Iraq War Hero Returns Home to Complete Southeast Degree, Serve Fellow Vets

The road to graduation has been a long and arduous one for Robert Wake, a military veteran who will receive his degree in mass media this weekend at Southeast Missouri State University.


Now, he looks forward to using his public relations skills to connect with brave veterans like himself. After all, he knows firsthand the challenges of earning a degree after serving overseas. When he was injured in Iraq in May 2004, he wasn’t worried about tuition costs, midterms or grades. He was just trying to stay alive.

At 3 a.m. May 16, 2004, Wake was injured when a 60-millimeter mortar landed between him and a medic. After 17 hours of fighting, insurgents began to bomb American troops from the Holy City mosques.

“I don’t remember a lot about that night,” said Wake. “I just remember a bright flash and feeling like my whole body was on fire.”

It took 13 months in a holdover unit to heal from a broken nose, a broken bone above his front teeth, perforated eardrums, and damage to his left knee and right ankle. Additionally, his frontal lobe was torn, which caused severe memory issues. Wake was awarded the Purple Heart in Baghdad, Iraq, on Independence Day, 2004.

“Every Fourth of July brings a special memory to me of being awarded that Purple Heart,” he said.

After fighting and healing in Iraq, Wake was finally able to leave the hospital in July 2005, but he didn’t spend his time resting or relaxing. Since that time, he’s completed a college degree at Southeast and is using his combat experience to help other veterans.

“As a young man, I didn’t have the opportunity to go to college nor the money. Neither one of my parents received a high school diploma. I have a lot of experience in public service but no education to support it,” he said. “I felt like I needed to show my children and grandchildren that you can do anything if you put your mind to it. I believe that one of the ways to help yourself in life is through education.”

After returning from Iraq, Wake, of Malden, Missouri, started his college education at Three Rivers College to explore whether he could handle the workload after the brain injuries he sustained in Iraq. After completing his Associate of Arts in spring 2017 and after researching and visiting several Missouri colleges, he transferred to Southeast. He said he fell in love with Southeast’s Department of Mass Media, one of just two Missouri schools to be accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications.

“I chose this college because of its mass media program, and it has been worth every bit of the time that I have taken out of my life to complete this degree,” he said. “My knowledge has increased so much in this program with fundraising, networking, working with social media, and building strong relationships with different community groups.”

At the age of 55, he will cross the stage at Southeast Saturday, marking the completion of a Bachelor of Science in mass communication with a public relations option and a journey dotted with extensive travel and speaking engagements in support of wounded veterans in the Boots on the Ground program.

“This program educates professionals on what to expect from injured and wounded soldiers as they return home from a combat zone. After getting to know the needs of veterans, I realized that I wanted to do more than just talk about it. I wanted to make a difference in their lives. So, in 2010, we formed the Wake Foundation: Helping Wounded Veterans.”

Robert started the Wake Foundation to help and support other veterans and their families.

“We have gone from impacting a few veterans every year to thousands,” he said.

The Wake Foundation (wakefoundation.organd @WakeFoundation on Facebook) helps veterans in a variety of ways. The Foundation finds and returns military medals to the families of veterans. It partners with Veterans Administration hospitals and hosts free outdoor rehabilitative sporting events – swimming, skiing, surfing, biking and fishing — for disabled veterans across the United States. In addition, the Foundation sends retired baseball players to visit veterans in hospitals, and last year, it spearheaded a concert in which the band Shenandoah performed for more than 5,000 veterans and their families.

“The Foundation was designed to help and make a difference in their lives. We do everything possible to help our veterans at no charge to them,” Wake said. “We’ve got veterans dealing with PTSD. I know veterans that have committed suicide, so I really take all these things to heart.”

Wake intends to use what he has learned as a public relations major and political science minor to further expand the Wake Foundation. His education at Southeast has already helped him understand the legal processes of running a non-profit and  he skills to expand fundraising from $20,000 raised each year to $200,000.

“Through what I’ve learned about networking, social media has just exploded,” he said. “We have so many followers that have tuned in to the Foundation just because of what I’ve learned. I’m glad that I didn’t go anywhere else.”

Robert intends to use what he has learned as a public relations major and political science minor at Southeast to further expand the Wake Foundation.

Wake, who calls himself a “full-time grandpa,” initially struggled to balance his personal life with school and his responsibilities with the Wake Foundation. But looking back on his educational experience, he doesn’t regret the sacrifices he’s made to earn a college degree.

“When I first came into mass media, I was intimidated by it,” he said. “Looking back, it was worth every minute that I spent. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t frustrating. It doesn’t mean that there weren’t times that I had to change. But I learned how to market my brand. It helped me learn how to take so many things that I want to do into the Foundation.”

Wake has grand plans for life after graduation. He hopes to establish public relations internships with the Wake Foundation that will give mass communication students an opportunity to serve and learn. Additionally, he is working on a book that encourages veterans to find ways to serve after retiring from the military.

“No matter what, there’s life after this. You can move forward and continue to be a very important part of life,” he said.

He says he is excited to cross the stage along with his fellow graduates at Southeast’s spring commencement ceremonies on May 11 and  looks forward to using his education to help veterans like himself, who have sacrificed so much.

“I know personally the sacrifices these men and women have made. I have seen their bravery, sacrifices and tears,” said Wake. “It was an honor to serve then, and it is an honor to serve now. It has been hard balancing family, the Foundation and school, but with help from my friends, family and school, I have made things work and am looking forward to my future.”

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