Salute to the Sentinels of Freedom | July 4, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Cover Story - July 4, 2008

Salute to the Sentinels of Freedom

Golf tournament will raise funds to help wounded soldier get a new start in life

by Michelle Olson

Jake Brown was run over by a tank in Germany in 2003 while serving in the U.S. Army. After 26 surgeries, he faced returning home to Danville with no one to lend a hand.

When Mike Conklin, who has three sons serving in the Armed Forces and was working as a Realtor with RE/MAX, heard about it, he felt he needed to help. He gathered business associates from Danville and San Ramon in a room and asked who was going to join him. Every single one of them raised their hand.

That was the birth of the Sentinels of Freedom Scholarship Foundation, and the cycle of helping wounded soldiers with a four-year "life" scholarship continues.

"Jake Brown was my first inspiration," Conklin said. "We wanted to show businesses this was not a charity offering, but an investment."

Together they provided Brown a furnished apartment, a job with UPS, and a start to his college education at Diablo Valley College. Earlier this month Brown graduated from Cal State Hayward. The Sentinels are going to continue to help Brown so he can earn his master's degree.

The program to help wounded soldiers has now spread into communities across the country.

"The chairman of RE/MAX International called and we sat down and talked," recalled Conklin. He told Conklin they had a great model in the program and wanted to know why they didn't go national. Conklin remembers replying they didn't have an organization that could support a national program, plus establishing it nationwide would cost about $1 million.

"He, Dave Liniger, said, 'I have both and will assist you to set up the program and cover the first year's overhead," recalled Conklin. "He said, 'You lead it, Mike.' Without his offer we'd still be a local effort."

The temporary headquarters was at RE/MAX in Denver. Now the head office is in a RE/MAX office in San Ramon, where Conklin works fulltime as program director and president of the foundation.

To date it has helped 21 wounded soldiers start new lives in areas around the nation using a one-by-one focused approach. Seven are arriving soon in their new communities, and 25 are in the pipeline.

"They go though a severe vetting process," explained Conklin. "We talk to their commanders, their doctors, their families. We interview them intensely."

They must work at least 20 hours per week and go to school to earn their degree. The group has a partnership with Jones International University so they can take classes online.

The Sentinels of Freedom is hosting its first golf tournament at Crow Canyon Country Club on Aug. 11. The cost is $250, and will benefit the nonprofit group, which relies on grants and donations.

Joey Bozik, a scholarship recipient, is helping coordinate the tournament. He lost both legs and his right arm in Iraq when the Hummer he was riding in drove over a bomb.

"Here's a guy who has gone through so much recovery and rehab and still wants to help the next guy," Conklin said of Bozik.

Bozik was a golfer before he was injured and after moving to Danville two years ago, he got back into it at the country club. He encourages people to come to the tournament so there will be money for the Sentinels to lend a hand to the next soldier.

"The program showed me how to live my life," Bozik said. "I had to figure out how to live all over again."

The Sentinels moved Bozik and his new wife, Jayme, to a furnished home in Danville after he underwent medical treatment at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. The Blue Star Moms took Jayme under their wing to help set up their household.

The Sentinels matched Joey with a job at Wells Fargo and helped him with his college degree. He also received a specialized van he is able to drive.

Bozik plans to stand at the first hole of the golf course and personally thank all who partake in the tournament.

"It's a celebration to say thank you to the community," Bozik said.

Joey and Jayme Bozik said they have felt very welcomed by the Danville community but are moving back to North Carolina, where Bozik is originally from. They are expecting their first child and want to be closer to family, he said.

The organization has new teams stepping up all over the nation, including Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, Washington, D.C., Colorado, Arizona and Nevada.

They work with severely wounded war veterans who started service on or after Sept. 11, 2001. These soldiers, through medical advances, are still able to work and attend school despite permanent physical disabilities.

"There is no shortage of candidates, but there is a shortage of communities standing up," said Conklin.

To receive a scholarship, a candidate must have been injured in combat and be deaf, blind, severely burned, a paraplegic or an amputee. Also very importantly, the veteran must have a positive outlook on his or her future as a civilian.

"We shall never leave you, we shall never forsake you" is the creed and foundation of the program. Found in the Bible, it means once we help someone we will not leave them, said Conklin.

The scholarship provides rent-free housing, and sometimes a car, specially adapted to individual injuries, to help ease the adjustment to every day life. A doctor, lawyer, financial planner, career counselor and a recently retired soldier help support other aspects of civilian life.

"It's a case-by-case basis but our goal is to get the soldier learning, earning a paycheck and getting advice from the professional individuals around," explained Conklin.

"We have great corporate sponsors," he added, naming AT&T, Chevron, Cisco, Quest, Verizon, UPS, American Airlines and Sun Microsystems. The large corporations have training programs plus can offer employment.

"The homebuilders have been fantastic - Shapell, Braddock and Logan, Castle Construction, Clermont," said Conklin. "All have donated homes."

The latest local soldier being sponsored in the San Ramon Valley is Vic Thibeault, 26, who was injured in Afghanistan in Operation Mountain Sweep in December 2003. He was driving a vehicle for a counterintelligence team through a bazaar in Kandahar when a Taliban sympathizer threw a grenade in the window. It landed at the feet of the soldier in the passenger seat who was too loaded with gear to move.

"I reached down and grabbed it and put it on the center console," Thibeault recalled. "I didn't want to throw it out because of all the kids."

His left arm was blown up to his elbow, and shrapnel was imbedded in his legs.

"I got my buddy in another truck," he said. "He lost his right leg and most of his left."

Thibeault spent nine months at Walter Reed, where he learned to walk again with a badly damaged knee, and they were able to save one finger on his left hand. He fought to stay in the Army and to be assigned to another combat team, where he served until April of this year.

The Sentinels helped Thibeault move here in May with his wife Maleney and 20-month-old daughter Delilah. He is employed by the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District as support services coordinator and is thankful for the job and the Sentinels.

"In a lot of ways, they saved my life," he said. "I had no other opportunities going for me. They put faith in me and trusted me to do the job. No one else is going to do that for me."

Any community can start a Sentinels of Freedom team but they have to understand their obligation and commitment to the soldier for four years, Conklin explained.

They also have to understand the process and must raise funds and gather the necessary resources of housing, transportation, employment, education and a mentoring team.

Raising funds is a full-time job and the hardest part of the process because the organization does not mass advertise. Its members are quiet professionals. They practice point-to-point advertising, which works directly with individual businesses and benefactors to get funding. The local team hopes the golf tournament will provide a boost to its bank account.

The easiest part is getting the individual on track because the soldiers are always driven individuals who want to make it in civilian life despite their disabilities, said Conklin.

"The heart of America does want to help, they just don't know how," he said. "This program provides that resource."

Golfing for the Sentinels

What: First Sentinels of Freedom Golf Tournament

When: Monday, Aug. 11; gunshot start at 11 a.m., dinner to follow at 6 p.m.

Where: Crow Canyon Country Club, 711 Silver Lake Drive, Danville

Cost: $250

Information: Contact Mike Conklin at 242-9000 or e-mail