Melissa Estes signed up for college courses in the spring of 2016, not to graduate but just to see if she could do the work.
She had been through so much since 2012, when she was deployed with the Seabees in Afghanistan. A roadside bomb wounded her while she was in a convoy. She wound up in a hospital in Germany and was later shipped back to the States.
She suffered from frequent migraines and slurred speech. Her personality and interests changed. The woman who had loved creative outlets, such as painting and writing, no longer existed. Doctors treated her symptoms but never got to the root of her problems. She walked around in a fog of pain medication.
This same woman, clear-headed today, graduated Thursday night from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College with an associate degree in criminal justice. Estes was one of about 1,100 graduates who participated, including at least one service member whose service dog joined him for the processional.
Estes has plans and goals.
What made the difference for her were a few people who stopped long enough to care — a new corpsman in her Seabee battalion, a psychiatrist and the professors at the Jefferson Davis campus of MGCCC who have taken an interest in seeing her succeed.
“I have that sense of purpose again,” said Estes, who is 38 years old. “It’s unfortunate that not a lot of people I was on deployment with could find that, the people that are lost. It’s a sad state of affairs.”
She can count eight military friends who have committed suicide since returning from Iraq or Afghanistan.
“They all have served on a combat deployment,” she said. “In my personal opinion, I think that’s a high number for a small area.”
Estes hopes to help veterans one day, as she has been helped. She is transferring from MGCCC to the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast, where she plans to earn a psychology degree and eventually work with veterans who suffer from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.
She was finally diagnosed with TBI when a new psychiatrist got her into the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, in summer 2014. They found three lesions in the front of her brain.
The four-week program at NICoE teaches injured veterans they are not the same person and helps them accept who they are now, she said.
The Seabees medically retired her in April 2015. She was unable to find even a part-time job. She said she wanted to do better for herself and her son.
As it happened, MGCCC’s Jeff Davis campus was just the place she needed.
“Everything I’ve done there at the JD campus,” she said, “is a direct reflection on the amazing professors I’ve had.”
One of those professors was James Farmer, who taught her Biology II and Microbiology. He had returned to school much later in life than Estes did — at age 49. He earned a Master of Science in environmental toxicology at age 51 and his doctorate in biological sciences, with an emphasis in microbiology, when he was 59 years old.
“I think me pointing that out to her gave her a lot of encouragement that she could move on to something better in her life,” he said. “Overcoming her injuries and being a little older wasn’t the worst thing in the world.”
Estes’ mother and stepfather, who live in Maryland, attended her graduation, as did her son, 8-year-old Hunter Wymore.
“I really didn’t think that I would be graduating with honors,” she said. “ I didn’t think I was capable of graduating, period.”
Class size: 1,100 participating; 2,265 earning credentials or degrees
MGCCC president: Mary S. Graham
Commencement speaker: Col. Jeannine M. Ryder, commander, 81st Medical Group and Keesler Medical Center
Quotable: “If we thought about who we would influence for the better, we would live our lives more for others rather than for ourselves.” — Col. Jeannine Ryder