Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - November 11, 2011

Soldiering on

Sentinels of Freedom's first Pleasanton participant prepares to graduate

by Glenn Wohltmann

To look at him, you wouldn't be able to tell that Jay Wilkerson is a decorated combat veteran who spent nearly 40 days in a coma and awoke unable to communicate or recognize his family or friends.

On Wednesdays or Saturdays in Pleasanton, Wilkerson is easy to spot, setting up the Senior Center or the Vets Hall for rentals, dumping the 30 or so trash cans on Main Street, or working at the Aquatic Center. He's one of the guys who'll be out at 2 a.m. hanging Christmas decorations in the next few weeks.

The future's a bit uncertain for Wilkerson. He'd like to make the transition from working part time at the city's operations department to fulltime, except that the city's not hiring at the moment. And he's finishing up courses at Las Positas College.

"After this semester, I'll have my certificate for business management. I'd like to go into the management side of operations," he said.

His boss, Chris Rizzoli, Pleasanton's support services supervisor, said everyone likes Wilkerson and that he's not afraid of taking on new tasks. He's currently learning to run the city's street sweeper and has been gaining computer skills, thanks to his co-workers.

"I'm the new guy, so they show me everything they know," Wilkerson said, adding that working for the city, "I'm in the public eye."

He's living here and would like to make Pleasanton his permanent home, although he said the cost of housing is prohibitive.

"I really would like to stay here. Health-wise, this is the perfect place for me. It's all about being comfortable and this is comfortable all year round," Wilkerson said.

It helps that Pleasanton is a good place for Wilkerson's children to visit. His daughter, Precious, is 19. His son, Emmanuel, is 14. Both live in Maryland.

"My daughter just started college. My son is in the eighth grade. He's on the honor role. He was here over the summer," he said.

Routine is important in Wilkerson's life. He gets up at 3:30 a.m., eats, exercises and is at work by 5 a.m.

"It gives me structure. It's better if I have a set goal every day," he said.

Wilkerson came here as part of the Sentinels of Freedom program. He was wounded in Iraq when two rocket-propelled grenades struck his Humvee in a March 2006 blast that killed his buddy sitting next to him and left Wilkerson almost brain-dead. He suffered severe head and hand injuries.

As is the case with most severely wounded soldiers, Wilkerson was first flown to the Army hospital in Germany, then to Walter Reed in Washington.

Wilkerson was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder. He was originally unable to recognize his family or his friends. Over time, and thanks to the Army surgeons and therapists, he began to recover. As his brain built new pathways, Wilkerson was transferred to the Army's trauma center in Palo Alto, one of four special treatment centers for brain damage. He spent two years there relearning skills most of us take for granted: motor coordination. Walking. Speech.

"I had to learn how to walk, talk and eat all over again," Wilkerson said. "It's almost like you're a child in an adult body."

Meanwhile, Sentinels of Freedom, based out of San Ramon, was looking for a local candidate. The group was begun in 2003 by Mike Conklin after one of his three sons -- all Army Rangers -- was wounded in Iraq.

Conklin and some friends managed to put the program together in 2004, just in time for the return of Army Cpl. Jake Brown. Brown, who is from the Bay Area, was crushed by a tank in Germany. He went through 26 surgeries and nearly a year of rehabilitation.

Through the Sentinels program, he has graduated college and has been reintegrated into his community.

"The whole idea of the Sentinels program is to find a volunteer and help him become independent," said Doug Miller, who's part of Wilkerson's team.

The program is now active or starting up in 19 states, with 51 veterans currently enrolled and 23 graduates as of August.

"To this day, I have no idea how they found me," Wilkerson said.

He was in the service for 18 years, but since he was injured in combat, the military bumped his length of service to 20, allowing him to retire as a staff sergeant with full military benefits.

That wasn't good enough for Sentinels of Freedom. The four-year program requires participants to work at least part time as well as go to school.

Wilkerson did both. It wasn't easy.

"When I first started at Las Positas, even though I knew everything in the syllabus, I couldn't retrieve it," he said.

He had to learn note taking skills and worked with a tutor.

Now, he said, "My cognitive skills are better."

While looking for a potential job for Wilkerson, Miller approached City Manager Nelson Fialho.

"I told him Jay's story," Miller said. "They took a chance. They brought Jay in as an unpaid intern. Before you know it, he had a paid position. A lot of this is about Jay and a lot of this is about the city of Pleasanton."

Wilkerson is also a poet, and he said writing helped him recover.

"When I write about things, it's better. I didn't take it seriously until I got injured and then it helped me heal," he said, adding, "I can pass it along. If it helps somebody, it's helping me."

Wilkerson is due to graduate from the Sentinels of Freedom program in 2013, adding uncertainty to his life. He's met the goals that were laid out for him, but given the economy, finding fulltime work may be difficult. He's also losing the team that worked with him from the time he was chosen.

Tom Daggett, another of Wilkerson's team, said that doesn't mean he'll just get dumped.

"We're never going to let Jay out of our sight. As for the actual four-year program, it'll come to an end," Daggett said.

Wilkerson feels the same way.

" I feel really confident," he said. "If there's any questions I have, anyone on my team I feel I can still call."

Miller said the entire purpose of the program is to prepare its graduates for exactly this.

"The Sentinels of Freedom provides a furnished place to live for four years, usually an automobile, and helps them get connected to schooling that's appropriate, a job, so that after they've finished the four years they have significant additional education, they have valuable work experience and they've been mentored significantly by the team. And they probably have substantial savings," he said.

"Part of the mentoring process is that we help them make plans for what they want to do. They've got valuable work experience and we're going to prepare for the day he's on his own."

As Wilkerson gets ready to graduate and move on, the Sentinels team here in Pleasanton is on the hunt for a new candidate.

"Mike Conklin at the Sentinels is always looking for candidates. He and I are in discussions about someone who could fit into Pleasanton. A lot of it comes down to finances," Miller said. "Almost everyone I've dealt with like Jay is exactly the same way. They want to succeed. ... They don't want to be pitied."

While he doesn't have a fulltime job yet, Wilkerson could ultimately end up on the city's payroll.

"The city has indicated that they're interested in eventually bringing him on as a fulltime employee," Miller said.

Wilkerson said he's also interested in working with other vets.

"I would love to do that," he said, explaining he could be totally honest with them, as one who's been through what they're experiencing. He added that talking with another soldier also helps him.

While nothing is locked in just yet, Wilkerson seems to have a good handle on his future.

"I refuse to fail," he said. "I refuse to be labeled as disabled."

Mirror Connections Rekindled

--Jay Wilkerson

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