Wyakin Warrior Foundation Guides Wounded Veterans through College, Life Transitions

The road ahead can be difficult to navigate for veterans who have suffered battlefield injuries.

While the Department of Veterans Affairs has stepped up G.I. Bill benefits, the logistics of getting into school can stifle even the most determined wounded veteran.

Most veterans struggle with unanswered questions like “What do I want to do now?” Or, more often, “What can I do now?”

They wonder how they’ll sit in a classroom while dealing with post traumatic stress, anxious about the movements of people sitting behind them. Or how they’ll pass midterms after staying up all night dealing with nightmares that linger years after war.

James Donaldson (bottom right) poses for a photo with five fellow inductees at the 2012 Wyakin Warrior Foundation Induction Ceremony held at the Idaho State Capitol Building June 21, 2012.

In Idaho, 10 wounded veterans have been inducted into a new fraternity that intends to assist them during this transition and then to walk with them for life. The Wyakin Warrior Foundation—a proud USO partner—is providing scholarships, mentoring, professional development, networking and career training for severely wounded, injured troops and post-9/11 veterans who are accepted into its program.

According to Native American legend, a wyakin is a spiritual guide that advises and protects a person throughout life. As a rite of passage, young Native Americans were taken to an isolated location where they would fast alone until the wyakin—often an animal like an eagle or a wolf—appeared in a vision or dream. This wyakin guide gave them insight into their next steps in life.

Retired Navy officer Jeff Bacon and his wife, Rebecca, started the Wyakin Warrior Foundation in Boise, Idaho, with the hopes of giving direction to a generation of wounded veterans returning from combat. Inductees receive a full, four-year scholarship—including room, board and tuition—along with job training, mentoring, and a lifetime membership to the fraternity.

“This is just the beginning,” Jeff Bacon said, “and we are so proud to have the support of the USO for this journey.”

The USO provides program support to the Wyakin Warrior Foundation through funding and outreach to eligible candidates at locations near USO centers in the Washington D.C., Metro area and San Antonio. The USO has distributed scholarship applications to the program to generate awareness of this unique and high impact program.

Bacon—who acts as the foundation’s executive director—says the government doesn’t always provide the help veterans need during college. Many returning troops have physical and emotional scars and find it difficult to function outside structured military life. The organization’s on-campus support network is designed to be like a military chain of command that puts veterans in their comfort zone to ease their transition.

The first group of five veterans was inducted into the program in August 2011. Five more—including 27-year-old double-amputee Sgt. James Donaldson, U.S. Army (Ret.), a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom—were inducted in June.

Donaldson lost both his legs in an improvised explosive device blast. Today, he studies information security and digital forensics at the College of Western Idaho. He plans to transfer to Boise State to finish his bachelor’s degree.

“My whole mission is to go to school and to get a degree,” Donaldson said. “Everything else, the Wyakin Warrior Foundation is there to help take care of, and that’s awesome.”

After spending months in a military hospital, Donaldson didn’t know where to begin. He knew he needed to find a job and he wanted to go to school—but that was about the extent of it.

“I didn’t really have my mind set on a career, and that’s where the foundation really helped,” Donaldson said. “[The Wyakin Warrior Foundation] not only helped me prepare for a specific career, but they also helped out with other aspects of life, like issues with the VA, social stigmas, and stuff previous wounded guys have experienced.”

The Wyakin Warrior Foundation even worked with JoS. A. Bank to get Donaldson and the other wounded warriors free suits so they could be prepared for their first job interview.

“It’s also nice to meet regularly with other wounded guys who know what you’re going through,” Donaldson said. “The program has a really personal touch that goes beyond what I expected. I was even connected with a mentor who was a personal friend of Jeff and Rebecca’s, so it felt really comfortable—like I was part of the family.”

Jeff Bacon has unique knowledge of motivation of wounded troops from his 26 years of experience as a naval officer and cartoonist for the Navy Times.

“These first 10 warriors will lead the way for hundreds and even thousands who will follow in the path they have forged,” Bacon said.

—Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer