2023 Pillars of Strength Scholarship Recipient
Being a man taking care of a wounded veteran woman often takes some explaining, said Michael Vyas, one of the four men who were awarded Pillars of Strength scholarships for the first time this year.
“The first order of business as a man supporting a woman is to overcome everybody’s preconceptions,” he said. “You have to do that over and over with each new interaction.
Any time we meet someone new, they think I’m the one in the military, and if someone has a disability, that presumption carries over, too.”
Yet, he said committed men in a relationship have always taken care of women with severe health problems. It’s just a military thing. Even today with so many women serving, the man is supposed to be the veteran.
Rachelle and Michael went to Walt Whitman High School together in Maryland’s Montgomery County. While he was interested in her then, she didn’t reciprocate. Rachelle joined the Marines, and one time when she was home on leave from a deployment, a mutual friend got them together.
Altogether, she had been deployed to Colombia, Haiti, lastly Iraq for 17 months. All of her deployments had been frontline combat that took a toll on her physically and mentally. When the Marines wanted her to be deployed again, she decided she just couldn’t do it, and resigned her commission as a Captain.
That’s when Michael and Rachelle got married and now have four children, including one from a previous relationship for Michael and a child Rachelle had adopted who was only nine years younger than them.
The cumulative effects of combat caused Rachelle to suffer from PTSD, creating a range of emotional problems including outbursts of anger, flashbacks, anxiety and difficulty sleeping. It makes her hypervigilant and easily startled, even at home. Michael said his job has been managing her health care and appointments as well as maintaining a safe environment.
When they married, Michael realized he would have to work from home to take care of Rachelle. That was before Covid, so it took him some time to convince an employer, but now the flexibility is acceptable and essential.
Michael went to Towson University for a short time after high school, but soon dropped out after his first child was born. He set out on an IT career by taking a few courses and earning certificates. Starting on an IT help desk, he worked his way up to positions including helping the U.S. Department of Energy reduce its IT expenses significantly, and helping the U.S. Department of Interior manage its land and entitlements.
But no matter how good he was, he said, he knew he could never progress to higher level positions without at least a college degree.
“Literally everyone I am competing with has a degree,” he said. “A majority of them have a Master’s.”
With so many possibilities to study IT totally online, Michael was attracted to University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) for its range of technical majors as well as being able to complete everything without leaving Rachelle. He knows he will be starting from scratch to take basic courses.
He heard about the Pillars scholarship through the VA Caregiver Program that holds regular sessions to give support to people like him.
How Michael found out he had been awarded the scholarship is a story in itself. He and Rachelle were on a month-long road trip, seeing how close they could get to the Arctic Ocean by driving through the Canadian wilderness. That meant when he heard UMGC wanted to talk to him again, they had to drive around to find a town with internet connectivity.
“I was floored,” he said of hearing the news. “It was an emotional moment. It took some time for this to sink in that it was happening. I am just incredibly thankful and so excited.”
After that, they went back out to No Man’s Land, he said.