We asked you to tell us about a veteran who continues to serve and inspire. From hundreds of compelling entries, we chose to tell the stories of eight veterans. The first-ever Veterans Community Showcase is presented in partnership with UMUC.
He calls it a reality check. All of his buddies went to war, but he didn’t.
“Not that we want to go to war, but that’s who you are as a Marine,” explains Derek T. Hendershot, our featured veteran for the day. “We’re supposed to be those guys.” That said, while looking back with today’s perspective, it’s obvious that Derek was supposed to be a different type of guy.
He joined the Marines in 1998 because his father was a Marine. “I wanted to be like my dad,” he says, the pride in his voice very obvious. When 9/11 happened, Derek was in Japan. He says that he almost went to the war, but missed it by months. He was already getting out of the service at the time. “It felt like that’s where I needed to be, but unfortunately it didn’t happen that way.”
What did happen, though, changed him in a way that wouldn’t become evident for a few years.
“Marines… We really say mean things to each other,” Derek explains. “Messed up things, laughing at death type things, it’s just who we are.” As he was leaving the military in 2002, Derek joked with his Marine buddies that he’d be at home, drinking a beer while they would be at war.
One day, like millions of Americans, just home from work, he grabs a beer from the fridge and clicks on the TV. There on the screen he saw his buddies, the ones who went to war when Derek was getting out. And then it flashes on the TV, a picture of a friend – the friend he joked with – in his dress uniform and Derek knew exactly what happened. He was dead.
“I had a beer in my hand,” Derek recalls, unsuccessfully trying to hide the emotion in his voice. “I turned on the TV, literally there he is. I just found out that he died and I’m standing in front of the TV with a beer in my hand. I said I’d be home… I hit the ground. What do you do? I didn’t mean to speak that, I would trade places with that dude.”
According to Derek, it really messed with his head, but he didn’t do anything about it. He just went on with his life and tried to live with what happened for the next 10 years.
When asked what makes veterans so special, Derek responds quickly with, “I don’t know, maybe it’s a selfless gene. There’s something inside of us that makes us selfless. Why else would you sign up to go stand in front of somebody shooting at you? It’s a calling we have deep inside of us.”
But Derek’s calling didn’t happen until after he returned to school under the GI Bill. He says that everything sort of just triggered inside of him and he became involved with vets.
He joined the veterans club on campus, joined AMVETS, just threw himself into helping veterans.
“To me, it’s really hard sometimes.” He struggles to find the correct words through years of emotional baggage. “But that’s what I can do to give back. To justify what I said to my buddy.“ That justification comes in the form of the Global War on Terror Wall of Remembrance and its creator, JR.
“I saw the effect it had, but it was meant to go up just once,” Derek said. “I’m a Jarhead, you don’t mess with us! I wanted this wall at my college, so I hunted JR down for a year. I even showed up at his place of work.” Making the wall go national was Derek’s driving force.
That’s how Derek became involved with Rear Area Support Foundation.
If you go to the home page for the organization, you can see, by the numbers, exactly what the foundation and Derek have accomplished. And there’s a lot there: you can see how many times they’ve set the memorial wall, how many miles they’ve traveled, the number of states visited.
But at the bottom of the page, in bold capital red letters, you’ll see the number of veterans who didn’t commit suicide because of Derek and Rear Area Support Foundation.
On the subject of veteran suicide, Derek explains a recently added section of the Global War on Terror Wall of Remembrance.
“We’re adding names. This is really hard, this is the hardest part. You hear a veteran talk about someone who took their own life, ‘this is my buddy’ and we say he’s not going to be forgotten. We’re going to put his name on this wall. It makes you realize that we’ve lost way more to suicide.”
Derek has advice for all the new or soon to be new veterans.
“Remember you’re not alone! There is help out there, even if you don’t go through the VA. We can work together. Honestly, it’s gonna be more grassroots.” He believes everyone should make copies of all their medical records and get with a VSO the day you get out of the military. He said that you should get help setting up any claims properly and the way to do that is with someone who’s our advocate.
“You need somebody who’s been walking the system,” he said. “Some of these advocates have been in the system for so long, they know everybody. With them, you’re going to get the help you need.”
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