We had 31 years together.
To most people, that seems like a lifetime. To me, I felt like we had our whole life left to live yet, and it was stolen from us. I was just 14, and Derrick was 16 when we met. We were married the year I graduated, 1988, right out of high school. We had our first child, Derrick John II, in 1989. Brittani Ann came soon after, in 1990. It was then that Derrick decided he needed to fulfill his life mission of serving his country.
He enlisted in the United States Air Force on October 1, 1990. He served at the 133rd Airlift Wing as a Security Forces member, and was selected in 1998 to be the first Minnesota Guardsman to become a member of the Elite Air Force Security Forces trained anti-terrorism unit called the "Phoenix Ravens." After graduation, he was awarded Raven #333, his number for life. In this position, he traveled extensively throughout the world-115 countries on six continents.
After September 11, 2001, he was activated for two years as a Raven Team Leader. He participated in numerous operations including: Operation Name Masked, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Anaconda, Operation Northern Watch, Operation Southern Watch, Operation Desert Fox, and Operation Cheetah. He also deployed on Humanitarian Missions including: Operation Joint Guard, Operation Joint Guardian, Coronet Oak, and Operation Panama Airlift.
After almost 13 years, in March of 2003, he left his full-time position from the 133rd Security Forces Squadron at the 133rd Airlift Wing to work for the Minnesota National Guard Headquarters in the Minnesota Counter Narcotics Task Force. At that time he worked as a "facilitator" for the Drug Demand Reduction Program. At the end of 2008, he transitioned into the position of the State of Minnesota Drug Demand Reduction Administrator (DDRA) serving as the vital liaison between the Headquarters National Guard Bureau, Minnesota Counter Drug Coordinator (CDC) and the civilian agencies that they serve to include, but not limited to, schools, law enforcement, and youth support groups within the state. Due to his expertise in the experiential learning, he was asked by Guard Bureau to serve as a Subject Matter Expert (SME). Accepting this position, he traveled throughout the U.S. inspecting other State's programs. In the beginning of 2012, the National Guard Bureau completely changed the mission in DDR. This change resulted in Derrick being retrained as the Civil Operations Manager for the State of MN.
In March of 2004, he was selected to be the First Sergeant of the 133rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. In multiple deployments, he ensured exceptional support to personnel in austere environments while preserving morale, health, and welfare of critical mission elements. At the request of the Unit Commander, he dedicated three additional years to his original tour, culmination in almost nine continuous years in this critical role. He was awarded 2011 First Sergeant of the Year for the 133rd Airlift Wing.
On November 30, 2013, he retired after 22 ½ years of dedicated service to our country. For three years prior to his retirement, he did not drive due to a cervical injury that he had received when on duty in the military. Tricare, the military insurance, denied the surgery and the many appeals from the multiple specialists he had consulted for help. It became a permanent disability and he never drove again. He was suffering from multiple physical disabilities that were a result of his many chemical and burn pit exposures during his countless deployments as well as mental disabilities from the tortures of the exposure to war. Derrick was not given an exit physical prior to his retirement. He was not service connected for any of his disabilities that he had incurred during his service. We filed for his VA disability within five months of him being retired. He had 27 claims. We filed for Social Security Disability in December of 2014 and he was approved in the beginning of March 2015.
In August 2014, I walked into the kitchen to find Derrick unresponsive. He was taken to the VA and hospitalized. They decided he needed 24-hour care. I took a six-month Military Caregiver Unpaid Leave of Absence from my job at Allina. I had been there 18 ½ years as a Clinical Assistant. We had no income coming in other than Derrick's small pension and most of what we had saved was gone. I spent the next six months taking care of him, taking him to appointments, and searching for ways to keep us from losing what we had worked for all of our lives. There is little help for Veterans that are in between waiting for their disability to come through when they are not able to work but need caregiving. We were told his disability claim was filed as a "hardship claim" yet we had heard nothing.
My daughter, who had lived with us for three years with our grandson Aiden, had planned for the four of us to go on a mini vacation to Wisconsin Dells together. We had a dog that was diagnosed with cancer the day before, so I stayed back to care for him after the surgery. That Thursday morning I got the worst phone call any mother could imagine, my daughter, crying and screaming saying that her father had passed away in the night. He passed away in his sleep, in the same room that her and our grandson were sleeping. March 19 was the day of the visitation and funeral. There were hundreds of people there to honor Derrick and how he had touched their lives. He did that. He was a mentor, a guardian, a brother in arms, a friend, a coach, an overall leader to so many people. The outpouring of love and kindness was simply amazing, but so was he.
The VA disability claim starts all over when a loved one passes. The survivor has to file to take over the claim and they must resubmit all of the paperwork and the supporting documentation of proof along with it. This is an agonizing process when you are grieving. I had just gotten done doing all of this. Derrick had three 3-ring binders full of medical records to support his claims of disability. I had to resubmit all of it again along with proof of where it happened, when it happened, and what the incident was that caused the disability. This was very difficult since Derrick's missions were classified. It took 23 months (from the original file date) for the VA to come back with a disability decision on Derrick. They did decide that he was 100% service-connected disabled. They, however, denied a service-connected death and did not grant me DIC benefits. I am appealing that decision.
During the whole process, Derrick always said not every Veteran has a "Jess". His wishes were that, after he recovered enough, we would start a non-profit corporation for Veterans, Service Members, and Military Families so they could have the same resources that he did during his time of need. He wanted to give back to his brothers and sisters in arms that did not have the same support system that he had when they needed it the most. That is what I did. I founded Victory and Valor for Vets Project so that each of them may have the opportunity to get the help they need. Every Veteran, Service Member, and their family members deserve the financial, mental, and physical support to help them through whatever struggle they may be going through.
Derrick's love and dedication to the military and to our country was extraordinary. He was the most decorated man that I knew and strived to lead and mentor the men and women that he served with. The love of our family is what kept us going during that very difficult time of all of the unknowns during his military career. I will try to carry on that legacy and honor him with every opportunity I get to help a Veteran, Service Member, or their family.