America Supports You: Scholarship Gives Sergeant Chance to Move Forward
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 19, 2005 Army Sgt. Manuel Mendoza-Valencia, 24, of San Ramon, Calif., was presented with the first Sentinels of Freedom scholarship today in the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes.
Army Sgt. Manuel Mendoza-Valencia laughs as he talks with well-wishers after a ceremony in his honor at the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes Aug. 19. Mendoza is the first recipient of the Sentinels of Freedom scholarship that will help him transition back into civilian life from the military. Photo by R.D. Ward
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"Sgt. Manny Mendoza has been an example of will and courage both on the battlefield and in his recovery," Gordon England, acting deputy secretary of defense, said. "He has given greatly in service to America. And like the men and women of our latest generation, Manny has much more to give and a long, bright future ahead of him."
Mendoza is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a double amputee. He lost his right leg at the hip and his left leg above the knee after his M-113 armored personnel carrier was hit by an improvised explosive device on Oct. 3, 2004, in Sadr City, Iraq.
The scholarship will provide him with adapted housing, an adapted vehicle, educational benefits and job training and placement with SBC Communications.
Mendoza said he is very grateful for those opportunities. He does feel, though, that the award comes with certain obligations.
"I think it's a Godsend that I found them and they found me and that they're willing to (do) so much on their part and so much trust in me to really go ahead with this program and kind of spearhead it for everybody else," he said of the Sentinels of Freedom. "It's a big responsibility. A lot of people tend to look at you as an example being the first one."
Ironically, his leadership skills played a role in his being selected for the scholarship, said retired Army Maj. Gen. Ron Lowe of Danville, Calif., and Sentinels Army liaison.
"Based on that job (SBC is offering) we knew we needed someone with some maturity, some leadership experience and certainly a good attitude," he said. "Also somebody who has potential for going ahead and getting a college degree."
After coordinating with the staff and the Veterans Affairs representative at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, it was decided that Mendoza fit the bill.
Mendoza, who was with the 58th Combat Engineer Company, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, when he was injured, said that what the scholarship offers him is exactly what he would have done upon his return home anyway.
"It gives me the opportunity to be able to do what everybody else would (when they get separate from the military)," Mendoza said. "It's pretty much what I would have done for myself if I would have come back not injured and been able to go to school ... They're just helping me get there. With their help it really won't be that much harder (than it would have been otherwise). It would've taken me longer to get here."
Sentinels of Freedom was created by Mike Conklin of San Ramon, Calif., and is an organization of business, educational, community and religious leaders from that area. Deeply rooted in American pride, the organization's goal is to help a severely wounded soldier returning from Iraq, officials said.
Lowe said that his hometown of Danville has volunteered to be the next community to present a Sentinel of Freedom award.
For Lowe these types of programs are important because it shows the troops that America supports them and will welcome them home when they return.
"Our troops have volunteered ... to defend America and they've been injured in the process," Lowe said. "And based on that ... we owe them something, we've got an obligation. It's America's responsibility to look out for these people. America has an obligation to these military people who stepped up and have been injured in the line of duty."
For Mendoza, Sentinels of Freedom has just confirmed what he already knew: that America is ready to welcome home its heroes.
"You'll be welcomed," he said in a message to his comrades. "You'll be back with your family. You'll be here. You'll be safe. Everybody here is just waiting for you to come home."
And all of that respect and support was made even sweeter when Mendoza took the oath of citizenship in December 2004. He was 4 years old when his family moved from Los Reyes, Mexico, to Boonville, Calif.
The Military Severely Injured Center has a program called Hometown for Heroes, which is similar to the Sentinels of Freedom. To learn more about this program, visit the center's Web site.