Soldier's Safety Net
San Ramon–based Sentinels of Freedom helps returning military veterans regain their strength.
Illustration by Jon Krause
In 2002, Jake Brown was driving a Humvee in the dark of night as part of a training exercise. As he was cruising along, peering through night-vision goggles, he was hit head-on by a tank. The 20-year-old recruit was crushed and spent two weeks in a coma. After undergoing a series of grueling operations in Germany and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Brown was sent home to the East Bay.
Luckily for Brown, Mike Conklin was waiting for him. A San Ramon resident whose own three sons have served as Army Rangers, Conklin quickly mobilized help for the young veteran.
“I called a meeting with about 12 business leaders in the area,” Conklin says, “and I told them, ‘I am going to help this kid find a home, get a job, and get on with his life. I will do this by myself if I need to, but I would appreciate your help. Now, who can help?’ Every hand in the room went up.
Three hundred people showed up for the first meeting, which began with a prayer. The team immediately got to work, with Shapell Homes securing an apartment, the Blue Star Moms finding furniture, and someone else chipping in for a car.
The help given to Brown turned out to be the start of Sentinels of Freedom, an organization Conklin founded later that year to provide support for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Brown, who is now 29 and a resident of Danville, said Conklin’s
help was critical.
“I was so stressed because I did not know what I was going to do,” says Brown. “The day after I got home, Mike took me out to the V.A. in Martinez to set me up with my benefits. [A few weeks later] he set me up with a job at UPS. It was a huge relief to be able to start working right away.”
With Brown back on his feet, Conklin sensed much more could be done. “I realized that we helped this one vet, so we could help another,” says Conklin. “I thought, ‘Let’s help the guys who have been injured the most but show motivation to move on.’ ”
Today, the walls of the small San Ramon office of the Sentinels of Freedom are covered with flags, medals, photos of young service members with their families, and letters of appreciation from Army General David Petraeus and Navy Admiral Mike Mullen. Any civilian who walks into the Bishop Ranch office can immediately sense that the people behind this grassroots organization truly care about the troops. More importantly, so can any U.S. service member.
Conklin’s commitment to the cause of helping veterans has some personal history. His oldest son, Kris, 30, enlisted in the Army Rangers in 1998. Curt, 28, signed up two years later, and the youngest son, Case, enlisted in 2002. As soon as Conklin saw the smoldering World Trade Center buildings on September 11, 2001, he knew Kris and Curt would be sent into harm’s way in the weeks that followed. Then, he thought of a childhood friend named Rodney Wilkins.
“Rodney was a really good kid who graduated from Monte Vista High a few years before me,” says Conklin, who graduated from the Danville school in 1972. “Rodney was drafted and sent off to Vietnam, and came back a few months later missing both legs. He was still nice, but he got kind of lost. Drinking eventually killed him. Even back then, I could never understand how a privileged place like Danville, with all these resources, could let one of its children slip through the cracks. No one from the town or the business community ever walked up to Rodney and said, ‘Let us help you,’ ” says Conklin, looking at the picture of his sons. “I thought, ‘We can’t let that happen again.’ ”
By 2006, Conklin and his small team of dedicated volunteers were helping a half-dozen veterans in the Tri-Valley. Then, the CEO of Denver-based RE/Max Real Estate contacted Conklin. The real estate corporation was looking to assist a veteran’s charity on a national level. Remax funded the Sentinels of Freedom for one year, allowing the nonprofit to set up support teams across the country. Then, the national headquarters moved to San Ramon’s Bishop Ranch, where it has remained ever since. Today, there are Sentinels teams in 14 states and Washington, D.C. As of January, more than 60 veterans were currently receiving assistance from teams in their communities.
“There is a saying that we use in the Army, ‘I’ve got your back,’ ” says retired First Lieutenant Doug Connor, 38, of Walnut Creek, who is also a scholarship recipient. “In the military, that expression means a lot. And I can say the same thing about the Sentinels: They have my back.”
Connor, a surgical intensive care unit nurse, returned from the war with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and developed problems with alcohol abuse. “There is a part of me that did not want to tell people I had been to Iraq, to just fly under the radar,” says Connor, who was matched with a team of Walnut Creek–based professionals and mentors for assistance. “What has been so amazing about the support we have received from the Sentinels of Freedom is this community approach. Some of the things that help us the most don’t cost any money. One member of my team invited my family over for Thanksgiving dinner. Another member offers to babysit our two kids so my wife and I can have a date night.”
The original recipient, Jake Brown, has similar appreciation for the program.
“Seeing how the Sentinels has helped veterans has changed my whole perspective on life,” says Brown, who now works as an operations manager at Sybase in Dublin. “To see these guys come back and have help—I might not have had help if I had not been hurt—makes me see my injury as a blessing.”
Conklin sees the work of the Sentinels of Freedom as a necessary gesture to the brave, dedicated veterans who have made enormous sacrifices for their country.
“There is a direct correlation between the quality of life we enjoy here and the sacrifice that our military makes to leave their communities and go defend our freedoms,” Conklin says. “In our community, we—parents, business owners, corporations—have a sacred responsibility to these fine young women and men. We need to tell them, ‘Thank you. Now we’ll take care of you.’ ”For information, visit sentinelsoffreedom.org.