A new veteran scholarship initiative will provide assistance for American heroes like Ray Dilworth ’18.
Cadet Ray Dilworth ’18 remembers the moment clearly: He was on patrol with his Army unit of the 1st Infantry Division in Afghanistan in August 2011 when a rock dropped from the sky and landed at his feet.
In a series of slow motion frames, the rock exploded and gunfire rained down on the men from three directions. The rock was an enemy grenade. It blew Dilworth off of his feet, forcing shrapnel into the left side of his body.
Pain flashed like fireworks as the shrapnel pierced his lung, heart, eye, arm and neck. The blast shattered his jaw. The battle continued as Dilworth lay bleeding, unable to see and barely able to breathe.
In that moment, caught between life and death, between enemy fire and pavement slicked with his own blood, Dilworth’s thoughts were transported more than 6,000 miles. He was thinking about the new life growing inside his beloved wife Mallory.
Originally from Bells, Texas, Dilworth joined the military in 2009 at age 18, married at 19 and deployed to Afghanistan at 20. He trained as a combat medic for scout reconnaissance, serving a 40-man platoon. On each mission or patrol, he traveled with the unit and provided emergency medical care, most of which involved treating gunshot wounds and blast injuries. “It was bad. Very bloody,” he said. Early on in his military career, he adopted the mantra “improvise, adapt and overcome.” No matter the challenge, Dilworth prided himself on finding a way to complete his mission. Through ingenuity or sheer force of will, he was a man who got things done.
After the attack, the mantra became even more important as he spent seven months recovering in Fort Knox, Kentucky. He endured hundreds of hours of surgeries and physical therapy, determined to overcome pain and physical limitations to regain full use of his body.
Despite his worst fears, Dilworth was present when his daughter Edyn was born in Fort Knox seven months after the attack. Four days later, he was back to work and headed to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, with a newfound ambition. Grateful to be alive, Dilworth decided that when he retired, he wanted to do it as a colonel. But to do that, he needed more education and experience.
He began by successfully completing the U.S. Army Airborne School and the U.S. Army Special Forces Qualification Course. He then attended several additional schools and became a special forces communications sergeant, earning “Green Beret” status in October 2013.
To earn special forces certification, soldiers must have intelligence, two years of outstanding service, high motivation and grit. Special forces soldiers train in unconventional warfare and receive language and cultural training that makes them more effective in the field. They are deployed for foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, counter-terrorism, search and rescue, hostage rescue, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping and other specialized operations. Their motto is “De Oppresso Liber” or “To Free the Oppressed.”
In other words, “We help the little guy,” he said proudly.
Dilworth didn't stop there. He went on to serve with the 1st Special Forces Group at Fort Lewis, Washington, and then completed U.S. Army Ranger School in 2014.
Ranger School is among the most physically, mentally and emotionally challenging programs in the military. Dilworth admits it was hard, but after all of the other obstacles he’d overcome, he was more than prepared. “I knew what my body could withstand,” he said. Despite the shrapnel that remains in his chest and numbness in his arm from permanent nerve damage, Dilworth’s body didn’t quit. Neither did he.
One year after he completed Ranger School, Dilworth felt pulled to a new calling: it was time for him to complete his degree. Today, he is one of the more than 1,100 veterans who call Texas A&M University home. Thanks to a new scholarship initiative for heroes like him, more veterans than ever will be able to complete their degrees and find success in the military and civilian worlds.
Dilworth is participating in the Army’s Green to Gold program, taking a break from active duty service to complete a bachelor’s degree. When he commissions, he will be that much closer to his career goal: he will be an officer, leading a platoon of 40 soldiers.
The transition from soldier to student has been challenging, especially since Dilworth is a first-generation student. “The military is very straightforward about your responsibilities,” he said. “But the civilian world is more unspecific and relaxed. It’s sometimes hard to figure out what your job is and how to do it.” This fall, Dilworth will start his second year as an animal science major. He is a member of Delta Company in the Corps of Cadets, a unit specifically for combat veterans, where he serves as a mentor for the Rudder’s Ranger Platoon, training cadets to successfully complete Ranger School. “I enjoy it because they’re eager to learn,” he said.
Time management was one unexpected challenge. As a soldier, Dilworth was concerned with day-to-day operations, staying present in the moment in order to survive and complete missions. As a student, he must think about daily work and focus on the bigger picture—term papers, finals and semester-long projects. Acquiring such mental focus has proved tougher than scaling a brick wall with a full rucksack. Even more difficult was the one thing most soldiers will do anything to avoid: asking for help.
Dilworth was paired with a mentor through Texas A&M’s Veteran Resource and Support Center (VRSC), a department within the Division of Student Affairs, who helped him navigate his new mission as a student. That guidance has been essential, but a different kind of help was also desperately needed: assistance paying for college.
Dilworth receives support from the GI Bill, but funding his college education with all of its hidden costs has been another challenge. Books, uniforms, parking passes and other small expenses add up, and it’s been difficult translating his expert military skills into meaningful part-time work in the civilian world. He and Mallory also had the added burden of childcare costs. Mallory has chosen to stay home with four-year-old Edyn and their one-year-old son Sage, but depending on a single income has stretched the family’s budget even more.
“Most people believe that veterans do not finish their college degrees because of mental stresses placed upon them, but in many cases the financial challenges force them on another path,” said Retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Jerry Smith ’82, director of the VRSC. “We are determined to lessen that burden and make Texas A&M even more veteran-friendly through private financial support.”
At Texas A&M, student veteran enrollment increases every year. Most are unable to finish their degree within the 36-month GI Bill limitation, increasing the need for private financial support.
Answering that call, Don and Ellie Knauss are among the first to endow a Freedom Scholarship, the highest of three tiers of veteran scholarship support in a new initiative outlined by the VRSC. Freedom Scholarships may be endowed through the Texas A&M Foundation with a $100,000 gift, but Don and Ellie chose to create a $200,000 endowment to impact more student veterans sooner. Their endowment will provide $4,000 annual stipends to veterans or deserving students who are spouses of veterans pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree.
Dilworth is extremely grateful to be the first recipient of the Knausses’ generosity.
“The Freedom Scholarship is the first scholarship at Texas A&M that can be awarded to veterans or their spouses, and it is the gold standard of financial aid for veterans in need,” Smith said, noting that approximately 50 percent of Texas A&M student veterans are married and that many have spouses taking courses simultaneously. “This scholarship will assist students who demonstrate exceptional leadership and sacrifice.”
Patriot Scholarships, the second tier of veteran scholarship support, can be funded with a $50,000 endowment and provide recipients annual stipends of $2,000. Honor Scholarships are the third option, which require a $25,000 endowment and provide recipients $1,000 annual stipends. All veteran scholarships are payable over a five-year period.
With approximately 250 new student veterans expected this year and an increasing number of enrolled spouses, the number of scholarships must increase to accommodate the financial need of Aggies who have served. Smith hopes to endow at least 150 veteran scholarships over the next three years. “Anyone who has had to write their blood type on their boot in the service of our nation should not have their academic pursuits obstructed due to financial needs,” he said.
Don and Ellie Knauss are Aggie parents: their son Jack graduated in 2010. Don's career began with the Marines and continued with several high-profile positions in marketing and management. He spoke to Texas A&M cadets and business students several times about leadership while Jack was a student, and recalled one lecture he gave in which a Purple Heart recipient attentively took notes in the front row.
“When you’re talking to veterans you think, ‘Who else would you rather have get a fair chance at an education than those who have provided that level of service to their country?’” said Don. “It’s a pretty emotional thing. If anyone deserves a chance to complete their education and realize their potential, it’s these people.”
Ellie echoed his sentiments. “Scholarships are just one way to relieve some of the stress of returning after service,” she said. “Our strategy is to help people get the education they need, which is the key to getting people on their feet and contributing to society. We teach them to fish, not give them fish.”
After four years in the military, Don worked in brand management for Procter and Gamble (where he and Ellie met). He went on to serve as president of Coca-Cola South Africa and then North America before moving to a CEO position with The Clorox Co. Today he is semi-retired and serves on the boards of three public companies.
Like Mallory Dilworth, Ellie’s focus has been on her family. Now with four grown children, Ellie spends much of her time on philanthropic efforts related to education and healthcare.
“It seems to us that one of the really great needs out there is to help veterans, who often leave school because they don’t have the financial resources necessary to complete their education,” Ellie said. “If you want to address broad societal issues of social justice, education is the key.”
The military is a small and close-knit community, both Dilworth and Don Knauss stressed. Carrying the fallen and looking after your fellow soldier is part of the culture of that community—just as it is for Aggies. “A U.S. Marine Corps veteran is my donor, and someday I want to follow his example by paying it forward to another Aggie veteran,” said Dilworth. “This scholarship gift has inspired me.”
With enrollment in the Corps on the rise, it is imperative that we continue to offer more and larger scholarship stipends to current and prospective cadets. We also hope to raise 150 scholarships for student veterans by 2019. Endowed scholarships can be established with gifts of $25,000, $50,000, and $100,000.