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Program helps war-wounded veterans restart civilian lives

May. 8, 2013 - 08:58AM   |  
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ROCKLEDGE, FLA. — Several times a week, Ernso Auguste sends text messages or calls Brian Laughlin seeking advice or wanting to discuss an idea or issue.

Auguste is a wounded soldier struggling to return to the civilian world. Laughlin is a financial planner and a veteran. The men were brought together as mentor and mentee by Sentinels of Freedom.

The nonprofit provides “life scholarships” to wounded veterans to assist them through such hardships as finding a home, continuing education and dealing with health issues. It costs about $100,000 for each person going through the four-year program — money raised locally to benefit local veterans.

Auguste, 32, was a combat medic and suffered traumatic brain injury and other wounds in Iraq when a suicide bomber exploded a vehicle near his position.

The Rockledge, Fla., resident will be introduced Thursday as the newest “Sentinel” at the Sentinels of Freedom Space Coast 2013 Gala Dinner, one of the organization’s main fundraising events each year.

“I want to see him in a position to have the skill sets to get gainfully employed and be able to support his family,” Laughlin said. “We talk all the time. He bounces things off me. We help him make certain decisions.”

Sentinels of Freedom supports Auguste financially and personally. His scholarship covers books, supplies and equipment, and housing expenses, in addition to the personal guidance from Laughlin.

“He gives me a lot of support,” Auguste said. “Sometimes he invites me to church or other events.”

Sentinels of Freedom started in Danville, Calif., when Mike Conklin, a father of three Army Rangers, was inspired to reach out to injured veterans after one of his sons was wounded in Iraq in 2003.

The Brevard, Fla., chapter started about five years ago and after a year and a half of fundraising, adopted its first “Sentinel,” Marine Cpl. Robert Smith, who lost his left leg in a bombing May 23, 2008, in Iraq. Auguste is the second.

Barbara Lyn, president of Sentinels of Freedom Space Coast, said Smith and his family are grateful that the program existed when they needed it.

“They had the opportunity to not have to worry about certain things,” Lyn said. “I feel that we’ve accomplished what we set out to do.”

Smith, 26, who graduated with honors from Brevard Community College and is in his third year of studies at the University of Central Florida, said Sentinels of Freedom helped him, his wife and two children transition to civilian life.

“I had an excellent opportunity,” Smith said. “I feel grateful.”

The cost of the program varies depending on the veteran’s family and existing resources.

“We try to supplement what the VA is providing,” she said. “It’s a hand up, not a handout.”

Auguste, who served in Iraq with the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, received a bachelor’s degree from Miami-Dade College and is working on a master’s in health care management at Webster University.

Auguste has maintained a high grade-point average, currently 3.9 in his master’s program. But the adjustment has not been easy.

After spending a week in the hospital and separating from the Army, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder set in.

“I was going through a lot of emotional problems,” he said. “I displayed a personality where I didn’t have any emotions.”

As a medic, he had seen other traumatic injuries and helped retrieve bodies of those killed in the war.

Auguste said though he liked serving in the military, he had little choice but to leave after suffering his injuries.

“I was thankful that I served in the Army because I think it was my responsibility,” he said.

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