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Claudia Escobar (Saint Johns, FL): 2022 Pillars of Strength Scholarship Recipient

Claudia Escobar is Managing Her Husband’s Cancer Treatments While Pursuing Her Education

Claudia Escobar’s marriage to Army Staff Sgt. Justin Langdo had barely started when he was given a cancer diagnosis that would turn their lives upside down. Among other things, the medical news meant they might have to live on Claudia’s salary alone. 

That was a daunting thought for a woman who had always dreamed of a college degree—and even started a computer science program—but did not see how she could afford to finish it. The news that Claudia is one of this year’s Pillars of Strength Scholarship recipients has provided the solution. She can now pursue, tuition-free, a degree program at University of Maryland Global Campus. 

Claudia, who grew up in Venezuela, fled her home country with her family at the age of 18. She left behind her dreams of an artistic career and a college education to become a refugee in the United States. Then she met Justin. 

Friends introduced her to Justin at a restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina. They exchanged phone numbers and soon she was visiting him where he was stationed in Fayetteville. They dated for more than a year—then suddenly Justin was sent to Italy for a tour of duty. 

They continued connecting through video chats. After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she agreed to marry Justin. But travel had shut down at that point, so they looked to the military for a solution. 

“The military offers a proxy marriage,” Claudia said. “You go through the process online, and you get a marriage license issued by the state of Montana through a notary. [The notary] asked if I wanted to do this, and when I said “Yes,” she made me sign a few things, and we were married.” 

They were together a couple of times when Justin was on leave but did not have the opportunity to set up a residence together.   

In October 2021, doctors in Italy diagnosed Justin with testicular cancer. He was taken to Germany for surgery, and doctors there found he had two types of cancerous cells. The medications he needed threatened his lungs. He also learned that he could not father children. 

“This news only added more pain to our hearts,” Claudia said. 

Justin was taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and Claudia joined him in residential facilities in order to provide what care she could. 

“I packed up the belongings I could fit in my car and made my way to Maryland,” she said. “My priority was Justin’s support and, as his caregiver, making sure our space in the residential facilities would accommodate his needs throughout his treatment.” 

Justin suffered from extreme mental and physical fatigue, she said, making day-to-day living “a massive challenge.” She took care of household tasks and scheduled his lab work, behavioral health appointments, infusions and other care. On top of that, she had to make sure Justin was not exposed to COVID-19. Some days he did not have the strength to even get out of bed. 

Justin is slowly recovering, but he could face more surgery, Claudia said. He has been able to maintain his Army career, but both know that a return of the cancer could push her into the sole breadwinner. 

Under Army regulations, Justin had to return to Italy to finish his tour of duty or suffer severe financial penalties, Claudia said. So, he arranged to receive medical treatment in Europe. When his contract ends next February, he will return permanently to the United States and the couple will set up residence near Walter Reed or another military health care facility. 

Even without a college education, Claudia had built a career as an office manager, IT specialist and customer service representative. As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down businesses, she became a Raleigh company’s only employee for a year. But she had always wanted a degree and, with a lot of work, she had accumulated 13 credits. But finishing the program did not look within reach financially. 

While at Walter Reed, she learned about the Pillars of Strength Scholarship.   

She said she was overwhelmed when she received the phone call with the news that she was a Pillars of Strength Scholarship recipient. Even weeks later, she was still emotional when talking about that moment. 

“I want people to know that the opportunities are there,” she said. “Dreams come true. There are people out there willing to help you achieve them.”