duty infantryman to a medically retired civilian was a large one. It involved frustration, anger, sadness and feelings of hopelessness.

“It involved endless major surgeries, failed physical therapy sessions, countless medication, sleepless nights, great pain and memory loss.  Nonetheless, we have made it through together.”

Novas had developed a promising career as an international consultant in Washington, D.C. But then she surprised Junior with a new career goal. She wanted to be a Marine.

“The decision was not an easy one,” Novas said.  “I needed to lose weight, train hard and leave the job that I loved.  It also meant months away from Junior and a lifestyle change that would affect us for years to come.”

While it was difficult for Junior to accept her decision, she said, he soon embraced it, working with her as best he could to help her train and to learn the Marine Corps way of doing things.

Since commissioning as a second lieutenant in June 2015, she has not only made it her personal mission to support her fellow Marines, but also the spouses, families and others that sacrifice so much in serving alongside a service member.

“Now with a platoon of Marines of my own, I am ever more connected with the struggles others like [Junior] have faced,” she said. “When I look inside of my Marines, some of whom are a mere 18 years old, I see the sleepless nights, the physical therapy sessions, the pain, but I have also had the immense privilege of seeing them at the height of their potential.”

Along with Novas, Secret Brutley, Hilda Buah-Mensah, Noelle Savage, and Rachel Williams received the Pillars of Strength scholarships this year.

Secret Brutley’s husband served in the Navy for eight years—service that led to an action ribbon and an honorable discharge.  But shortly after he left the Navy, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and a traumatic brain injury, conditions that cause him to suffer from attention deficit, mood swings, memory problems and frustration.

Brutley, who cares as well for their three children, ages 11, 8 and 5, reflected on the import of her enhanced responsibilities. “As a caregiver, I’m not only his wife. I am his memory, security and sensible thoughts. I am the foundation of the family.”

She said she plans to use the scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in either Cybersecurity Management and Policy or Homeland Security Management.

Hilda Buah-Mensah and her husband, Samuel, are both from West Africa, far from any family who can help them.  Samuel suffered a stroke while serving with the Navy in Japan and was evacuated to Walter Reed on June 1, 2016. After suffering additional strokes and a heart attack, he now experiences cognitive communication deficits, visual neglect syndrome and difficulty with the activities of daily living.

Buah-Mensah said that with the Pillars of Strength scholarship, she hopes to complete a master’s degree in Management Information Systems. The opportunity comes at a critical time for her.  “My husband will be retiring, and he was the main income earner and family’s support,” she said. “Now the burden is on me.”

Noelle Savage’s husband had planned to make the military his career until he was diagnosed with bipolar depression after a 2012 deployment to Afghanistan. He continues to struggle with severe post-traumatic stress and bipolar depression while recovering from two hip surgeries related to injuries he suffered during his military service.

Savage, who lives in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, with her husband and daughter, said she tries to balance her obligations as a wife, mother, caregiver and full-time student.  She graduated this spring with a degree from Liberty University in Health Care Administration and plans to use the Pillars of Strength scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in the same field.

Rachel Williams has been the main caregiver for her daughter, who suffered an injury during basic training but was not diagnosed and treated until she was stationed in Germany.  Her daughter has undergone more than seven surgeries and has developed a neurological disorder that doctors believe was triggered by anesthesia.

Williams, who has four other grown children, spent two-and-a-half years with her daughter at Walter Reed, but they are now home in Merrimac, Massachusetts.  She said that once her daughter’s situation is more stable, she would like to use the Pillars of Strength scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in psychology, which will help her work with her daughter’s recovery.