Gala honors Sgt. Derr and veterans
Wed, 10/18/2017 - 11:41am admin
We’re all in this together and will come together as a community to be there for those who have been there for us – our veterans."
Oct. 1 marked 30 years since a baby boy was brought home to a ranch near Caputa.
Jerry and Theresa Derr welcomed Colton, the oldest of six children, a young man who, through his life legacy, would eventually go on to help numerous American veterans.
According to Jerry, Colton showed leadership traits early,. “He was the leader of his sibling clan and adored and protected his brothers and sisters.”
A born leader
Colton was a quiet, kind, loving and happy child, according to Jerry. When he was not arranging all sorts of games to play with his siblings, Colton was content to spend time in the company of his dog, Hondu. Colton was always ready to share his infectious smile with others, Jerry said.
Colton had a knack for working with horses and other animals, due in large part to his naturally calm demeanor. Most notably, according his dad, Colton “possessed a soul much older than his young years,” and he was trademarked as having a love for God even as a child.
For his elementary years of schooling, Colton attended the rural Farmingdale School with his cousins and siblings, then came to town school in New Underwood, where he eventually graduated as part of the Class of 2006. Fun-loving and competitive, he participated in 4-H, wrestling, FFA, baseball, football, cross country, track, and rodeo rough stock events, including bareback, saddle bronc and bull riding.
Colton found particular success in wrestling. With only one season of wrestling experience, Colton won a state AAU championship, then traveled to Ford Field in Detroit, Mich., to win the national championship title. Colton continued to find success in high school competition, winning the Region 4A championship at 171 pounds, and advancing to state competition both his junior and senior years, losing only two matching and finishing third in the state both years.
Following high school, Colton joined the Army Reserves and attended basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., before beginning his freshman year of college at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minn. This was followed by time at the University of South Dakota, Vermillion, where he majored in criminal justice.
According to Jerry, Colton was “an old time cowboy” both in his heart and in how he lived his life. Despite his many accomplishments, Colton “loved the simple things in life [and] valued love, family, friendship and camaraderie more than self-gratification and material things,” Jerry noted.
“He was a man of God,” said Jerry. From an early age, Colton showed a propensity for serving others. Traits from his childhood stood him in good stead for this – he could read animals, people and situations, and he remained calm even in tense situations, like a wrestling match or a rodeo event. While he earned praise for his athletic ability, more people commented on the kindness he showed to his opponents following wrestling matches. Colton was consistently respectful, not given to boasting or gloating, according to Jerry.
“Colton growing into a leader was a perfect fit. He was a motivator, teacher and led by example,” stated Jerry.
The making of a hero
Colton was himself following the example of his father, who served the residents of Pennington County as a sergeant for the Pennington County Sheriff’s Department. Colton was enlisted in the Army as a reserve soldier, but he felt a calling to do something more.
Jerry was in Iraq himself, training Iraqi police as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, when he received a telephone call from Colton.
“He called me in Iraq to say he had something to say. I said ‘I know… How long before you get over here?’,” Jerry recalled.
Colton’s desire to serve his country in the fight in the Middle East took him to the Army Intelligence Center at Ft. Huachuca, Ariz. Again, Colton found success, graduating with high honors and a top secret clearance.
Colton’s next step took him to Ft. Hood, Texas. There he was assigned to the Troopers and the Families of the 6th Squadron 9th US Cavalry 3HBCT, as part of America’s First Team, 1st Cavalry Division. Their motto, a fitting one for Colton, is “We Can, We Will, Sabers Never Quit!”
From here, Colton was off to Iraq. Fittingly, he followed in his father’s footsteps. Jerry was still training the Iraqi police force while Colton began working to gather intel along the Syrian border.
As with his earlier life accomplishments, Colton again found wide success during his service in Iraq. Colton served as an intelligence sergeant in the S2 section of an armed reconnaissance squadron, which was forward deployed to the Ninawa Province of Iraq. Here, Colton’s job was to prepare all-source intelligence in support of his commander.
Using personality-based targeting, Colton effected the neutralization of several suicide vest cells. Colton shared his expertise, training the 11th Brigade Iraqi Army intelligence section on personality-based targeting methods. This training resulted in the Iraqi Brigade’s first high value target list.
Colton also trained combat patrols on the functions and capabilities of the HIIDE system, a biometrics device that scans the iris, fingers and face of a subject.
Colton served as the troop commander’s personal security detachment dismount on over 200 combat missions in the Ninewa Province.
Outside of his direct professional parameters, Colton continued to teach and lead, developing a challenging physical fitness training program for the S2 section.
It was not only work for Colton, though. His competitive nature and commitment to excellence resulted in him being selected by the squadron’s command sergeant major to represent the squadron in the multi-national division “Best Warrior Competition.” Colton won the “Grey Wolf” designation in the contest.
Following his service in Iraq, Colton wanted to again serve his country in Afghanistan. Colton switched his service unit from Ft. Hood to Ft. Drum, N.Y., in order to be able to deploy to Afghanistan. At Ft. Drum, Colton was assigned to A TRP, 3-71 CAV, 31BCT, 10th MTN Division. His skill and experience were immediately called into action as he was selected, over four other sergeants, to oversee the platoon’s arms room to ensure 100 percentweapons accountability in preparation for the deployment to Afghanistan. In this capacity, Colton overhauled the arms room program by implementing a new Standard of Procedure (SOP), Jerry said.
Once in Afghanistan, Colton used his interpersonal and communication skills to convince his superiors to re-assign him so he could go on missions with his brothers in arms. Colton thrived in his new assignment as the scout team leader in a mounted cavalry platoon in the Kandahar Province of Afghanistan.
As he had in Iraq, Colton again implemented a battle-ready physical fitness routine for the soldiers with whom he fought. The specified fitness program was tailored to prepare the soldiers for the military operations they would face.
Colton proved to be an unconventional hero when his platoon kept getting hit by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) while they were out on their foot patrol missions in areas infested with enemy combatants. Under the dark of night, and wearing camouflage paint, Colton would strip off his gear and sneak out of the camp to surveil the enemy. Colton was fearless on these self-assigned solo missions, knowing that the intel he gathered would help his team.
“His captain said Colton had been doing this for quite a while before they figured it out. He could have been in serious trouble with his military leadership, but they gave him his nickname, ‘Delta Derr’,” given because of his bravery and his physical and mental abilities, Jerry said.
Colton successfully led his team on over 300 mounted and dismounted combat missions in Afghanistan before returning home in March of 2012.
Despite his positive tours, all was not well for Colton, though.
“When Colton came home from Iraq, it was not long before I knew the signs of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” Jerry said.
Colton seemed to be struggling with depression, and was having trouble sleeping. Recognizing these signs, Jerry encouraged Colton to seek help through his military chain of command. This was the first time the military failed its young soldier. Colton attempted to get help while he was at Fort Hood, but “his treatment efforts were not supported by his chain of command,” noted Jerry.
After transferring to Fort Drum, Colton again sought help. Again, his leaders were not supportive of his request for help, and Colton deployed to Afghanistan without receiving the help he needed.
Easter came soon after Colton returned home from his tour in Afghanistan. Colton came home to South Dakota and his family to celebrate Easter, and, to his father’s dismay, “I could see he was seriously struggling with PTSD,” Jerry said.
According to Jerry, he and Colton enjoyed a close father-and-son relationship. Colton was open with his father about his suffering. Jerry related a conversation he had with Colton over that Easter holiday.
“ ‘Dad, you were in Iraq for over three years and you are okay,’ he said. ‘I don’t know why I can’t shake these feelings.’ I told Colton I was not okay – we all deal with issues in a different way. We had many such heart-to-heart talks as father and son. He held no secrets from me except his final decision to break our agreement,” Jerry said.
“Colton told me he had thoughts of taking his life. I thought my bond with him was stronger. I thought our commitment to battle this demon together was strong enough to get us through. I thought Colton’s relationship with our Lord would give him the strength to fight this. I thought a lot of things. I was wrong,” he said.
Colton remained with his family for Easter. Before he left, Jerry requested that Colton again seek treatment when he returned to Fort Drum. Colton promised he would.
Before he returned to New York, Colton traveled to Texas to visit friends. Back at Fort Drum, Colton became increasingly quiet. He told his father he was in pain. On April 28, 2012, Jerry sent Colton a prayer. In the prayer, Jerry asked God to take away Colton’s pain and to give it to Jerry to bear.
“The result was not what I prayed for. I got the pain, and Colton lost his life,” Jerry said.
Colton was alone when he died. His parents received a knock at the door in the early morning hours of April 29. Jerry said he already knew before the news was broken to them. “I knew Colton was gone. I felt him pass.”
“I was angry at myself – not God, not Colton.”
Now Jerry faced what he calls the hardest part of losing Colton – telling Colton’s siblings. Because Colton preferred to keep his struggles private, his siblings never knew that he had been suffering. “After all, Colton was their hero. Heroes don’t suffer… but they do,” Jerry stated.
Another difficult step came as the family attempted to procure Colton’s earthly possessions. The family was assigned a casualty affairs officer from the Army. This man was supposed to help the Jerry family through the process of getting Colton and his belongings home from Fort Drum. But Jerry recognized that something was not right in the process.
“There were several times during this process in which I questioned what was being done – or not getting done.”
Jerry’s concerns were confirmed when Colton’s belongings arrived via a private contractor hired by the military. Prior to this, Jerry had been to Colton’s home outside Fort Drum and had inventoried and documented his personal items. When Colton’s property arrived, Jerry realized that several of Colton’s personal items were missing, including a safe that held Colton’s most treasured possessions, including his military medals.
Jerry reached out to both the military personnel and local law enforcement, but his concerns were disregarded. Drawing on his own law enforcement experience, Jerry began his own investigation, effecting the eventual arrest of the driver from the private trucking company responsible for bringing Colton’s property home.
A new purpose
Because of this and numerous other issues that the Derr family faced following Colton’s death, the Derr family knew within days of losing Colton that his death must spark a way to help others who were in his same situation. After calling congressional legislators and the governor’s office, Jerry realized that these elected representatives are not notified of an active duty soldier’s death.
“We knew we could help other veterans and soldiers and their families who were dealing with PTSD and veteran suicide. We knew Colton’s death would not be in vain and that his pain would lead to hope for others,” Jerry said.
The family did not want Colton’s death to define his life. “He was much more than a statistic on a military briefing slide accounting for a number of military suicides,” stated Jerry.
The statistics on the military suicides are breathtaking. According to Jerry, there are 20 veterans and one active duty soldier suicides each day. To combat this, the Derr family established the Sgt. Colton Levi Derr Foundation. Their mission is to, in Colton’s name, aid his fellow military brothers and sisters who need someone to listen, and to offer material, substantive help whenever possible.
While the VA came under fire in recent years because of its mistreatment of veterans, the Sgt. Colton Levi Derr Foundation has helped to bridge the gap between the VA’s intentions and the veterans’ needs. “The local VA has used us to assist veterans when their policies or timeline was not going to solve the immediate needs,” Jerry said.
Far from having a solely local impact, the foundation reaches out to veterans across America. Recently, a homeless veteran in North Carolina called Jerry and asked if he had heard the foundation helped veterans. He was sitting on a street curb when another veteran told him about the foundation.
Though the foundation operates with limited funding, and has no paid workers, they have already proved effective. They educate lawmakers and the general public about PTSD and veteran suicide, offer financial and legal assistance to veterans and provide a listening ear for veterans who simply need a Battle Buddy with whom to process their thoughts and debrief from their time in the service.
The foundation participates in discussions on veteran policies with congressional leadership as well as listening to and guiding veterans and their families to find hope. Practically speaking, the foundation has paid travel expenses so a woman could be with her warrior husband at the Walter Reed Medical Center, assisted with funeral expenses for fallen soldiers who were no longer active duty, paid travel expenses for a veteran to get a service dog, paid the security deposit and rent for a veteran family, bought a veteran a car so he could continue to work following his treatment program, paid for vehicle repairs for veterans, assisted a veteran who needed to get his car out of repossession and provided other material and emotional support in numerous ways.
Making it work
The foundation is operated largely by Colton’s family, several of whom have continued with the family’s tradition of serving America. Haley Derr, president, has a business and economics degree and is a banker at Black Hills Federal Credit Union. She also recently graduated officer candidate school at Fort Meade. She is a second lieutenant with the 842nd in the South Dakota National Guard. Josephine Dirksen, vice president, has a double major in human services and sociology. Wyatt Derr, secretary, just returned home from four years in the Marines and is finishing a degree at the University Center.
According to Jerry, having everyone involved in the foundation while also maintaining their own lives is a balance. Jerry said that Colton’s death and the foundation have made each member of the family more aware of human suffering and the struggle that each person has in life.
All the work done by the foundation comes at a price, though, and, Saturday, Oct. 21, the Derr family invites people across western South Dakota to help them in aiding America’s forgotten heroes as the Gallantly Forward Gala seeks to raise awareness of and funding for what the foundation’s work in aiding veterans in South Dakota and across the nation.
Initial funding for the foundation came from the purchase of two well-bred quarter horse stallions, which the Derr family gave to the foundation. The stallions proved profitable to the foundation and also served to get the foundation’s name – and Colton’s story – across the nation. This was fitting, since Colton’s plans following his military service and college was to start a small herd of performance horses, in addition to training and riding out horses.
Though the stallion purchase proved effective, Jerry, under the urging of his sister, Karen, realized that the foundation’s message needs to be brought back home. Karen is involved in an annual gala in Denver, Colo., which raises money to assist local non-profit organizations dedicated to helping veterans. Karen encouraged Jerry to consider raising awareness for the Foundation’s work closer to home and to seek help for the Foundation’s work from people who knew and loved Colton.
The first gala occurred in 2014 at the Central States Fair grounds and had such a good response that subsequent events in 2015 and 2016 took place at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.
“The goal of the foundation has never been to raise large sums of money – that would be nice – but to offer a message of hope and get community awareness about the battle our veterans face when they return home.
“The gala allows veterans and their families and community to come together and realize there are options. We’re all in this together and will come together as a community to be there for those who have been there for us – our veterans,” Jerry said.
This year’s gala is Saturday, Oct. 21, at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, LaCroix Hall. The event features a social hour, dinner, live and silent auctions, live music and guest speakers – Staff Sergeant Samuel McCue, USMC, and Master Sergeant Amanda McDowell, USAF. Doors open at 5:00 p.m. Tickets must be purchased in advance by calling (605) 545-2505.