Posted on December 1, 2015
“I’m in a wheelchair at Malone House [at Walter Reed], going to school online, [my wife] Andrea is in Hawaii, and I’m trying to get my pain squared away,” says Navy hospital corpsman Derek McGinnis, recalling the days in late 2004 and early 2005 when he was recovering from his November 2004 encounter with a suicide bomber in the Al Anbar province of Iraq.
“The Semper Fi Fund comes to me and says, ‘Derek, every year we get a bunch of people together to run the Marine Corps Marathon. Do you want to participate this year?’ Well, I looked at this person and said, ‘Thank God for you!’ This was the first person who didn’t look at my disability, they looked at my ability.”
Unfortunately, Derek didn’t get the chance to participate in the Marathon that year because he underwent additional surgery in November 2005. The procedure helped alleviate his leg pain, but he felt like he not only let himself down, but also let down the people to whom he committed to run the marathon. After the surgery, though, he redoubled his efforts to compete.
“November: Recovery. December: Recovery. Then: Into the pool. All this time I’m training,” he says, describing his recovery from surgery and the early months of 2006. “I’m going to school after hours. Therapy. Training in the morning, physical therapy, outpatient mental health care. I’m moving forward, I’m getting stronger, I’m working on running.”
“Pretty soon Karen [Guenther, President and CEO of the Semper Fi Fund] comes by, we’re talking, and I said how I committed to that race. Karen went back and talked to the Fund Board of Directors, and that was the genesis of Team Semper Fi. That following October, I ran the 10k at the Marine Corps Marathon.”
“Fundamentally, the Semper Fi Fund and Team Semper Fi, they developed that strength inside of me,” Derek says. “Their actions said to me, ‘I got your 6, I believe in you, and here’s the opportunity to showcase it.’ They gave me the opportunity to build my own narrative that I could build from. Team Semper Fi planted the seed for me to move forward.”
The accomplishment of running in the 10k was a world apart from the nightmare of November 9, 2004. A suicide bomber had driven his vehicle into Derek’s humvee ambulance.
“This is very important,” Derek emphasizes when he tells his story of what happened on his third deployment. “The Marines and their professionalism and their skill set, they acted without regard for themselves and they secured that circumstance and got me MEDEVAC’d out. The corpsman that was with me, he was critical in stopping my bleeding and saving my life. I had shrapnel throughout my body, shrapnel in my eye. I lost my left leg above the knee. If the Marines and the providers didn’t save my life, I wouldn’t be here today.”
In addition to losing his leg, Derek suffered a severe brain injury that for a while had left him unable to talk or move the right side of his body.
In the wake of his injury, the Semper Fi Fund provided a variety of assistance to Derek and his family, including family support grants, a mattress grant, a laptop to assist with school, bike equipment and training, home improvements and a service dog named Iron that Derek says is a huge benefit not only to him, but to the homeless vets he works with in Lodi, Modesto and Stockton, California.
“Iron is about a year and a half old,” Derek says. “He’s a golden retriever, he goes with me everywhere in the shelters. When he’s around my vets, the way the guards come down and the trust builds—the Fund doesn’t know how many lives Iron touches. My vets with severe PTSD love him.”
Today, Derek has a Master’s degree under his belt. In addition to his social work with homeless veterans, he is an advocate for comprehensive pain management. He’s written a book about the issue, too: Exit Wounds: A Survival Guide to Pain Management for Returning Veterans and Their Families. “It gives a family perspective,” he says of the book, which has received extremely positive and supportive reviews on Amazon.
“There’s a term I like to talk about, it goes back to the gratefulness,” Derek says, looking back over his experiences. “It’s a euphoria, it’s a conscious understanding of: If not for that traumatic incident, I would not be here today. I wouldn’t have this life perspective if I did not have that experience of growth.”
“Gratefulness leads to happiness,” he adds. “Maybe I can describe it this way: Maybe you’re 70 and on your deathbed, you say, ‘If only I did.’ Coming at a younger age, though, you can appreciate life. People say it’s perspective, whatever that means, to see the narrative of things. It’s really gratefulness — grateful for the Marines who saved my life.”