Mike Conklin, founder of Tri-Valley nonprofit Sentinels of Freedom, grew up listening to news about the Vietnam War -- and his brothers who were deployed there -- on the radio and in nightly news broadcasts.
Several decades later, he is seeking to use audio storytelling to showcase the voices of the veterans he and others in the San Ramon-based organization have been dedicated to supporting over the past 15 years, with a new podcast series "Veterans Never Stop Serving" that just debuted in recent weeks.
Conklin said that while veterans and active servicemembers benefit from widespread gratitude and support from many civilians, it comes hand in hand with general ignorance about the day-to-day operations within the military.
"The other side of the equation is they don't really know what they do," Conklin told the Weekly. "They don't see them every day in the community. With only 1% of our population in the military and only one out of four high school grads being able to qualify for the military, this is a small community."
"We ask them to go into the service. We're proud of them, but what happens when they come home and they're hurt?" he continued.
Providing tailored support for injured and disabled veterans is what Sentinels of Freedom was founded for, formally registering as a nonprofit organization in 2007 after several years of smaller-scale efforts to support service members locally.
"Instead of saying 'thank you for your service', we say 'thank you for your service, now let us help you,'" Conklin said.
Years before the organization was solidified, Conklin and others began organizing annual luncheons during graduation season to recognize graduating San Ramon Valley students who had enlisted in the military.
"We had started an honoring program -- we still do that every year, we bring in students that are about to graduate and go into the military ... Because the high schools at their graduations, students were not recognized; these students who in my book were making the highest commitment any high school student can make," Conklin said.
The first luncheon was in 1998. "We just basically told them that we were proud of them, (that) we were honoring them that day for their commitment to our nation," Conklin said.
While honoring ingoing servicemembers had already been important to Conklin, the call to support wounded veterans became impossible to ignore several years later, following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. soil and subsequent military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and the enlistment of Conklin's own children.
"So we continued in '99, 2000, 2001, and then at the time I had two sons in the Army ... and all of a sudden 9/11 happens," Conklin said.
"I sat by myself and just collected my thoughts, and I realized that of probably 150 to 200 grads we honored, most of them had gone into combat or what we call infantry -- the guys that get chewed up," he continued.
The idea to support local veterans coming home with severe injuries was a small one between community members initially, but the need for tailored support for an increasing number of veterans rapidly became apparent as the U.S. involvement in the Middle East was launched and intensified in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"So I gathered all of our community leaders together," Conklin said. "I said OK we're going to war. We started in Afghanistan -- within one month we had troops in Afghanistan, a couple were my sons, so I said we need to be prepared. We all agreed that we would implement the plan if we had one of the kids from our community hurt."
It didn't take long for the plan for community support to be called on. The first severely wounded veteran to come home to the San Ramon Valley was run over by a tank, and wasn't expected to live following his injuries.
"He lived, and so I said, alright we've got to do something so we organized," Conklin said. "We got a builder to give us an apartment, four years free rent. We raised money for furnishings, food, used car. We got him a job with UPS, a part-time job in San Ramon, got him into college."
It didn't take long for the organization to go national, focusing on the most severely injured veterans throughout the country as well as locally. Today, the organization has served more than 700 veterans by offering five years of support and planning to help them achieve their goals in the civilian world.
Although inspirational stories from veterans are front and center for Conklin, he said that the current media and cultural landscape often fail to capture positive stories related to military experience.
"Today because the news has moved on, they focus on the negative," Conklin said. "They talk about homeless veterans, and veterans with PTSD, and veterans on drugs and everything else. The reality of that is most veterans are the opposite of that."
Conklin said that he seeks to use the newly launched podcast as a way of letting the veterans served by Sentinels of Freedom tell their own stories in their own words, and to showcase not just inspirational stories, but the individual complexities and nuances of disabled veterans' lives.
"They can laugh about things ... they don't focus on all the negative stuff, and they're proud," Conklin said. "They don't beat their chests or anything like that, but they are proud of their service, they're proud of our nation and they're proud of moving forward."
With the weekly podcast having launched early in April, there are already five episodes available. The debut episode, "I Don't Say You're Welcome, I Say You're Worth It", features the story of Purple Heart recipient and former Army Sgt. John Wayne Walding.