Army Spc. Jake Brown faced a tough future in 2002 after his Humvee crashed head on with a tank during a training accident overseas, shattering one wrist and crushing his spleen. Twenty-six surgeries later, the 20-year-old was ready to return home to Danville.
When Mike Conklin, a realtor and father of three sons who knew Brown, heard that the young man had no support system locally, he gathered business associates and asked who would help. Every person in the room raised a hand, Conklin recalls.
Conklin traveled to Walter Reed hospital in April 2003 to learn more about the needs of wounded soldiers. His oldest son Kris, an Army Ranger, was wounded in Iraq in 2003, and Conklin was impressed by the care his son received.
"The visit to Walter Reed was a real eye-opener," Conklin said.
Busloads of soldiers were arriving, with missing limbs, brain injuries, burns and other life-altering wounds. Conklin knew he had to help, and the Sentinels of Freedom was born, to welcome recovering wounded servicemen and women into the community with housing, jobs and education to help them become self-sufficient.
"They serve us, and when they come home and they're broken and bent, it's our turn to help them on the road to success," said Conklin, 59, a San Ramon resident. "The (Department of Veterans Affairs) is good at a lot of things, but it's not very personal."
Due to cutting-edge medical care, more severely wounded are coming home than any other time in history and are faced with the challenges of putting their lives back together, Conklin noted. He believes that communities and corporations must do their part to help.
"We want to focus on the investment and the potential of these young men. We don't focus on their injury," Conklin said.
The Sentinels carefully pick recipients for their attitude and aptitude, extensively interviewing them as well as their commanders, doctors and families. Recipients' "life scholarships" usually last four years, as they work, study and adjust to civilian life.
"Reality hits them in face," Conklin explained. "Every day in the military they were told when to get up, when to go to bed, when to eat. (In the civilian world) it's a lot tougher, especially with a physical disability."
A doctor, lawyer, financial planner, career counselor and a recently retired soldier all help with the transition.
"People started to volunteer their time to advise them, to develop a close personal relationship," Conklin said.
Since 2003, Conklin and his foundation have assisted more than 100 veterans along with the 15 or so who have received full scholarships.
"Now we're starting to see guys who have been out in the work force, and they still stay in close contact," Conklin said. "Which is why it is called a 'life scholarship' -- we don't lose that connection."
Jay Wilkerson was helped by the people and city of Pleasanton.
"He had a brain injury and an injury in his eye," Conklin said. "They nursed him back, the city gave him a job, he went to school and just did great. He was able, after four years, to save money and buy a home in Savannah. He just needed to get his self-confidence back. He's a wonderful, wonderful young man."
Brown, now 31, has earned bachelor's and master's degrees from California State University, East Bay and reported, "I now have a fulfilling job and am grateful to be alive."
The Sentinels of Freedom, whose small staff works out of an office in San Ramon, went national in 2007; now there are teams in 14 states and Washington, D.C. It holds two major fundraisers each year, a golf tournament and gala, and a bicycle ride. To help or to learn more, go to the website, or call 380-6342.
* Mike Conklin graduated from Monte Vista High School in 1972.
* Conklin was a longtime realtor with RE/MAX but is now board chairman and CEO of the Sentinels of Freedom Scholarship Foundation.
* Mike and Peggy Conklin have three sons and five grandchildren, ages 1.5 to 8.
* Although Conklin was never in the armed forces, his brothers served in Vietnam and all three sons were/are Army Rangers.
* Son Kris, 32, graduated from San Ramon Valley High in 1998 and joined the Army Rangers. His two brothers, Curt, 30, and Casey, 27, followed him. Curt is currently serving in Afghanistan.
* CNN named Conklin its Hero of the Week on Oct. 4. Find its video on Conklin and the Sentinels of Freedom by searching the CNN website.
* Mike notes that airports are emotional places: That's where we welcome home our returning loved ones but also where we say goodbye, never knowing for certain we will see them again.