When Capt. Derek Herrera was called to stand in the place of honor Friday at his retirement ceremony, he pressed buttons on what appeared to be a wristwatch as a fellow Marine came to his aid.
After another push of a button and three short beeps, Herrera rose, legs shaking, and walked deliberately toward his commander. With each step, the exoskeleton he wore emitted a robotic whirring noise, as though it were Iron Man striding through the cordoned off parking lot in digital camouflage.
Herrera was paralyzed from the chest down in June 2012, when he was shot in the spine while leading a team of special operations Marines on a patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan. But Herrera, a 2006 graduate of the Naval Academy and the type of Marine who always ran to the sound of the gun, did not let the devastating injury end his career, said Lt. Col. John Lynch, commander of 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion.
“I’m not one that normally gets emotional, but I’ve got to tell you, your drive, determination and dedication … it’s got me moved today,” he said. “If a human being with your injury can walk again without the exoskeleton, it’s going to be you.”
Herrera retired from the Marine Corps on Friday afternoon, in a ceremony in which he also received a Bronze Star with V for combat valor and a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal.
“At some point, you have to take the uniform off. You can’t wear it forever,” he said, but he assured his fellow Marines that he is not “out of the fight.”
“I’m here for you whenever you need me,” Herrera said.
After his injury, Herrera threw himself into his rehabilitation and made it back to 1st MSOB as a staff officer by January 2013, Lynch said. Later that year, when 1st MSOB hosted then-commander of United States Special Forces Command, Adm. William McRaven, Herrera showed McRaven the unit’s rehabilitation center and told him about his own progress.
When McRaven told Herrera that he had a job in uniform in SOCOM for as long as he wanted it, Lynch said his first thought was, “Victory!” because he would be able to keep Herrera in the unit.
So when Herrera told Lynch that he would retire this year, Lynch said he was taken aback. Then, he said, he realized that Herrera was thinking much bigger than just one unit or one service.
“I think his impact’s going to be global,” Lynch told Herrera’s family, friends and fellow Marines.
“You’re truly one of the most remarkable leaders we’ve ever been associated with, and the truth is, we can’t keep up. We’ve got to get out of the way and let you go,” he said.
Despite the accolades, Herrera insisted that the day was not about him.
“I’m here today because of all of you,” he said to his fellow Marines.
Herrera said he considers himself “completely average,” and said that while his wounds are very visible, they are no different than the hidden wounds other Marines deal with every day.
Capt. Matt Lampert, who graduated from the Naval Academy and the Infantry Officer Course with Herrera and was serving in Afghanistan with him when Herrera was injured in 2012, said he was “super happy” to see his friend recognized.
“He’s a phenomenal individual,” said Lampert, who lost both of his legs in a 2010 IED blast in Afghanistan. “He makes you a better human being.”
Herrera recently completed the Long Beach marathon and a triathlon, is pursuing a master’s of business administration degree, and is the CEO of RuckPack, Inc.
Though he will not remain in uniform, he said, he still hopes to have an impact on 1st MSOB and on the Marine Corps.
“I will continue to struggle and strive for greatness in all that I do,” he said.
Written by Jennifer Hlad – Stars & Stripes