Derrick is a natural storyteller, a hard charger, and speaks on experience. Ever since childhood growing up in Skokie, a small suburb outside of Chicago, he dreamed about being a soldier. At 17-years-old between his junior and senior years of high school, Derrick went to basic training while in the Army reserves and upon graduation he went to job training in 2007 as an 89B (Ammunition Specialist). “I realized the civilian life wasn’t what I wanted, so I went active duty and got deployed to COB Adder, near Nasiriyah, Iraq,” Derrick said. “I spent the whole deployment outside the wire doing gun truck security convoys. We would escort 40-45 semi-trucks in a row all night to deliver supplies.”
During this 2008-2009 deployment with the 24th Ordnance Company, the last month they were placed back on base and watched the local nationals work at the ammo supply point. Derrick realized this wasn’t the job for him, so he reenlisted for another four years and switched his MOS to 12B Combat Engineer.
“In May of 2011 we were deployed to Afghanistan and during that time our job was to do route clearance patrols,” Derrick recalled. “We were looking for all the roadside bombs to find them, blow them up, and keep going. Sometimes we’d do it alone in vehicles or dismounted, and other times we’d do it coupled up with the Afghan Army, the Afghan Police, the infantry, or whoever was there.”
Derrick’s first mission was a turnover operation -- where the unit they were replacing did ride-alongs with them to show them the ropes of what to expect -- on Highway 1, a dangerous stretch of road that is notorious for IEDs. This mission killed four soldiers from a roadside bomb and wounded two others bad enough to where they were sent home on May 16, 2011.
On August 23, 2011, while clearing IEDs from their COP (Combat Observation Post) to another COP, Derrick rode in a RG-31, the lead vehicle or “Husky” in the route clearance patrol. “It has these panels in the front, basically it’s ground penetrating radar and you can see abnormalities in the ground, and if we find something an alarm goes off,” he said. “We thought we found something, at the time we didn’t know because it looked questionable and, we backed up to hit it with the mine rollers.”
“It didn’t go off because it wasn’t pressure sensitive, it was command detonated, so the enemy was watching us and they set it off as we drove away from it. I was looking out the window and it went from that; to when you turn your head really fast, the blur of stripes of all the colors blending together, to silence. Then the noise slowly increased, the ringing was incredibly loud, I’m disoriented, everything is brown from the dust, it’s 120 degrees, and you don’t realize how messed up you are because your body is in shock.”
The blast tore a big hole underneath Derrick’s seat, ripped his helmet off his head, and when he recovered he didn’t know his whole lower left leg was shattered. Derrick broke his right ankle, left femur, fractured his L3-L5-C2, and had a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Derrick says he was very fortunate to have the guys he served with to save his life. “Sergeant [Stephen] Jackel was sitting behind me and his handheld radio was still working because in the blast our radios were destroyed. The engine bay, wheels, and everything was torn off the truck, because all the stuff that is ripped off takes the energy from the explosion with it. It trapped our gunner [Brandon Elliot] because his hatch broke and slammed on top of him and he was held there until they could pry the hatch off him.”
When Derrick realized his teammates were catastrophically wounded, he tried to move to give them first aid and that’s when his pain set in. “There was this fire inside my body and I put a tourniquet on my leg, it was gnarly because while tightening you feel the inside of your bone moving,” Derrick described before he remembers passing out. “The radios were so hot that they started a fire and it started cooking off .50 caliber rounds in the truck and he [Jackel] used his broken leg to put out the fire that was on my leg.”
After a long recovery process including 19 total surgeries, Derrick opted to have his left leg amputated below the knee in 2013 after years of fighting infection and an exhaustive rehabilitation. Through physical therapy trips with other veterans, Derrick found surf therapy in San Luis Obispo with Operation Surf in 2016. “It’s the best form of physical therapy because when you’re in the hospital and you’re just going to your one appointment a day, you’re only doing it for 45 minutes out of the hour,” Derrick said. “On these trips the physical therapy starts from packing your gear to going to the airport to the entire experience.”
“When I rode that first wave it was like electricity straight into my chest and someone was punching me like ‘wake up’ and I was hooked,” Derrick said. “I was cheering and at that point in my recovery I was in bad shape. I had severe anxiety, I isolated as much as possible, and when I met the surfing community, it helped me feel accepted again.”
While surfing with other veterans Derrick had the opportunity to mentor newer surfers. “As an amputee I got to share with other amputees some tricks of what to do with their liners or their legs, and got to be that guy to give back knowledge to the new guys. It was really rewarding. I got to see myself in them in their first days of surfing and it was a really good feeling.”
With each new wave, our team riders are constantly learning, improving, and trying to get better. Derrick provides some insight on the challenges he faces when he prepares to surf. “The first issue we are going to think about is what am I going to do to prevent my leg from being ripped off while surfing,” Derrick said. “The ocean is going to do what it wants and it will adjust your leg. I keep my leg untaped on the top of the sleeve so when it does get adjusted, I can balance myself on the board, pull my leg out of the water, and readjust the outer-sleeves to recreate that seal. Another thing that one can do is wear two outer-sleeves; the best surfing one on the inside and wear one you don’t use anymore on the outside so it takes all the abuse. There are a lot of little tricks you can do, Rob taught me to rub wax on the bottom of my foot to improve my balance.”
Derrick also describes how even bending the knee to a certain degree helps with the suction to keep his leg on more securely. “Surfing will help you in daily living because of all the weird angles we get into,” Derrick confirms. “If you’re strong in all those angles, all of it translates. For example if you’re barreling down the grocery store aisle in a rush and a little kid runs out in front of your cart, now you have to have the strength and weird awkward step with your prosthetic to stop. Being strong in all positions and practicing your footwork, translates to how your prosthetic is going to maneuver on the surfboard. Everytime I surf, it’s like I learn a life lesson.”
Derrick customized his own longboard that will help him achieve surf and art therapy. “I chose the red because everything in Combat Engineer is red, plus it’s my favorite color and I’ve seen other red surfboards and they were sick,” Derrick laughed. “In Afghanistan we had multicam camouflage, but this new camouflage called multicam-black came out and I think it’s badass so I chose that as the cover.”
“I also chose four symbols: one is the castle for the combat engineers to represent the greatest job ever; then I had two scrolls, one for Jackel, my teammate that saved my life and was a good friend who committed suicide on Janaury 3, 2018. Following his death we had patches made up for him with the Jackal on it. I put his and the other scroll on my surfboard as a way for them to be with me and get to enjoy the things they can’t anymore and a way for me to honor them. I have the date 16 May 2011 the day my four other buddies got killed on our first mission to Afghanistan. The shield with the cross on it represents my faith.”
“I spend a lot of time at the Adaptive Training Foundation (ATF) training to surf or snowboard because every time I’ve done it, I’ve felt my weaknesses and my drawbacks. I don’t want to sit here and go down the bunny slope the rest of my life, I want to go down black diamonds at warp speed.” Derrick’s passion for adrenaline activities also involves DJing, where he goes by DJ Derrick Rage and performs shows in the Austin area. His mission now is to mentor others at ATF, compete in adaptive surf competitions, improve as a snowboarder, and live his best life with his loving family in Dallas, Texas.
Author: matt fratus