2023 Pillars of Strength Scholarship Recipient
Cory Collins didn’t even know Paula on the day in 2005 when his flat-bottomed Humvee was blown up in Afghanistan by a roadside bomb, severely injuring him and killing all the other soldiers onboard.
It was Nov. 2. He suffered 62 broken bones, mostly on the left side of his body. A piece of shrapnel went through his left calf, destroying muscles and tendons while shattering his tibia. He also broke his back and his pelvis was cracked in half.
Cory was married with two children at the time, but his wife packed up and left after she saw what had become of her husband.
It was about a year after his injuries that Cory met Paula. She had been a military wife for 10 years. After her divorce, she stayed at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” she said of her attraction to him. “He intrigued me. He challenged me mentally and emotionally. I looked at him for who he was and the type of person he was, and that he cared for me for who I was, what I wanted and what I needed.”
Not that it was easy at first, she said. Cory suffered with drug and alcohol problems. He had suffered a traumatic brain injury and a bruise on his brain left him with memory loss and headaches. Doctors tried for five years to save his left leg before amputating it. Now he uses a wheelchair.
But it’s the brain injury, which no one can see, that is the most debilitating, Paula said, and it won’t get any better.
For years, Paula’s life was focused on taking care of her husband and their five children – two from each of their previous marriages and one together -- and working from home. She was the first person in North Carolina to become a Veterans Affairs-certified caregiver nearly a decade ago. But she said there’s a fine line between being a caregiver and being a spouse.
“Most people think it’s one and the same,” she said. “But if you don’t separate the two, you will lose sight of the love and affection you share for your spouse. They still need to feel you are their wife, not their mother.”
Cory encouraged her to go back to school. It felt daunting to her to begin studying again at age 47, but she pushed ahead. Two and a half years at a community college earned her an associate degree in graphic design, which she had always enjoyed doing. Then she decided she wanted a bachelor’s degree in graphic communication. She believed it would broaden her access to the type of freelance work and teaching she wants to do.
In her research on veteran-friendly schools, she discovered University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). She knew she couldn’t work full time and go to college. And the only way for her to succeed was to take only online classes. UMGC fit all of those requirements. However, the cost for out-of-state tuition was an obstacle.
That’s when she heard about the Pillars of Strength Scholarship Program, which covers full tuition and fees for caregivers of recovering servicemembers and veterans.
“I had never seen a scholarship for caregiver spouses,” Paula said. “It was the only way I was going to finish my bachelor’s degree so I applied for it.”
When she got the call from UMGC telling her she was a recipient of the scholarship, she was overwhelmed.
“I've been through a lot of struggles in my life,” she said. “And we’ve been through a lot of struggles together. I cried when they told me that I got it because I've never worked for something so hard and then actually got it.”