helmand valley

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Devil Dog stands for Bronze Star at retirement ceremony.

[1] U.S. Marine Capt. Derek Herrera, 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion, is presented the Bronze Star Medal by Lt. Col. John J. Lynch, commanding officer of 1st MSOB, during his retirement ceremony.

[2] Capt. Derek Herrera was paralyzed on June 14, 2012, while conducting combat operations in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Herrera was able to walk again with the help of an exoskeleton at his retirement ceremony.

[3] Captain Derek Herrera with wife Maura and his therapy canine following his retirement ceremony.

(U.S. Marine Corps photos by Sgt. Scott A. Achtemeier, 21 NOV 2014.)

Marines with 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion, friends and family members gathered to witness Capt. Derek Herrera, a special operations officer, accept the Bronze Star with combat V for heroism and medically retire from the Marine Corps, aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Nov. 21, 2014.

Herrera spent more than eight years in the Marine Corps serving first as an infantry officer and transitioning later to become a special operations officer with Marine Special Operations Command.

The Bronze Star Medal is an individual military award of the U.S. armed forces. It may be awarded for acts of heroism or meritorious service in a combat zone. When awarded for acts of heroism, the medal is awarded with a “V” distinguishing device on the medal. The Bronze Star is the fifth-highest combat decoration and the 10th-highest U.S. military award.

Herrera was injured in June 2012 while serving as a special operations team commander in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was hit by enemy sniper fire causing injuries that paralyzed him from the chest down. 

The ambush occurred while Herrera and his team, along with 10 members of the Afghan National Army, were conducting a patrol on the western edge of the Helmand River Valley. 

“Shortly after sunrise, we found ourselves in a firefight with the enemy and surrounded. In the opening moments of that firefight, the sergeant next to me and I were shot,” said Herrera. 

After being shot, Herrera attempted to pick himself up and treat himself when he realized he was paralyzed and unable to move from the chest down. He then remained calm and waited for his teammates to arrive and provide medical assistance.

Herrera said he was confident in his team’s training and its ability to successfully evacuate him from the combat zone. 

“Going through that, there is so many different things that you feel; I actually think I felt a little scared because of what had happened, but shortly thereafter began to really feel just this eerie sense of calm come over me,” said Herrera. “I don’t know exactly why that was, but I think a lot of it had to do with the team I was there with, and that fact that although I had just been shot I had no doubt that my team would get me out of there.” 

Although he was told by doctors he wouldn’t walk again, Herrera was determined to make a difference and be a model of hope and inspiration for others.

“I’m happy to be here, and I think I can still have an impact and positively affect society, so that is what I am focusing my energy and time on.” His determination and proactivity towards his recovery drove him to find the resources that helped him stand and take steps again. 

With the help of the MARSOC Foundation and the generosity of the community, Herrera was able to obtain an Argo ReWalk ExoSkeleton. Herrera was the first person in the United States to use such a device. The ExoSkeleton is a bionic walking assistance system that uses powered leg attachments to enable paraplegics to stand upright, walk and climb stairs. The system has impacted Herrera’s life and he believes it will do the same for others.

“If you don’t do something for weeks and months on end you start to forget what it is like,” said Herrera. “I forgot what it was like to stand and to take steps and to walk, so being able to do that with this device was incredible.”

The system allowed Herrera to stand during the ceremony to receive his award, which was a goal he had set for himself. “I realized my retirement ceremony was coming up and figured that it would be nice if I could stand and walk and leave the Marine Corps in a similar fashion to the way that I entered the Marine Corps,” said Herrera. “I feel very lucky to have that opportunity.” 

As Herrera retires from the Marine Corps, he said he takes with him some of the most gratifying memories as a Marine. “Leading Marines in [combat] environments is very rewarding,” said Herrera. 

Herrera was also deployed to Iraq and several other countries around the Middle East during his time in the Marine Corps. The Bronze Star Medal recipient continues to focus on impacting society and being a model of hope for others as he leaves the military and attacks his next objective.