Coming Home: Chapter 7

 SGT Derr 

SGT Derr 

Coming Home: Chapter 7 

....by Tammy Hooper-Scherer

*If you or a loved one is suffering with PTSD or needs help, please don't hesitate, pick up the phone and call The Sgt. Colton Levi Derr Foundation at 605-545-2505 or the Veterans Crisis Line/National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Help is always available.*

Colton and Corey, my boyfriend at the time, met at Fort Drum. They quickly became close friends and shortly after Colton moved in. What I remember most was Colton's beautiful smile. It was infectious and I recall how I'd see it spread across his face as he'd watch Corey and I dance from across the room. Colton was an old soul. Humble, sweet, polite, he'd ask Corey's permission before asking me to dance. 

Colton was proud of his parents and siblings in a way I had never experienced before. He loved our country and was honored to defend it but mostly he dreamt of someday having a family, a beautiful wife, and a couple smiling kiddos.

I have this 5 second video clip of Colton proudly dancing his mom across the floor and while the video is too dark to see, I promise you his beautiful smile shone brightly that night. He adored his mom and his entire family. He carried photos of them and the Daniels' family in his truck so they were always by his side. 

Corey and Colton bonded on a deep level. Shortly after Colton deployed for the last time he sent me a fb message "I get along with just about anybody, but I don't really count most people as friends, more like frequent aquaintances. Corey is an actual friend that I look forward to seeing again. That was a little gay, but whatever, haha." In the year or so Colton lived with Corey he became much more than our friend. He became family. 

He didn't say much about his struggles but we knew of his pain. Colton was proud to be in the Calvary but he was suffering from PTSD and he recognized he needed time to heal before he redeployed. His request was denied. 

The months before deployment Colton would listen to music all night. Ryan Bingham was among his favorites and especially seemed to ease his pain. I worried about Colton going overseas but to my surprise he seemed ok while he was gone. 

Colton came home the following spring and went to South Dakota to be with his family. Corey came home several weeks later. We were all excited to see one another but I was worried about Colton. He didn't seem well again. When he took his fb page down I became concerned that he might be withdrawing but he said he was ok. The day before we met up I texted him to see how he was doing. I let him know I was worried about him and I told him when we'd be coming home. He responded briefly and let me know that he planned to start a fire the following night to warm the house for when we arrived.

The next day I picked Corey up from the airport and we began the long drive home. We were both excited as it had been more than a year since we'd been to the house together. Corey had survived his third and final deployment and he was ready for something different in his life. He had this giant smile accross his face and a look of freedom in his eyes. He truly seemed happy but as we pulled into the driveway and the car lights shown on the giant "Welcome Home" banner I had hung over the garage a few weeks prior, I had this overwhelming premonition that Colton's life had ended and ours was about to change forever. I dont know how I knew, but I knew that when we walked inside we would find Colton dead. 

There was honor in the way Colton lived but there was no glory in the way he died.

Almost 5 years have passed since the night we found him but I still can't bring myself to write about what happened after we walked in the house. 

Statistically at least 6 people are directly affected by each person who completes suicide. These are your kids, your spouse, your family, your friends. Each of us who tells Colton's story has been affected in a way that none of us would wish on anyone. 

The most important thing I can tell you is Suicide is 100% Preventable.

You don't have to kill yourself. You don't have to suffer in silence. You don't have to put your loved ones through this. You just have to pick up the phone and be willing to accept help. I'm not suggesting it's easy. It's going to be hard but I promise you that getting help is better than whay you've been living through and its better than the alternative. There is hope. 

The Sgt. Colton Levi Derr Foundation has one mission, to help ensure that other soldier's stories don't end the way Colton's did. Please pick up the phone and call and they'll help you get through the rest. It's never too late. 

"I can do anything for 1 day... 1 day can turn into a lifetime." -Sgt. Colton Levi Derr Foundation

Coming Home: Chapter 6

colton.jpeg

Coming Home: Chapter 6

April 18, 2012.  Colton's final days were counting down as he cleared Texas and his 1st CAV brothers.  The rambling man was following a trail that would lead to his final destination on the “south side of heaven.”

Colton’s thoughts were racing through his mind at about the same pace as the hemi motor that thrusted his truck over the next horizon.  He had just returned from his final combat mission and was making plans to transition back to a civilian life.  A true warrior; he was returning to a civilian society in which many have lost the concept of code, ethos and brotherhood.  The journey home would prove to be fatal.      

I worried about Colton’s ability to adjust fire. Colton was a leader who always focused on taking care of his men and the mission. The battlefield does not allow for much insight into your internal struggles.  This reality was evidenced by the fact that Colton’s suicide sent shockwaves through his military brothers.  They didn’t see it coming. 

Colton kept his feelings in check; he was not one for sharing his woes with others. After all, he was the oldest sibling in his family and they looked up to him.  He was a brother to many and a friend who never failed the ones he cared about.  Steadfast in commitment and honor; his soul was kind and true. 

What would be Colton’s trigger point that sent him down a path of no return?  What could cause this young man to decide that death was the only way to end his pain?  He had plans, he had opportunities…but moreover, he was loved. 

Colton’s final journey continues.. 

 

Coming Home: Chapter 5

 Colton and Aunt Karen 

Colton and Aunt Karen 

13 APR 2017

April 12, 2012. Evening fell and there had been no sign of Colton. He had said he would stop by Denver on his way south to Texas. Come morning I would find his orange Dodge Ram pickup parked on the side of the house. He had driven in the night and not wanting to wake us, he slept in his truck. Always so polite, that Colton. 

I scolded him for not waking us, hugged him, and quickly ushered him into the house. I hastily got dressed for work so we could have time to chat. He looked incredible, the best I had seen him in a long time, and it so warmed my soul. As we talked, he smiled and I was reminded of Colton as a boy, such a happy and polite child with the demeanor of an adult. After all, he had all those “kids” to raise. He called his siblings “the kids”. He took the title of big brother seriously and he had done a fine job of raising them up. If you’ve met them, you’d know that they are resilient, responsible, and a little bit ornery, just like their brother. 

Colton had grown up to be an incredible young man, the epitome of an old time cowboy, tough as nails, with a sharp wit, and ready for anything. He had true grit. He could do whatever he set his mind to do and got whatever he went after. I was so proud of him and so pleased to spend this morning with him.

Colton told of his plans to see his friends in Texas and look at some property there to set up a horse operation after he left the Army. We talked about his service in Afghanistan, family, and his Easter at home. Our time was short and I absolutely hated it. I wanted to call in to work and stay home with him, but I had to go. Nurses don’t have the luxury of calling in. After I left, my husband, Bob took Colton to Longmont to meet our son, Jeremy for breakfast. They had a wonderful visit. Soon, he was on his way to Texas. 

About 2 weeks later as I lay half-awake on a lazy Sunday morning, the phone rang. Bob was already awake and having his coffee, but I felt compelled to jump out of bed and see who it was. As I walked down the stairs I looked up and saw his face. And somehow, before he ever spoke the words, I knew. I knew Colton was gone. And my heart stopped.

How?! How could I have not known he was in such a bad place? I know him and I knew he had been fighting demons. I swear, I had searched his eyes and his heart for any sign of despair as he sat at my kitchen table. How could I have missed it? I’m a nurse with over 30 years’ experience; I know what to look for. I know the signs. How did I miss it? 

I beat myself up all the way home to the hills to be with my family. I screamed at God and cried buckets of tears. I should have caught it. This can’t be real. Not our Colton. Not this way.

Later, it would come to me, what I had missed. It was his peaceful resolve. Remember, I said Colton would get anything he went after? He had become accustomed to winning, whether it was wrestling, bull-riding, warrior competitions, and certainly any battle he faced, whether in war or in his personal life. The demons would not win as he had made a battle plan and he knew he would succeed. All other plans had failed, but this one would not. He had found peace in his decision. That, I tell you, is what I missed. 

This picture was taken the morning he stopped to “say goodbye”, April 13, 2012. I love you, nephew and I will always treasure those precious moments. 

- Aunt Karen

Coming Home: Chapter 4

 Colton heads to Texas..

Colton heads to Texas..

12 APR 2017

It was tough for a man who was so prideful, strong and accustomed to conquering all comers and all things in life. A champion wrestler, a cowboy and steely eyed soldier….what could bring him down? After all, his fellow soldiers nicknamed him ‘Delta Derr’. 

Colton broke his constrained silence. “Dad, I don't know why I feel the way I do, I’m trying to control it - but I’m having a hard time.” His head down, his strong hand firmly grasping the back of his neck; we were ready for the heart to heart talk. I was relentless in just being near him until he tapped out, until he opened up. 

As a father, more than anything in life, you want to protect your children. I was fortunate that Colton would confide in me about his demons and internal battles. We made a plan; when he got back to Fort Drum, he would deal (treatment) with his PTSD and suffocating depression. 

Colton was a wanderlust who loved the open road and the opportunities he may find over the next horizon. He was gathering his gear, as this part of his “coming home” journey was coming to an end. Before making his drive back to Fort Drum; he was getting ready to make his trek to Texas to see his 1st CAV brothers at Fort Hood.

Colton was saying all the right things about future plans after the military. During his Texas trip he was going to look for land to buy - land to raise his own horses on. He intended to enroll in college down there and finish out his criminal justice degree. He had even reached out to his younger brother Wyatt; in hopes that he would join him on his new adventure. 

So, why was I still uneasy and restless when he left home on that warm evening of 12 APR 2012? After all, we made a pact to beat this demon. 

This is the last picture I took of Colton. I held him and did not want to let him go. I kissed him, told him I loved him and said goodbye. 

Colton’s journey continues….

Coming Home: Chapter 3

 The Derr Clan.. Easter Day 2012

The Derr Clan.. Easter Day 2012

8 APR 2017

April 8, 2012 was a warm spring Easter day. Haley, Wyatt and Josephine made the trip home from college; little sister Audra (the surprise child) was ready to have her older siblings back under one roof. 

Colton was safely home from his final mission to Afghanistan; our prayers had been answered. Although, just twenty short sunsets from this day would find Colton dead by suicide. Safe has many meanings and proved to be as fleeting as Colton’s life. 

This is the last picture I have with all of my children together. Colton had been home for less than a week and I could sense the effects of PTSD beginning to tug at his soul. He was tense on this particular day. I held the camera waiting for his wry grin to come out…but I could see he was struggling. 

These feelings were not new to Colton; he had battled them since his Iraq mission. Before Colton deployed to Afghanistan, he was again fighting the demons of PTSD and a subsequent deep depression. He and I had an open dialogue about his struggles and he agreed to give counseling another shot while at Fort Drum, NY. He was actually flagged as non-deployable due to his mental health issues. This however was not supported by his chain-of-command and they marked him as deployable (mission essential) and narrated on his deployment paperwork that they would “monitor the soldier in theater.” 

Colton wanted to deploy. It may be hard for some to comprehend, but I knew he would be entirely men and mission focused while he was in the battlefield. Coming home proved to be more menacing than the Taliban. 

Thus, I knew when Colton came home that ‘plugging’ back in would be a challenge. I took the next few days off from work and just stayed at home while Colton ran his personal errands and got ready for a trip to Texas to visit friends. I waited for him to open up and he did. “Dad, I don't know why I feel the way I do, I’m trying to control it - but I’m having a hard time.” 

We talked….more to come.

Coming Home: Chapter 2

 Colton and his father... 

Colton and his father... 

5 APR 2017

It was a fresh spring morning five years ago today when Colton gathered the horses for a day in the saddle. There was an aura of peace about him and a sheepish grin I had not seen in a while. Following a year-long mission in Afghanistan, I understood what coming home meant to him.

I watched my son work the horses with a natural instinct and bond that he had developed since childhood. Before Colton could walk, he was astride his trusty pony mare, Sally. I remember the first time I threw him in a saddle - he was just a few months old. 

He was a quiet boy who did not change much with age nor the experiences of life. I always had the feeling he was an old soul who lingered for a past that could not be found in this lifetime. With the heart of a cowboy, he reveled in the simple things which many people take for granted; like a day with his horses. 

Colton paid special attention to his mare that day. His gentle hand seemed as though it could not get enough feel as he continually stroked her neck and ran his fingers through her mane. As we rode off to the north that morning, I too had a calm about me as I could feel the peace within my son. I wanted the ride to last forever and I could sense he too felt the same way. I wanted his peace to last forever. 

Over the next few days Colton spent time visiting with his family and reconnecting with his childhood buddies. I’m not sure, but I think they shared a beer or two? 

It was Easter Day when I could sense the peace within Colton begin to fade. I was on alert; I knew Colton and I would have to talk about the demons. 

Colton's journey continues... 

Coming Home: Chapter 1

 Colton on the open road...heading home. 

Colton on the open road...heading home. 

2 APR 2017

On a similar spring day, five years ago today - Colton made the journey home from Fort Drum, NY. Just a few short weeks earlier, he had been on foot patrol in the Kandahar Province of Afghanistan. His boots would now find him on the familiar terrain of his family ranch and back to a community full of family and friends. 

Colton was so loved and revered by all who knew him. Coming home was not enough to calm his weary soul, nor ease his anguish. 

Throughout the month of April, we will tell Colton’s story and how his pain has turned into a message of HOPE.

We Can - We Will

Almost immediately after Sergeant Derr’s suicide, his family began discussions about how to turn this tragedy into something less painful…something that would honor him: The Sergeant Colton Levi Derr Foundation.

What do we do? We honor Sergeant Derr by assisting his fellow military brothers/sisters who need someone who will listen; someone who understands the battles they face.

We advocate for our returning veterans to ensure the decision makers and the public are aware of the demons associated with PTSD and veteran suicide.

Many veterans need financial assistance, legal assistance, advocates and folks who will LISTEN to them without judgement. A BATTLE BUDDY.

We listen to those Warriors who need a Battle Buddy; there is not much we won’t do.....the list continues.

  • Multiple public/media events to address veteran issues

  • Discussions on veteran policies with congressional leadership

  • We listen to veterans and their families and help guide them to a path of HOPE 

  • Paid travel expenses for a caregiver who needed to stay with her warrior husband at Walter Reed Medical Center

  • Assisted with funeral expenses for fallen warriors who were no longer active duty

  • Paid legal expenses 

  • Paid travel expenses for a veteran to get a Service Dog 

  • Paid security deposit and rent for a veteran family

  • Bought a veteran a car so he could continue to work following his treatment program

  • Paid vehicle repair bills  

  • Assisted a veteran who needed to get his car out of repossession

  • Moved a veteran family from one home to another

  • Worked with vets from a VA PTSD program (equine therapy) 

  • Bought winter clothes for veterans at VA facility treatment program

  • Provided multiple veterans and their families with options and financial assistance

Colton didn't lose many battles...

4.28.16: On this spring day in 2012, Sergeant Colton Levi Derr committed suicide. Today, an estimated 22+ veterans will follow Colton’s path and die by their own hands.

Colton suffered with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following his combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. In support of America’s War on Terror during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, SGT Derr, US Army 1st Division, completed over 500 combat missions. Colton succumbed to suicide within six weeks of arriving stateside from his Afghanistan deployment.

Colton was a Warrior….which gave him the resolve to take his own life. Think about, since we lost Colton - another 32,120 veterans have fallen.

Colton didn't lose many battles - he was a very determined young man. Colton’s soldiers nicknamed him “Delta Derr.” Oh yes, he had GRIT. This toughness however proved to be his achilles heel. The one enemy he strived to defeat (PTSD) finally wore him down to the point he tapped out. Once Colton decided he was going to take his life, there was no turning back - he was resolute. Colton was going to kill the demons who would give him no peace. Colton didn't want to die, he wanted peace, he wanted the pain to end.

I knew Colton’s battles, I knew Colton’s demons. I prayed and we prayed together as a family for his pain to cease. Knowing we had to take this head on, Colton sought treatment within his military resources. Colton was flagged as non-deployable (he sought help) before his final mission. This was a hard decision for Colton as he didn’t want to do anything that may jeopardize his military career. He was a proud man, a self-sufficient man, a brother others went to for counsel.

His outreach efforts failed. His military leadership marked him mission essential and actually wrote, “we will monitor soldier in theater.” That did not happen. We don't blame anyone. We are proud of our son's service to his country. 

I spoke to a mother the other day who was concerned about her veteran son. She said her son is no longer interested in his family, friends or his lifestyle as a civilian. He is withdrawn and they are afraid he will take his life. What are they doing….never leaving him alone. That is not a plan.

The family of Sergeant Colton Levi Derr formed this non-profit Foundation in his name. We honor Colton by helping other veterans and soldiers who battle PTSD and TBI.

TAKE ACTION - REACH OUT - FIGHT.

I love you Son....Jerry W. Derr, Father

He’s America’s son
He bleeds red white and blue
A brother and a friend
To thine own self be true
He was born to lead and serve
And lived to roam and ride
He was happiest with
A pretty girl at his side
Restless was his soul and strong was the call
America’s son would ride proud and tall
His face to the sun and old glory unfurled
He strapped a gun to his back and went off to save the world
With blood, sweat, and tears he fought the battle well
Then demons stole his dreams and the warrior fell
The way to save himself was not to be found
A life he’d never know lay shattered on the ground
He’s America’s son
He bled red white and blue
A brother and a friend
To thine own self be true
When you sit around a fire, laugh and raise a beer
Think kindly of him then and know he will be near
He’s a whisper in your soul
A feather in the wind
America’s son has come home again.

….Aunt Karen