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 slick with his own blood, Dilworth’s thoughts were transported more than 6,000 miles away. He thought about the new life growing inside his beloved wife Mallory.
What if its a girl? He thought. And what if I’m not there to walk her down the aisle?
IMPROVISE, ADAPT AND OVERCOME
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 surgery 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, counterterrorism, 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.
Soldier to Student
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 is challenging, especially since Dilworth is the first in his family to attend college. “The military is straightforward about your responsibilities,” he said. “The civilian world is more unspecific and relaxed. It’s often hard to figure out what my 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 created specifically for combat veterans, where he serves as a mentor for the Rudder’s Ranger Platoon, training cadets to successfully complete Ranger School.
Time management is one unexpected challenge. As a soldier, Dilworth was concerned with day-to-day operations, staying present in the moment 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 is the one thing most soldiers will do anything to avoid: ask 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 he also desperately needed a different kind of help: assistance paying for college.
Dilworth receives support from the GI Bill, but funding his college education with all of its hidden costs has been a challenge. Books, uniforms, parking passes and other expenses add up, and it’s difficult to translate his expert military skills into meaningful part-time work in the civilian world. He and Mallory also have the added financial burden of childcare. Mallory has chosen to stay home with 4-year-old Edyn and their 1-year-old son Sage, but depending on a single income has stretched the family’s budget.
Serving Those Who Serve
“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. Many are unable to finish their degrees 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 fund an endowed Freedom Scholarship, the highest of three tiers of veteran scholarship support in a new initiative outlined by the VRSC. Donors may fund a Freedom Scholarship 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 gift will provide $4,000 annual stipends to veterans or deserving students who are spouses of veterans pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree.
Don and Ellie Knauss are Aggie parents who are among the first to endow a Freedom Scholarship through a $200,000 endowment.
Thanks to those donors who have committed scholarships for veterans attending Texas A&M:
Aggie Veteran Scholarship
Jean ’87 and Shane Phelps
William D. Allison ’44
Betty and M. Frank Thurmond ’51
Vickie Wood ’75
Aggie freedom Scholarship
Sherry L. and David M. Cordani ’88
The Knauss Family
Denise and Nolan O’Neal ’82
Aggie Honor Scholarship
The Dallas A&M Club
Shannon ’94 and Greg McCain ’94
The Class of 1961
Jimmie and Julie Phillips
Peter E. Gerlich ’73 and Susan L. Gerlich
Ray Dilworth ’18 served 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.
SPECIAL FORCES soldiers train in unconventional warfare and are deployed for foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, counterterrorism, search and rescue, hostage rescue, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping and other specialized operations.
the veteran resource and support center, a department within the Division of Student Affairs, is providing much-needed support for Aggie veterans and their spouses through a new scholarship initiative.
In June 2011, Raly Dilworth ’18 posed for a picture with a young Afghan boy in Bak, Afghanistan, in the country’s Khost province.
“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.”