02/28/06 — Wayne County native on road to recovery from Iraqi roadside bomb attack

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Wayne County native on road to recovery from Iraqi roadside bomb attack

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on February 28, 2006 1:56 PM

A military hero and recent Purple Heart recipient quietly slipped into town over the weekend. Hospitalized in Washington, D.C., since being injured by a roadside bomb while deployed to Iraq, it was his first time returning to Goldsboro.

He had an important mission -- to attend his son's fifth birthday party at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base bowling center.

Derek Drew blended in with the crowd, except that he was in a wheelchair. Unable to walk since being injured, he was just glad to have a three-day pass to come home and be there for his son, Derek Jr. (D.J.), and his daughter, Kyara.

Derek Drew

Photo submitted

Wayne County native Derek Drew, pictured at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.., holding his Purple Heart.

Drew, 26, was on routine patrol in Taji, north of Iraq, the day after Thanksgiving. Accompanying him were a driver, a medic and a gunner. Their vehicle was sandwiched between two others when a bomb exploded beneath Drew's feet.

"He said all of a sudden the truck he was in jerked to a stop," said his mother, Kathy Drew, a teacher at Spring Creek Elementary School. "He went forward, covering his face."

The inside of the truck filled with dirt and smoke, but the soldiers didn't realize anybody was hurt, she said. But when Derek attempted to get out of the truck, he realized he could not move his legs. A medic pulled him out and laid him on the ground.

"The first time he saw his leg, his foot was up to his thigh," his mother said. "He said he kept thinking, 'I'm going to lose my leg.'"

Derek's Humvee.jpg

Photo submitted

The remains of the humvee that Derek Drew was riding.

Within minutes, a helicopter arrived to transport Drew to the base. He would later be transferred to Germany and then back to the U.S. for medical treatment.

The only other person hurt during the explosion was the gunner, who received cuts to his face and was soon sent back to duty.

Drew sustained multiple fractures to his right leg, broke his left foot and right hand, and had to have his right ring finger reattached.

Mrs. Drew remembers getting the news about her son. She wasn't home when the call came but suspected something when she returned and the relative who had intercepted the message awaited her.

"She said, 'I have some good news and some bad news,'" she said. "I said, 'Derek's coming home!' She said, 'Yes, he'll be coming home at Christmas.' I asked what the bad news was, and she told about him being hurt."

Initially, there were conflicting reports, with the family fearing the worst, Mrs. Drew said.

"We were told there was shrapnel, and he had been hit with the device when it exploded in his face. There were some stitches over his right eye and shoulder," she said. "If you look at him now, you really don't know anything had happened to his face."

Drew's wife, Michelle, also was unsure how to feel when she heard about the attack.

"I had every emotion that you can possibly have," she said. "They don't tell you exactly what happened. It was very, very brief."

Michelle said she was originally told Derek would be limping around for awhile.

"He hasn't limped yet," she said Saturday.

Mrs. Drew said when her son telephoned two days after the accident, at 3 in the morning, his first words were, "I knew you'd be worried." They talked only a couple of minutes, mostly with him trying to reassure her that he was all right and would be OK, she said. That was their only conversation until he reached the states.

The hardest part, she said, was telling his siblings. All four of her children are in the military. While Derek is in the Army, the others -- Stephanie, 31, Leon, 30, and Jonathan, 22 -- are in the Air Force.

"My youngest son Jonathan (stationed at Seymour Johnson) idolizes Derek," she said. "At the time, Jonathan's wife was on active duty and was in Iraq. They had been disconnected on the phone because of bombing. It was a couple of hours before he was able to reconnect with her."

So, hearing the news about his brother made Jonathan's own situation even tougher, Mrs. Drew said.

Once they received word that Derek would be sent to Walter Reed Hospital, in D.C., it was just a matter of making travel arrangements for everyone.

"The hospital was good as far as visiting times, whatever time you got there," she said. Derek arrived on Wednesday, Dec. 1, and his family was there the next day.

Unsure about the prognosis, reports varied at first. Initially told Derek's stay would be brief, they found out it could be days, which later turned into a much longer recovery period. But throughout, Derek's mother said his attitude has remained positive.

"He has had wonderful spirits. But when they told him he'd be there for a year, he was a little crushed by that," she said.

He has since been moved from the hospital to an outpatient facility, traveling back and forth for daily physical therapy appointments. His wife remained with him, while Kyara and D.J. stay with relatives in Goldsboro.

"Every weekend, my husband and I get into the truck and we drive up" with the children, his mother said. They have only missed one weekend, when a daughter-in-law returned from Iraq.

While the family is close-knit and their support strong, they have not been without their weary, down moments. In the six years Derek and his wife have been married, he has been deployed three times. His latest deployment was in February 2004. He had 45 days left on his tour when he was injured.

Michelle said she weathered the first two times her husband was sent overseas. There was something different about this one, though, she said.

"The stakes were higher the last go-round," she said. Shortly before Derek's departure, she said they received word that his unit had been hit two weeks after they arrived.

Even with family support, she admits it has been hectic being far from her children while her husband recuperates.

"Sometimes I don't even have peace of mind. I have got to truck on without it," she said.

Derek might have to have additional surgery, but in the meantime, he says the doctors have told him he's ahead of what they expected in terms of his progress.

"I'm getting ready to walk, that's a big step," he said. "Once I start walking, they'll do rehabilitation to restrengthen my legs."

He said his wife and family are what really keep him motivated. Seeing his children every weekend has been as helpful as any medicine or rehab.

The recent Super Bowl proved to be a morale booster as well. Derek has been a big Pittsburgh Steelers fan as long as his mom can remember, so the team's victory meant a lot to him, she said.

"We're trying to see if some of them could swing by when they go to see the president," she said. "That would really make his day."

Michelle had already written to Steelers' Coach Bill Cower before Derek was deployed, and they received an autographed picture of him. But Derek said he wouldn't mind meeting members of the team, too.

In the meantime, he said he was glad to be back in North Carolina for the first time in more than a year.

"It feels real good. It's kinda like being back home," he said.

Beyond that, he said he is anxious to return to where he was stationed, Fort Riley, Kan. Still considered active duty, he will have to be retrained for another job, he said.

"I'm ready to get back, to have my own family, my own house, my own stuff. It's been a long time since I have been able to be home and stay home," he said.

With a recent promotion to staff sergeant, he said he is up for re-enlistment again in 2008, and plans to stay in.

"It would be better if I stayed in, better for my family and better for me. It would be harder to get another job," he said.

As for the Purple Heart, it was given to him the day after the accident. His mother said it was very important that his battalion commander presented it personally before Derek was airlifted to the next hospital for treatment.

Derek, however, is more reluctant to talk about the commendation.

"To be honest with you, it's an award I didn't want, that and the Medal of Honor, because it means you've fought until you can't fight any more. It's a great honor, but I didn't want to get injured," he said.

For little D.J., having his daddy home for his birthday was "great." The 5-year-old said he knows his dad was hurt when "he was bombed."

But for him the best sentiment wasn't about heroics or anything like that.

"I love him," he said, before running off to take his turn at the bowling lane.

Kyara said she is proud of her dad.

"How he tries to save the world," she said.