INDIAN TRAIL – Paul Belk says it’s hard to think of himself as a hero.
The 41-year-old retired Army National Guard soldier joined the military when he was 17 years old and spent more than a year in Iraq in the early 2000s. Despite his service to his country, the word “hero” isn’t something Belk regularly associates with himself.
“If someone says, ‘Look at that hero,’ I’ll be looking over my shoulder, saying, ‘Where?’” he said.
But the minds behind Sport Clips Haircuts’ nationwide Help a Hero Scholarship felt otherwise, as they recently chose Belk as one of a handful of veterans across the U.S. to receive a $5,000 scholarship to help further their education.
Belk was formally recognized at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Indian Trail Sport Clips on Wednesday, Jan. 8, hosted by the Union County Chamber of Commerce. The Indian Trail storefront, at 14039 U.S. 74, will celebrate its one-year anniversary in May.
Belk had been a regular customer at Sport Clips for a while and learned about the company’s Help a Hero scholarship program during one of his visits. From Oct. 14 to Nov. 11, 2013, more than 1,100 Sport Clips Haircuts locations nationwide collected donations from customers to benefit the scholarship fund.
Veterans seeking to further their education were encouraged to apply for the scholarship – a process that included a written essay. Belk felt it was a shot in the dark but decided to apply anyway, and was surprised when he was chosen as a recipient.
Belk always wanted to pursue a college degree, but the opportunity didn’t arise until later in life. He served in the Army National Guard until early 2009, when he was medically discharged. Belk suffered a massive stroke later that year that completely paralyzed his right side and caused cognitive damage.
As he strived to recover both physically and mentally, Belk decided it was time to enroll in college. He began taking classes through the University of Phoenix in 2010, working toward a bachelor’s degree in business management.
“Going back to school was a form of therapy for me,” he said. “I had done all the physical therapy I could do, but the mental clarity wasn’t coming back. Just pursuing the degree helped restore some of those mental (damages).”
Belk will soon officially receive his bachelor’s degree, and he plans to begin working on a master’s in business administration immediately following the completion of his undergraduate studies. The Help a Hero Scholarship will help Belk pay for graduate classes.
Belk hopes to use his degrees to run his business – IT’S-less Marketing, an advertising company – more effectively, as well as help fellow veterans through counseling and education. He’s actively involved in Indian Trail’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2423, providing support and insight to veterans filing claims, seeking veterans’ benefits and more.
“I help veterans who are trying to figure out how to deal with the bureaucracy of the (Veterans Affairs office),” he said.
Belk hopes his efforts to further his education can be an inspiration to his wife of 22 years, Rebecca, his children – Trevor, 18, Cameron, 13, and Savannah, 11 – as well as others, “that you’re never too old to learn something new.
“College is mind expanding. It opens your mind to new thinking processes … Now that I have an education, I value it, and I hope (others) value their education endeavors, too.”
Indian Trail Sport Clips owners Tripp Melton and Andy Morrison said simultaneously celebrating a local veteran the day they celebrated the opening of their business reminded them of what’s truly important about what they do.
“To have somebody in our own backyard the very first year that we’re open win this scholarship, it really puts everything into perspective, and it becomes more than an investment at that point,” Melton said.
Morrison, whose grandfather, uncle and cousin have all served in the military, agreed.
“The military, for me, is a soft spot … Anything we can do to help (veterans), we’re going to do that, for sure,” he