2023 Pillars of Strength Scholarship Recipient
Scott and Monica often shared a seat on the school bus in West Palm Beach, Florida. After high school, they went their separate ways—Scott to study environmental engineering at the University of Florida and Monica to join the Army after college.
While they kept up occasionally on holidays, it was not until they were in their thirties that they reconnected in a meaningful way. By then, Monica was already dealing with military-related injuries.
“What was empowering for me is to know Monica before her service and deployment and then become involved after,” said Scott Lynch. “You know it’s the same person deep down, but you also notice the differences.”
While at Camp Liberty in Baghdad in 2005, Monica was issued body armor that was not yet sized for a woman’s body. It eventually caused Femoral Acetabular Impingement, requiring major surgery in 2009. Post deployment, Monica was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia expressed as chronic pain and inflammation.
Not knowing the root cause, specialists at the VA Clinic in Miami began treating her for symptoms related to Gulf War Illness. Chronic pain and inflammation present themselves regularly. The VA established the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry (AHOBPR) in 2014 to help put data to work for Veterans through research about potential health effects of airborne hazard exposures. The AHOBPR includes Camp Liberty during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Monica joined the registry shortly after its inception.
Along with her physical ailments, Monica also suffered with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As the PTSD worsened, she finally broke through the stigma against mental health care and sought intensive psychotherapy through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
“The girl I shared the bus seat in high school was mentally struggling and could barely walk,” Scott said. “When I realized that sleepless nights, constant anxiety, anger and memory loss would become our regular way of life, I knew that we needed help. I was either going to lose the person I deeply loved or we were going to fight for recovery. We chose to fight.”
Over the years, the VA has given more attention to wounded women, he said. But more has to be done if the military is to continue to be strong.
“If we if we want to be the greatest nation on earth and carry this responsibility to have great military forces, then we have to grow these programs,” said Scott, who has been married to Monica for 12 years.
Scott first tried to keep up with the environmental career he loved, managing watersheds and natural resources from Hawaii to Florida while employed by local nonprofits and government organizations. But he soon had to give up paid employment to help Monica and to raise their two sons, now 9 and 12.
Most veterans and their families learn to manage disabilities, Scott explained, but few veterans with injuries improve as they age. In 2018, Monica battled through three surgeries: appendectomy, thyroidectomy, and hysterectomy. They took an emotional and physical toll. The pandemic also was stressful for the family, which was quarantined together with no work, school, or home life separations.
“One of the most important things I've learned out of caregiving is not the difficulties and challenges that we face ourselves when we're doing something for somebody else and for a cause greater than ourselves, but how do we overcome those challenges without letting it eat us alive?” Scott said.
That’s why he is so grateful for the VA Family Caregiver Assistance Program that he joined in 2015. A community of caregivers is powerful, he said, because members in the network help each other.
“You learn what you can give as a caregiver, and then how to fill your bucket so that you can continue to keep giving,” he said.
With Scott’s support as a full-time caregiver, Monica has been able to work as an attorney for the Department of the Army, moving from base to base including to Hawaii, Miami, Texas, Washington, D.C., and now Grafenwoehr, Germany. Grafenwoehr Training Area is the U.S. Army’s largest and most sophisticated permanent training area in Europe.
It was on the base that Scott discovered the education center for University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). Scott hoped an MBA would provide him with the tools and strategies he needed to build a business around the environmental work he loves. UMGC offers an MBA program that can be completed in 15 to 18 months.
It was through UMGC that Scott also learned about the Pillars of Strength Scholarship, set up specifically for caregivers of servicemembers.
“The feeling is just overwhelming, inspiring,” he said when he learned he had been named a scholarship recipient. “You exist in these spaces as a volunteer caregiver for so long you begin to feel a little lost. To be awarded something for your service and time is just an extraordinary opportunity.
“I was overwhelmed with joy and the feeling that somebody’s on your side and there’s a group of people that hear you, see you, recognize you and are rooting for you,” he added.