The U.S. government handed Travis Fugate a $100,000 check in 2006 after he was seriously injured by a bomb explosion in Iraq.
Fugate was 22 at the time and used the money to buy two cars, a boat, a home in the small town in Kentucky where he grew up and “lots of beers for my friends because I needed friends after the war.”
The problem: Fugate is blind. He couldn’t drive the cars, operate the boat or live in the house. An improvised explosive device (IED) blew up in his face two days before he was due to come home from Iraq. He lost one eye in the explosion and is blind in the other.
He burned through the $100,000 compensation he got from the Army in 18 months.
“I wasn’t one of those homeless vets you see on the streets,” Fugate told Debt.org, “but that’s the direction I was headed.”
That’s when Mike Conklin and a team of volunteers from the Sentinels of Freedom stepped in and changed the direction Fugate was headed. Conklin started the Sentinels of Freedom as a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping severely wounded veterans earn a college degree. The Sentinels have volunteer teams across the country working with vets to help them overcome whatever obstacles they meet in college.
With their help, Fugate expects to graduate from Cal State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB) with a computer science degree in 2014. He already has interviewed with companies in Silicon Valley and hopes to get a full-time job there after graduation.
“And I’ve made considerable progress at getting back the money I went through,” Fugate said. “Even after the accident, I was always sure I could do something positive with my life, but I didn’t have a plan and I sort of let that $100,000 get away. But the friendship and mentoring I got from Sentinels turned things around.”
Mentoring Disabled Veterans Makes a Difference
Fugate is one of roughly 40 to 60 severely wounded soldiers that the Sentinels of Freedom mentor around the country. Conklin interviews candidates to determine how serious they are about pursuing a college degree. When he’s convinced of their commitment, he helps them find a suitable college and pairs them with a team of educational, financial and social mentors to guide them through the process.
Fugate admitted he needed help in all three areas. He was the first in his family to attend college, but lasted only one semester before dropping out to join the Army. There was a seven-year gap before going back to school with the help of the Sentinels program.
“I was skeptical about the whole thing,” he said. “I remember when I got out of the Army, they told me to be wary of organizations that try to take advantage of vets, but I knew I was in the right place after my first phone call with [Conklin]. When he says they’re going to do something, they follow through and do it.”
Fugate received his associate’s degree from Monterey Peninsula College in California and went on to CSUMB, but math and science courses at the four-year college posed enormous challenges.
“He obviously can’t see the problems on paper so he has to use his memory to do the problems in his head,” said Karen Hargrove, a Sentinels volunteer who tutors him. “He has learned to do this well, but it takes a lot of patience.”
Filling Gaps in Financial Aid
When he started school, Fugate needed to customize his computer with a special Braille program, but the $4,000 price tag was an obstacle. He might have gotten help from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but the paperwork made it a six- to eight-month turnaround. Sentinels stepped in, paid for the program and his computer was ready in a week.
“[Conklin] said he won’t let the cost of anything be an excuse for getting in the way of my education,” Fugate said.
Sentinels assigned him a financial advisor, who not only helped Fugate budget his money, but also renewed his sense of pride.
“I’ve learned to make my money work for me,” Fugate said. “I’ve saved and invested enough so that by the time I graduate, I should be able to put 50 percent down on a house where ever I go to live.”
As for the social aspect, moving from the hills of Kentucky to the sunny California coast is about as dramatic a change as there could be in life. Fugate says it was no problem.
“The social relationships I’ve developed from the Sentinels of Freedom are really what have made the biggest difference,” Fugate said. “All these people have volunteered their time and knowledge toward making me successful and you can really feel that every time we meet. I’ve had the best of everything I need because these people care about me.”
Fugate wants to use his experience to develop computer programs for the blind when he graduates. Sentinels already introduced him to contacts in the software business and living near Silicon Valley makes that dream a bit more accessible.
“I’ve come a long, long way since pretty much throwing away $100,000,” Fugate said. “I would never have been able to do this on my own. Sentinels of Freedom didn’t just lift me up, they pushed me forward.”
Bill “No Pay” Fay has lived a meager financial existence his entire life. He started writing/bragging about it in 2012, helping birth Debt.org into existence as the site’s original “Frugal Man.” Prior to that, he spent more than 30 years covering the high finance world of college and professional sports for major publications, including the Associated Press, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. His interest in sports has waned some, but he is as passionate as ever about not reaching for his wallet. Bill can be reached at [email protected].
- NA (2012, Nov. 14) Veteran ‘connects to education’ at CSUMB. CSUMB.edu. Retrieved from http://news.csumb.edu/news/2012/oct/22/veteran-connected-education-csumb