Skip Navigation

EDITOR’S NOTE:  We officially changed our name from University of Maryland University College (UMUC) to University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) on July 1, 2019. News stories posted on the Global Media Center are now using the new UMGC name. However, because the transition to the university’s new name will take several months to complete, you may still see the UMUC name, logo and look on our website and other materials through early 2020.

As she spoke on behalf of the seven Class of 2019 Pillars of Strength Scholarship recipients, Sonia Yulfo could barely hold back her tears when describing how she took care of her father who had returned from Afghanistan wounded both physically and mentally.

She was barely out of her teens when her dad, Army Sgt. 1st Class Luciano Yulfo was medivacked to Walter Reed National Military Center in Bethesda, Maryland. His only direct relative, she dropped out of college and packed her bag for a two-week stay that grew to more than two years.

“Early on in his recovery, a nurse pulled me aside and said my dad needed help and it wasn’t the help that a medical team could provide,” she told attendees at the scholarship awards ceremony held June 27 at the MGM National Harbor resort in Oxon Hill, Maryland.

“He needed the help that only a daughter or close loved one could give. Since I was the only child, it was on me. I realized how much my dad needed me. For 20 plus years he had taken care of me.  Now it was my turn to take care of him.”

Pillars of Strength scholarships are made possible by The Blewitt Foundation in alliance with the National Military Family Association and University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), the nation’s premier global provider of higher education to the U.S. military since 1947. The scholarships go to the caregivers of wounded veterans and cover the cost of a full degree at UMGC as a way to honor their years of sacrifice tending to the veterans who had paid such a high price for defending the nation.

In his opening remarks, master of ceremonies Phil Zachary, senior vice president at Entercom, described Pillars scholarship recipients as heroes who may wish they were not. He referred to that “precise moment of truth when these men and women unconditionally confronted the need to act, the need to help, the need to heal, the need to unconditionally lean into the most daunting of scenarios.

“[Each is] the type of person who sees another person suffering and says to themselves, ‘I think I would like to commit every waking hour to making that person better.’”

Richard Blewitt, CEO of the Blewitt Foundation and creator of the Pillars of Strength scholarship program, said that a total of 29 caregivers, including these seven new recipients, have been given the opportunity to advance their education and that four already have earned their degrees.

“We found that caregivers for our wounded veterans receive little or no educational benefits,” he said in explaining how the program began in 2012.  “We focused on providing full scholarships from a leading university providing online capabilities with a history of working with the military and veterans.”

Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Families Association, said she is “inspired every time by the stories of the scholarship recipients.”

Yulfo said she remembers the pain of that moment when she first saw her father at Walter Reed. “The strongest person I ever knew was laying before me, weak, vulnerable and almost unrecognizable.”

He was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury and a severe wound in his left leg that required repeated surgeries. “His injuries literally stretched from head to toe.”

Yulfo, who has been working with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, a voice for wounded veterans and their families, said her goal is to complete her education by earning a degree in psychology so that she is best prepared to help other disabled veterans and their families.

“I have lived that life of not having enough help and having to deal with life and what was to come,” she said.

Also awarded 2019 Pillars of Strength scholarships were:

  • Corie Bellucci of Warne, North Carolina – Her Marine Corps husband, Gregg, served six combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and was severely wounded twice in IED explosions. She has raised six children while caring for him as he suffers from PTSD and TBI. She wants to finish a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice so she can pursue a career in law enforcement.
  • Jessica Bitsui of El Mirage, Arizona—She was a registered nurse before her Marine Corps husband Nathaniel’s Humvee was hit by an IED while he was deployed in Iraq. His PTSD and TBI have become increasingly chronic and severely disabling. She additionally cares for their five children, three of whom have special needs.  One of her sons requires nearly around-the-clock care. She plans to use her scholarship to become a legal nurse so she can advocate for other families as well as her own.
  • Deborah Elliott of Fairfax, Virginia—In 2010, her husband, Tommy, a Marine Corps captain, was deployed aboard a destroyer off the coast of Libya while taking part in Operation Enduring Freedom. After returning home gaunt and in constant pain, he was eventually diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a debilitating intestinal disorder. Deborah has not been able to maintain a full-time job because she never knows when her husband will need her intensive caretaking. She wants to pursue a Master of Science in Biotechnology to prepare for a career in biodefense and biosecurity.
  • Allison Lambert of Peoria, Arizona—Her Air Force husband took a bad fall aboard a C-130 cargo plane when it veered suddenly over Iraq after a rocket-propelled grenade exploded nearby. He suffers from PTSD and TBI, was honorably discharged, and began a civilian career in emergency management. But his condition, which suddenly deteriorated, fluctuates haphazardly and requires her full attention. As a result, Allison has not been able to hold a regular job for the past three years. She holds a degree in molecular, cellular and developmental biology, and plans to use her scholarship to expand on her education and return to that field.
  • Denise Naugler of Littleton, Colorado—A Marine Corps veteran who served in Kuwait, she provides full-time care for her husband Scott, a 12-year Navy veteran, now permanently unable to work because of his service connected physical injuries and PTSD—and homeschools their three children. She plans to pursue a degree in graphic design that she hopes will help her develop a career she can work from home as she cares for Scott and their children.
  • Natasha Pickard of League City, Texas—Her husband had been shot by a sniper while deployed in Iraq in 2010, and the severe damage to his left shoulder caused him to lose the use of his left arm and hand for nearly three years. After 15 years combined service in the Army and Navy, Scott has had difficulty adjusting to civilian life. Natasha hopes a degree in health sciences with a minor in social work will help her build on the experience she gained helping Scott navigate the transition and develop a career assisting veterans and their families with their post-military needs.