Veterans Never Stop Serving

This month, we celebrate Veterans Day, a day that provides us with a special chance to take away time from our busy schedules and think of and thank veterans for the sacrifices they have made for our common good and wellbeing. It is a day for us to honor the brave men and women who have selflessly served, and in many cases still continue to serve, our nation.

When I talk to the veterans in our program, I am continually inspired by their desire to continue serving others after their time in the military has come to an end. Not surprisingly, this kind of sense of commitment is not uncommon among veterans in general. Many veterans also make it their mission to help, in one way or another, other veterans making the transition to civilian life. To me, that is incredibly admirable.

One of these veterans committed to a lifelong mission of service is a Sentinels of Freedom program graduate Doug Connor – a man who overcame a difficult transition and is now using his skills and personal experience to help other Veterans on their post-military journey.

First Lieutenant Doug Connor, US Army

Doug joined the Army at the young age of 17 and served for three years before deciding to pursue a degree in nursing. When the war in Iraq started, however, Doug felt like he could make a difference with his training and returned to active duty. He served at Walter Reed Medical Center’s surgical ICU and was deployed to Mosul, Iraq, from 2005 to 2006. “It was a tough year,” he says, “There was a lot of pain to work through.”

After having completed his time in the service, Doug decided to “make a go of the civilian world again,” as he called it. He started working but was feeling depressed, and his PTSD became overwhelming. “My time in Iraq and at Walter Reed was hard to shake,” he explains. Doug sought help from the Concord Vet Center and completed a program at the National Center for PTSD. While there, he started to heal.

When he returned home, Doug decided he wanted to go to graduate school and become a Family Nurse Practitioner. “The problem was, I didn’t know how I was going to take care of my responsibilities to my family and achieve this goal,” he recounts. Determined to not give up, Doug started researching scholarships and found Sentinels of Freedom.

I was actually the one to return Doug’s first call to our organization. I remember being inspired by his perseverance and invited him to come in and talk to me in person. After Doug was accepted into the program, he moved to Walnut Creek with his family. “The Sentinels team made sure that my goals would be achieved,” he told me recently. I think he finally felt like he had a clear direction to move towards.

Through SOF’s comprehensive support, Doug was able to complete his degree and find his first job. Wanting to help other veterans, he eventually started working for the Department of Veterans Affairs, where he felt he could make a meaningful impact. “The veterans have great need, and I feel like I am paying forward what was done for me,” he says.

Because of the help of our community and supporters, the veterans in our program have the chance to pursue their dreams and continue giving back after their service. Hearing veterans like Doug say that “I truly believe that my life was changed by picking up the phone and talking to Mike” truly makes it all worth it. I believe it is incredibly important for us to give back to our veterans after everything they have done for us, and I am glad we have Veterans Day to remind us of that importance.

To learn more and to make a difference in the life of a veteran like Doug, visit www.sentinelsoffreedom.org.

 

 

Beyond Perseverance; A Veteran’s Journey

This year, we observed the 16th anniversary of the September 11 attack on our nation and remembered the people who lost their lives that day—a tragedy that changed our world. I will always remember where we were and what we were doing the day we heard the news. As I watched the television reports, I remember saying to my wife, “I think we’re going to see our two Army sons involved in a war very soon.”  That day certainly changed the life of young Navy hospital corpsman, Derek McGinnis, who would also be involved in the Iraq War.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Derek McGinnis, US Navy

An Iraq combat Veteran and a graduate of the Sentinels of Freedom (SOF) program, Derek served in the Navy for eleven years. In 2004, he was wounded in Fallujah, Iraq; a suicide bomber attacked the ambulance that he was driving, blowing it to pieces. Derek lost his left leg above the knee, sustained multiple shrapnel wounds, and suffered a traumatic brain injury that caused intense pain long into his recovery.

At the annual Exchange Club 9/11 Remembrance Event in Danville, our community was honored to hear Derek share his story as the keynote speaker. Derek spoke about love of country, duty, sacrifice, resilience, and faith. It was deeply emotional and inspiring to see someone who has faced such a difficult and long recovery speak eloquently about service above self, and serving our nation.

While Derek’s transition to civilian life has been filled with obstacles, he has always found a way to push through: by having a supportive network, participating in athletic events, seeking care for physical and mental injuries, and sharing his experiences with others. In finding healing and peace of mind, Derek has taken back control of his life.

Through Sentinels of Freedom’s assistance, Derek gained confidence and resources for his journey. One of the services we provide is mentoring—pairing Sentinels with an individual to assist with their personal and professional development. I have had the privilege of serving as Derek’s mentor, and his drive and motivation to help others is inspiring.

A successful college graduate with a master’s degree in social work, Derek now serves other Veterans as a licensed clinical social worker for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. He is a national speaker and advocate of new pain management techniques and protocols for Veterans and their families. Derek is also the author of the book, Exit Wounds, which narrates the details of his experiences of being wounded and learning to thrive.

Derek says, “I’m grateful for all the things that I have, and proud of all I’ve accomplished. In the end though, I don’t measure how far I’ve come by goals achieved, or academic degrees earned, or running trophies won. For me, what counts is that pain no longer rules my life.” And that is what Derek wants to help other wounded Veterans to learn— they are still in control of their life.

Derek’s journey, like the journeys of countless other wounded Veterans, is far from over. With his commitment to his community, he epitomizes a slogan that I often use: “Veterans Never Stop Serving.” His perseverance inspires others in their struggles, reminding them there is a new life to be envisioned and experienced. 

We owe a deep amount of gratitude, respect, and support to our Veterans and to those currently serving in our military; without them, we would not enjoy the freedom and quality of life we have come to know. I encourage you to take the time this upcoming Veterans Day to show your gratitude for these brave individuals.

To learn more and to contribute to our effort in making a difference in the lives of Veterans like Derek, visit www.sentinelsoffreedom.org.

Service Above Self

As we approach fall, a time of the year that for many signifies the return to school, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to share with you the story of a young man who has an incredible amount of passion for learning and sharing his experiences with others – Staff Sergeant and Sentinel, Venol Raymond.

Truly invested in his quest to serve, Venol is an individual from whom we can all take inspiration. His drive and compassion are great reminders of the wonders that the human spirit can accomplish.

Staff Sergeant Venol Raymond, US Army

I first met Venolin San Antonio, Texas, after he had recovered from injuries sustained while serving in the Army and was about to graduate from a transition program run by Wounded Warrior Project. I was immediately impressed with his ability to look past his injuries and towards his goals of higher education and a career of service to others. Additionally, I found him to be a young man who was articulate and possessed solid character traits and a high level of intellectual capacity.

Born in Haiti, Venol immigrated to the United States in 2003 and, shortly thereafter, joined the Army to give back to his newly adopted country. He served eight years in locations around the world before being medically discharged due to severe back and knee injuries caused by a vehicular accident during his service in Afghanistan.

Despite the injuries he suffered during his military service to our nation – or perhaps because of it – Venol possesses a warmth and joy for life that is somewhat uncommon among his non-Veteran peers attending college. Instead of letting the pain and disappointment of what he lost derail his future, he looked at what his new options were and moved forward with determination and drive. This drew us to approve him for our Sentinels of Freedom scholarship program in August 2015.

Since then, Venol has completed a large amount of volunteer work, graduated college as an international studies major, and taken part in a study-abroad experience in Taiwan. Currently, he is in Ghana, West Africa, completing a prestigious, two-part internship with the US State Department – the agency which he hopes to be able to work for full-time upon his return.

Venol is a young man who came to our country, served in our military, and sacrificed so much while doing so. And now, he continues to serve others. He did not have to do this; he could have just faded away, collected a disability check, and never worked again. But no; Venol did this “SuaSponte,” a Latin phrase meaning “of his own accord.”

In the business world, people talk a lot about ROI or Return on Investment. At Sentinels of Freedom, we believe that Venol’s ROI to our nation and our communities will continue to prove itself many times over in future years. Venol is an individual who possesses a rare combination of compassion and intellect and who has a drive to help others– all while remaining a true patriot to our country.

To learn more and to contribute to our effort in making a difference in the lives of Veterans like Venol, visit www.sentinelsoffreedom.org.

Wounded, Not Broken

Over the next issues of ALIVE, I will attempt to tell the incredible stories of the brave men and women who have been wounded and injured during their military service to our nation. It is truly an honor for all of us at Sentinels of Freedom to be able to share these stories from our files of the veterans we have personally met and assisted with their objectives and life goals post-injury.

What I hope in sharing their stories with you is that you come away not feeling sorry for them, not averting your eyes,but with an understanding that they all, through sheer drive, positive attitude, and determination, have earned a place at our nation’s table of opportunity.

I and many others believe that we all as citizens have a responsibility to these individuals, a massive debt not only of gratitude but also of assisting them in achieving their post-military goals. Additionally, we have a huge responsibility to teach our children and grandchildren well with regards to what our military does to maintain our freedom and quality of life. It is never too late to spend some time to let them know that freedom comes at a cost. 

The first story is about a young man whose dream was to become a Green Beret, his military experiences and survival, medical rehabilitation, coming home, and transition to success. 

Sergeant First Class (Ret.) John Wayne Walding, US Army Green Beret

John Wayne Walding, born on the 4th of July, was raised in Groesbeck, Texas. He spent nearly 12 years in the United States Army, including seven years in the prestigious 3rd Special Forces Group at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. He had combat deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan. During his career at 3rd SFG, he served on ODA 396/3336 as a Special Forces communications sergeant, and at the Sniper Detachment as a sniper instructor. On April 6, 2008, John lost his right leg to sniper fire during the battle of Shok Valley. He continued to fight alongside his brothers for four more hours. The incredible story of that six-hour fight is detailed in the book No Way Out: A Story of Valor in the Mountains of Afghanistan, by Mitch Weiss and Kevin Maurer.

John’s military awards and badges include the Silver Star as well as the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Combat Infantry Badge, Airborne, Air Assault, and Special Forces Tab.

Post-injury, John attended Special Forces Sniper School and, upon graduation, became the first amputee ever to become a Green Beret sniper. Using a hand crank, he went on to compete in the 2009 Boston Marathon, in which he finished fourth, as well as being a top-ten finisher in the 2010 New York Marathon. He ran the 2010 Army Ten-Miler, the 2016 Dallas Half Marathon, and recently completed one of the hardest marathon routes in the world—the Bataan Death March—with a forty-five pound ruck sack.

John is the founder and owner of 5 Toes Custom, a Dallas-based company of custom firearms. The mission of 5TC is to be a place for both transitioning and combat wounded veterans to learn a craft and regain their north star in the company of fellow veterans who understand that the battle never ends. John also travels the country speaking to veterans’ organizations, corporations, and the public about leadership, excellence, and overcoming adversity using his motto “Lean Forward, Fight Hard.” John strongly believes his biggest accomplishment is marrying his beautiful wife, Amy, and having their four wonderful children: Emma, Sam, Andie, and Hannah. They reside in Little Elm, Texas.

To learn more and to contribute to our effort in making a difference in the lives of veterans like John, visit www.sentinelsoffreedom.org. 

Mike Conklin is the Chairman and CEO of Sentinels of Freedom Scholarship Foundation.