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Novas, the caregiver for her wounded-veteran spouse and upcoming 2019 UMUC student commencement speaker, said her mission to support extends to the family members and others who sacrifice in serving alongside service members.

Editor’s note: This profile is part of a series that will run throughout May in celebration of National Military Appreciation Month.

When Marine Corps 1st Lt. Cara Novas delivers the student keynote at her commencement ceremony May 19, she can relate to her audience as a military officer who has transformed her career with a University of Maryland University College graduate degree in cybersecurity while working full time.

But more importantly for Novas, she has done it with the additional obligation of caring for her husband, Junior, who had been severely wounded during two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

(L to R) UMUC President Javier Miyares, Junior and Cara Novas

Novas is one of the first recipients who, because of their caregiving duties, has been awarded a full scholarship through the Pillars of Strength Scholarship Program to graduate from UMUC. That scholarship, she said, not only provided her with the financial assistance to make her studies possible but also the personal support to know that people were standing by to make sure she could succeed.

She said she would tell her fellow graduates about “resiliency, the constant pursuit of personal betterment and pushing boundaries to overcome adversity, move forward and give back to the community.”

She will talk about the challenges she and her husband have faced in dealing with his injuries, and “how those around me have motivated and supported me by pushing my perceived limitations.”

Before she received the scholarship, she said she never thought she would have the time or ability to pursue a master’s degree. But the support that came with the financial aid changed all that.

While her background was in communication, she was intrigued by the relatively new field of cybersecurity and all the career opportunities it provides, as well as the opportunity to continue serving her country. That led her to complete a Master of Science in Cybersecurity Management and Policy. She is now practicing her new skills with the Marines in Maryland while continuing the arduous task of caring for her husband.

Her degree, she said “has opened countless doors and provided flexibility in job opportunities both within and outside the Marine Corps.”

Novas did not even know her husband to be when he was shot in the shoulder in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province after already suffering a major concussion in Iraq’s Anbar Province when his vehicle was struck by an Improvised Explosive Device. In all, he had served three combat tours.

She was a 20-year-old college sophomore getting set to head out for two years studying abroad when a mutual friend introduced her online to the 25-year-old Marine who was recovering at the Walter Reed National Medical Center.

The two communicated regularly while Novas completed her studies in Argentina, Brazil and Europe. And she came to depend on him as a lifeline to home, as a counter to the loneliness, culture shock and alienation she felt during her time in Europe and South America. In turn, he came to depend on her as he suffered the pain of recovery from both his physical wound and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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

The couple struggled for the next five years as she worked to develop an international consulting career in Washington and he dealt with the “frustration, anger, sadness, feelings of the hopelessness of endless surgeries, failed physical therapy sessions, sleepless nights, great pain and memory loss,” Novas said.

And then she surprised him with the news that she wanted to join the Marines. After her commissioning as a second lieutenant in June 2015, Novas was stationed first at 29 Palms, California, for her entry-level communications training and then at Marine Wing Communications Squadron 28 in Cherry Point, North Carolina,  as a transmissions platoon commander, adjutant and legal officer.

Novas not only has made it her personal mission to support her fellow Marines but also their spouses, families and others who sacrifice so much in serving alongside a service member.

“I think Junior and I are in a great position to serve, as we each now have the perspective of both a civilian spouse and an active duty service member,” she said.  “I dealt with many Marines transitioning from active duty to civilian life, as well as those being medically separated—some with Purple Hearts. Our collective experiences have allowed us to help them navigate the transition as well as provide resources.”

And in addition to all of this, the couple is expecting their first child in July.

“Exciting and nerve-wracking all at the same time,” she said.

Cover photo: Cara Novas delivering the keynote address to Class of 2017 Pillars of Strength Scholarship recipients at the awards ceremony and reception event, held June 28, 2017, at MGM National Harbor and sponsored by MGM Resorts International.