Courage to Change: Derrick's Story

Updated: Dec 5, 2019


So many of us know young men and women who want to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. Some enter through ROTC programs, others toward end of school seeking careers and education funds, other the sons and daughters of previous military service members, or even current ones. Derrick’s story is different….vision and mission, and never giving up.

Both of my sons were High School ROTC cadets, along with Derrick, when the program was starting up in 1996. Derrick was their ‘best friend’ (among many good friends) -- “Three ROTC Musketeers”.

Unlike my sons, however, Derrick dreamed of being in the Army from early childhood. Every day of his life, he ‘knew’ that was his destiny. In the challenging years of middle school and two years of high school, as a junior, when the ROTC program was announced, the 17 year old was first to enlist.

Always a self-disciplined, charismatic, mission driven leader, Derrick applied himself to physical fitness, abstinence from drugs, alcohol, partying, and ‘wasting time’, instead positive relationships and activities that invited others to join him in pursuit of their ideal futures.

Derrick was immediately recognized and designated the Command Officer (C.O.) position for the new Navy ROTC program. My oldest son was designated as Executive Officer (XO), and other son, Sargent-at-Arms. There were about twenty-five other new cadets.

Two months before high school graduation, Derrick enlisted in the Army, preparing for Special Forces assignment (after basic), and with the bonus money incentive—bought a motorcycle. Working at a local restaurant until he reported for Basic, the motorcycle was his transportation; he’d always had to borrow his father’s car before then.

He was a very cautious, careful driver. On his way to work, the car in front, tire threw gravel from the road and behind it striking Derrick, with one even entering the visor in his helmet, knocking him unconscious. Both rider and vehicle, slashed across the road, barely passing by oncoming traffic, and into a ditch. When EMT’s got to the scene, he was dead on arrival.

They revived him, put him on a helicopter, transported to a Regional Medical Center ER, thirty miles away.

Comatose for several days, they worked on the chest wounds from broken shreds of metal, the head trauma gashes, and we all waited for him to wake up. Praying that he would recover well enough to continue his life’s dream, military service.

The young man gained consciousness, did not remember the accident, or a lot of that day or days before that. Hospitalized for three weeks, they transferred him by ambulance into in-patient a clinical care and rehabilitation nearby.

I actually lived three hours away in Baltimore, and he had visited me, just before his accident; we were good friends. He was limited to visitors, so we spoke on the phone once or twice, but he was weak and incoherent, so we only spoke a few minutes each time.

Four weeks after in-patient admission, the call came. Derrick wanted me to visit and pray with him. Of course, I went right away, and was allowed to visit his room. We prayed for healing, recovery, and that he urgently pled – well enough to continue to basic training.

When he was released, another four weeks after, was told that it would be months or a year before Army doctors would assess his physical condition, but it was doubtful to continue at all –based on his head trauma injury.

At the same time, Derrick’s step-mother had packed his home gear into the shed, got Dad’s support, and would not allow him to move back home. He called me to ask if he could come and live with us, my husband Gary, and my younger son. The oldest had enlisted in the Air Force, induction ceremony on his graduation night, and left for basic training in Texas before Derrick’s accident.

After the graduation, my husband and I had moved back to the Eastern Shore so that my younger son could live with us to complete his last two years of school, so the request to move in with us, an immediate YES!

The recovery process took months, even for healing his chest wounds, the head was less evident, but with cognitive therapy, and rehabilitation, Derrick’s mental capacity was restored – to a point. Still smart, ready, capable, he could no longer pass the ASVAB’s (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) with required highest scores; Special Forces was no longer possible.

He would not give up. Each day, he called, wrote letters, asked for new assessments, and a different assignment’ Technically he was still ‘on the roster’, but under scrutiny for ‘discharge’.

Finally, I contacted Congresswoman Barbara Mikulsky in Baltimore, MD and asked her to intervene, by researching Derrick’s case, assist in the pursuit of remaining in service, and the pursuit of a change of assignment. She agreed to advocate for the fulfillment of his lifelong goal and vision, service in the U.S. Army uniform.

It worked. With an agreement waiver to never request disability or other benefits, that may be relatable to his accident injuries, on record, this young warrior went to basic training. Passing basic, he was then assigned to the U.S Army Corps of Engineers.

He served two tours in Iraq, wounded twice, received honors, and honorably discharged eight years later.

Moving back to the Eastern Shore, he opened a ‘carpenter shop’ making furniture, cabinets, boxes, and proudly presented me thank you gifts, a small chest and a small hinged document box, well-crafted, made with love. I still have them and he is well.


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