Derek’s next memory was waking up in a hospital in Camp Bastion, joint base for US and international forces. He remembers explicitly listening to the doctor tell him he may never walk again, how their eyes locked as he processed the information he’d been told. Deep down Derek knew what had happened to him from the moment he felt the bullet bite his back.
As he lay in his hospital bed, Derek’s immediate concern was not for himself but for his wife. Calling her with the news of his injury was hard but became his first step towards making a strong recovery.
“It was incredibly challenging, but we were just happy I was alive to make that call.”
Many of Derek’s friends who served weren’t given the same opportunity to phone home themselves, so he was grateful he could. His rehabilitation involved a fair bit of travel as he was shifted through medical centres, from Afghanistan to Germany until finally he was back home in the US.
Upon arriving home, Derek was initially placed in the National Naval Medical Centre in Bethesda, Maryland. He spent several days there until he was transferred for the third time to a Veterans Affairs Hospital. The nature of his spinal cord injury meant Derek was no longer able to serve in the military, which lost him the funding that had been paying for his medical care up to that point.
As a result he was transferred yet again to a hospital for former military service members, a Veterans Affair hospital in Tampa, Florida. It was here the reality of his injury started to sink in.
In retrospect, one of the most traumatic aspects was the loss of his physicality. His life as a marine had been extremely physically demanding – constantly running, swimming and working out. Having that part of his identity ripped from him so suddenly was hard to come to terms with and Derek found himself having to delve deep and find himself again in his new body.
Initially, his outlook on life was naively positive – he’d just survived an insanely dangerous situation in Afghanistan. Despite doctors explaining to him how he might never walk again, the ‘might’ gave him a glimmer of hope and he was prepared to be on his feet again in six weeks.
Looking back, Derek sees his mindset in both a positive and negative light. On one hand, he’d had the motivation to stay alive while his other injuries healed. But it also meant he had a greater height to fall from emotionally as the realisation dawned on him that his paralysis was perhaps more permanent than anticipated.
“You’re easily thinking about all the things that have been taken from you. It just took time for me to push through.”
It was especially frustrating for Derek being stuck in a hospital bed in the US, while his squad was still in Afghanistan fighting. His wife and kids were also growing as a family. Derek was supposed to be their leader and supporter but he could no longer fulfil those roles the same way.
He started to isolate himself and dwell on these facts. In this moment, the only saving grace from the darkness he’d slipped into was surrounding himself with a sense of community and staying in contact with the people who mattered to him however he could; whether that was by calling his squad mates on a satellite phone, or the support from his loving wife.
When he found himself stuck, he’d remind himself to work hard for them in the ways he could: by ensuring a good recovery.