2023 Pillars of Strength Scholarship Recipient
David Williams was still struggling with the culture shock of moving from rural north Florida to suburban Maryland when his life was turned upside down. A series of incidents seriously affected his sister’s mental and physical health, and Williams found himself forgoing college in order to become her caregiver while also holding down a job.
Williams, the youngest—by far—of six children, had moved to the 800-resident town of Jennings, Florida, in his sophomore year of high school when his parents relocated to retire. He said he never quite acclimated to Hamilton County on the border with Georgia.
“It's almost all farmland,” he said. “The high school was primarily agricultural based. We had cows and chickens and emus around us. I stuck out like a sore thumb, and they made me very aware of that.”
That’s why, when he graduated, he was pleased to take up his older sister’s offer to move in with her in Gaithersburg, Maryland, just outside of Washington D.C. His sister, Brittany, was 11 years older, and he didn’t know her well, but he wanted to escape Jennings.
However, after years of dirt roads and open fields, he wasn’t prepared for a bustling metropolitan area.
“I had never been to such a busy area before,” he said. “Life in such a large city was more than enough to overwhelm me.”
Brittany had served 11 years in the Army as a combat medic. While she had not been wounded, she did suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a major depressive disorder that occasionally led to episodes that would affect her work. When Willams arrived, she was working at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center as an emergency medical technician (EMT) trainer. Williams found a job at Walter Reed and made plans to study at Montgomery College.
During a training session, one of Brittany’s students dropped her and she landed on her ankle, shattering it in five places. At first, Williams thought, “A broken ankle—how bad could that be?” Very bad, as it turned out.
“The accident left her bed-bound for about six months,” Williams said. “As a result, she became a shell of her former self. There were no effective methods for her to deal with her [mental health] episodes. There were constant nights when she would scream randomly and times during the day when she just burst into tears. Since she is an athlete who often used exercise to cope with depressive episodes and anxiety attacks, the attacks began increasing and happening more frequently.”
David became responsible for both the household chores and assisting his sister in her personal and medical care, including making sure she took prescribed pain medication. The nerve damage from the break caused some loss of motor function in her leg and hips. Pain kept her up around the clock but she feared becoming dependent on narcotics, even though the doctor ordered the medication.
“Naturally, her patience with me was very thin because she is a prideful woman who despises the thought of being cared for by anyone,” Williams said, “especially her baby brother.”
His college plans were put on hold as he worked full time to support the household while helping his sister and driving her to medical appointments. As their lives began to stabilize, he looked again at enrolling at Montgomery College. But he said the schedule for classes just didn’t mesh with his available time. He also feared that he couldn’t afford the tuition.
“I was preparing myself for acquiring some crazy debt,” he said.
That’s when he turned to University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). The online classes and affordable tuition seemed more within his reach. Then he saw a posting about the Pillars of Strength Scholarship, which pays the tuition, fees and other course costs for the caregivers of servicemembers.
“I thought there was no way I possibly could qualify for this, but a shot is a shot at any opportunity,” he said. “So, I threw my dart and luckily it’s stuck.”
When he got the call from Kelly Grooms, UMGC’s assistant director for veterans initiatives, that he was a Pillars of Strength Scholarship recipient, he said that he felt a huge weight suddenly lift from him.
“It was absolutely life changing for me,” he said. “How many years of negativity and darkness I had been through, including my sister’s negativity and darkness. I felt I had completely lost my way and lost track of what I wanted.”
Williams said his experience caring for his sister has inspired him to seek a degree in some area of healthcare.
“It’s exposed me to a lot of interests I didn’t know I had,” he said. “Granted it was very difficult, and still is on some days. But I felt that if I had this opportunity, I wanted to make that restart and pursue something in the medical field.”