MGM National Harbor to host June 27 ceremony and reception to honor 2019 Pillars of Strength Scholarship recipientsAdelphi, Md. (June 21, 2019)–The Pillars of Strength Scholarship Program has selected seven caregivers of severely injured service members to receive 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, parents or children--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 and the National Military Family Association in alliance with UMUC, the nation’s premier global provider of higher education to the U.S. military since 1947.
MGM National Harbor will sponsor a ceremony and reception for this year’s new scholarship recipients. MGM has a long history of support for our military service members and veterans, both internally and in the communities where they do business. The ceremony to recognize the scholarship recipients will be held at MGM National Harbor’s ARIA Meeting Room on Thursday, June 27, from 4 to 6 p.m.
“This group of scholarship recipients—just like the others that have come before them—embody a spirit of perseverance, dedication and courage in the face of incredible hardship and personal challenge,” said Richard F. Blewitt, founder of The Blewitt Foundation and the Pillars of Strength Scholarship program. “They have been there for their loved ones and we hope the scholarships will enable them to reach their educational goals and ensure a better future for themselves and their families.”
“Military caregivers selflessly dedicate their lives to supporting their injured service members, often at the expense of their own aspirations,” said NMFA Executive Director Joyce Wessel Raezer. “Through the Pillars of Strength Scholarship program, these Homefront heroes are able to pursue their own dreams and provide brighter futures for their families.”
Meet the Pillars of Strength Class of 2019:
Corie Bellucci (Warne, NC)
Corie Bellucci had met her husband, Gregg, in Hawaii—she with the Army as an MP and he in the Marines. She left the Army shortly thereafter, but he stayed a Marine, serving six combat tours—three each in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a convoy commander, he hit an IED twice. The first time he was blown out of his vehicle and hit his head. But his three fellow Marines burned to death. That caused him severe PTSD and TBI, but he stayed in the Marines. The second time he hit an IED he hit his head severely again, and that was the end of his military career, discharged with a 100% disability.
“He has seizures and blackouts and he forgets things,” Corie said. “It’s like having a 43-year-old with dementia.”
After raising their six children, Corie recently completed an associate degree in fine arts. She says she now wants to finish her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, which she began while in the military.
“I loved it,” she said. “I want to do something in law enforcement.”
Jessica Bitsui (El Mirage, AZ)
Even before Jessica Bitsui’s husband, Nathaniel, was injured while fighting in Iraq, she had plenty of experience as a caretaker. Jessica, a registered nurse, literally has made a career of taking care of others. But for a very long time now, she hasn’t had the luxury of leaving her caretaking duties “at the office.”
On December 21, 2004, while deployed with the U.S. Marine Corps in Ramadi, her husband’s Humvee hit an IED. The resulting Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Syndrome have become increasingly chronic and severely disabling. Jessica assists Nathaniel with all his daily living skills.
She also is the primary caretaker for their five children, three of whom have special needs—and one of the three has multiple disabilities. “My son, Nikolas, is medically complicated. It’s hard to keep him healthy.” Over the years, he has had 11 surgeries, and is on powerful medications meant for persons with the chronic lung disease Cystic Fibrosis. “So, he starts treatment as early as 3 in the morning and it doesn’t stop until 11 p.m.”
The demands of round-the-clock caretaking required her to step away from her nursing job. She said what keeps her going is “lots of coffee!” and what motivates her is making sure her husband and children receive great care. She hopes to build a new career as a legal nurse so that she can best advocate for others as well as her family.
“Having this scholarship will help me further my degree and help ensure financial security for my family,” Jessica said. “And it gives me also an identity outside of being a caregiver, which means a lot to me.”
Deborah Elliott (Fairfax, VA)
Deborah Elliott’s husband, Tommy, left for a deployment aboard the USS Kearsarge in 2010 to take part in Operation Enduring Freedom off the coast of Libya. But when he returned after a nine-month tour, the Marine Corps captain was a changed man—gaunt and in constant pain. Not until nearly a year of toughing out the pain did doctors diagnose him with Crohn’s disease, a debilitating intestinal disorder.
Surgeons removed several feet of his scarred and inflamed intestines. But the side effects have been debilitating. Deborah has not been able to hold down a full-time job because she never knows when Tommy will need her intense care as she also tends to her two children, who are seven and two.
“We focus all of our energy on keeping him stable and healthy and job ready,” Deborah said. “He is working now in IT. But at the drop of the hat, he can become very sick and be down for weeks.”
Deborah wants to continue on with her original interest in the Biology field. She plans to use her Pillars of Strength Scholarship to pursue a Master of Science in Biotechnology so she can prepare for a career in biodefense and biosecurity while staying close to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
“I want to have myself career-ready and capable of supporting our family once [my husband’s] body decides he can’t work anymore,” she said.
Allison Lambert (Peoria, AZ)
Allison Lambert’s Air Force husband took a bad fall, banging his head when the huge C-130 cargo plane he was flying in over Iraq suddenly veered after a rocket-propelled grenade exploded nearby.
Still, he was able to finish his military assignment and left with an honorable discharge. He got a job he loved in emergency management. But then his condition suddenly deteriorated. He began suffering from the TBI he had sustained and from PTSD, along with other related mental conditions.
“The main challenge I face as a caregiver is an erratic schedule, as mental illness does not have an internal clock,” she said. “I have been unable to work a traditional job for the past three years.”
Before her life was turned upside down, Allison had earned a bachelor’s degree in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology. She had worked in universities doing research and working with students.
“I lost a lot of what made me “me” when I became a caregiver,” she said. “I love science, I love learning, and I feel honored to be a recipient of this scholarship that allows me to continue with those things.”
Denise Naugler (Littleton, CO)
Denise Naugler is a “proud U.S. Marine Corps veteran, mother and wife.” She served during the war in Kuwait as an avionics technician—and she serves still as the primary family caregiver for her husband, Scott, a 12-year Navy veteran with service-connected physical injuries and PTSD, limitations that now have left him permanently unable to work.
“I have always been a caretaker and am glad that I can provide the support my husband needs,” Denise said. Still, it “can be difficult” raising a family—the Naugler’s have three homeschooled children—on a fixed disability income. “Each day brings its own unique set of challenges, but we are determined to get through this as a family.”
Scott has significant neck, back and leg injuries. But it’s the relentless strain of PTSD with severe depression and anxiety that came a whisper away from exacting the family’s greatest toll. In 2016, he nearly died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm, attributed solely to the PTSD stressors.
Denise believes that earning her degree will go a long way toward easing the heavy burden that Scott carries. During their 20 years of marriage, he always has been the primary income provider. “It is very hard for him to not be the one supporting our family through work any longer. This will relieve some stress and help with his healing.”
She plans to pursue a degree in graphic design, a long-standing passion that she put on hold to raise her family and provide Scott’s care. “It will allow me to develop a career that I can operate from home,” she said.
Winning the Pillars of Strength scholarship will help her achieve another goal as well. “It presents me with the great opportunity to raise awareness of what it takes to be a caregiver and help other caregivers improve their lives.”
Natasha Pickard (League City, TX)
When Natasha Pickard’s husband, Jeff, was shot by a sniper while deployed in Iraq in 2010, she said It was hard for her family to grasp their new normal. The bullet had severed Jeff’s brachial plexus bundle, radial and rotator nerves and he lost all movement to his dominant left shoulder, arm and hand for almost three years.
“Leaning new day-to-day operations to assist a disabled person seemed impossible. There were many tears,” she said.
It also was difficult to adjust to life beyond the military. Jeff had served in the Navy and the Army for a combined 15 1/2 years and took to military life. Natasha served, too, by providing 24/7 licensed childcare to ensure service members did not have to worry about their children while they worked or went to school—all while raising her own boys—9, 11, 16 and two now married with children of their own.
“You’ve got to make goals and move forward,” Natasha said. So aside from handling Jeff’s medical needs, she set her sights on helping him find renewed purpose. The pair became consummate volunteers—at their children’s school, with a local PONY baseball league. And she signed them up for the Wounded American Veterans Experience Scuba—the WAVES project.
Jeff, who had learned to dive while in the Navy, loves the water. “I saw how my husband benefitted from [WAVES] and I thought it was something he could have for himself,” Natasha said.
He has just certified as an instructor and the couple is opening a WAVES chapter in League City, Texas, where they now reside.
Natasha hopes a degree in health sciences with a minor in social work will help her build a career assisting veterans and their families with their post-military needs. “This scholarship defines so much for me. When you are a caregiver you lose yourself. I strongly feel this will be a fresh start and that I'm finally at a place where I can start doing something for myself.”
Sonia Yulfo (New York, NY)
Sonia Yulfo’s world was turned upside down in July 2014 when her father, Army Sergeant First-Class Luciano Yulfo, was severely injured in a mortar attack while serving in Afghanistan.
After initially being treated in Germany, he was moved to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. At Walter Reed, Yulfo said she saw “the strongest man I knew laying before me weak, vulnerable, and almost recognizable.” She had packed enough clothing for two weeks, but quickly realized that they would be there much longer.
“For 20-plus years he had taken care of me, and now it was my turn to take care of him,” she recalled. In that moment, she remembered thinking about everything her dad had done for her. “My dad was the one person who never asked for anything in return.”
SFC Yulfo spent over two years at Walter Reed and his daughter supported him every step of the way. She said: “Another day, another diagnosis. Injuries both visible and invisible—Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and a severely wounded left leg requiring multiple surgeries—his injuries literally stretch from head to toe.”
Sonia Yulfo has become an advocate for caregivers and was named an Elizabeth Dole Foundation Fellow in 2017, representing the state of New York. She earned an associate degree in Mental Health and Human Services and—through the Pillars of Strength Scholarship—hopes to earn a degree in Psychology.
“I want to work with disabled veterans and their families. I know it’s a struggle for caregivers and families to get the help they need and deserve. I’ve been there.”
About The Blewitt Foundation
The Blewitt Foundation supports military families experiencing severe injuries and invites financial support to assist the foundation in carrying out its mission for special men and women who are suffering—and who, with their families, have sacrificed so much for all of us. Our mission is based on the belief that military family members serve, as well.
About National Military Family Association
The National Military Family Association is the leading nonprofit dedicated to serving the families who stand behind the uniform. Since 1969, NMFA has worked to strengthen and protect millions of families through its advocacy and programs. They provide spouse scholarships, camps for military kids, and retreats for families reconnecting after deployment and for the families of the wounded, ill, or injured. NMFA serves the families of the currently serving, veteran, retired, wounded or fallen members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Commissioned Corps of the USPHS and NOAA. To get involved or to learn more, visit www.MilitaryFamily.org.
About University of Maryland University College
A pioneer in distance education since 1947, University of Maryland University College is a world leader in innovative education models, with award-winning online programs in workforce-relevant areas such as cybersecurity, biotechnology, data analytics, and information technology. UMUC offers open access with a global footprint and a specific mission—to meet the learning needs of adult students whose responsibilities often include jobs, families, and military service. Today, UMUC is harnessing the power of learning science and technology to deliver high quality education that is accessible, affordable and valued. UMUC is a constituent institution of the University System of Maryland (USM) and governed by the USM Board of Regents.
On April 18, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan signed legislation to change the university's name to University of Maryland Global Campus, effective July 1, 2019.
About MGM Resorts International
MGM Resorts International (NYSE: MGM) is among the world’s leading entertainment companies. With national and international locations featuring best-in-class hotels and casinos, state-of-the-art meeting and conference spaces, incredible live and theatrical entertainment experiences, and an inspired array of restaurant and retail offerings, MGM Resorts creates immersive, iconic experiences through its suite of Las Vegas-inspired brands. The MGM Resorts portfolio includes 15 of the most recognizable hospitality and resort brands throughout 27 locations. The company is expanding throughout the U.S. and around the world. The 77,000 global employees of MGM Resorts are proud to be recognized as one of FORTUNE Magazine’s World’s Most Admired Companies. For more information visit us at www.mgmresports.com