- Associated Press - Monday, July 17, 2017

STURGIS, S.D. (AP) - Five years after 25-year-old veteran Colton Levi Derr took his own life, his father is carrying on his mission.

The younger Derr, a New Underwood native who served or led 500 missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned from battle suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, an affliction shared by thousands of combat veterans, the Rapid City Journal (https://bit.ly/2tK8Gki ) reported. On April 28, 2012, Colton killed himself off base in Fort Drum, N.Y.

But virtually every week since his son’s death, his father, Jerry Derr, has received a reminder that his boy was not alone. Those reminders often are prompted by a phone call from a homeless veteran somewhere in the U.S., who may be seeking monetary assistance from the Colton Levi Derr Foundation, or simply a sympathetic ear.

“Just Friday, I received a call from a veteran from Jacksonville, N.C.,” Derr said Monday. “He was having a cup of coffee on the street because he was homeless.”

“I hear you help veterans out,” the man told Derr. “He said, ‘Another veteran talked to me and said you help vets,’ and I said ‘yes.’ That’s the type of outreach we were looking for when we set up our son’s foundation.”

Since its inception in 2012, the Derr Foundation has provided more than 100 veterans with financial assistance ranging from help paying bills, cellphones and attorneys, to acquiring a service dog, a vehicle or paying mortgages or funeral expenses.

“We’ve lost more soldiers to suicide than have died in action,” Derr said. “We were not unlike most parents who don’t know the loss of a child until, unfortunately, we experienced that. But we made a decision within a week of Colton’s death that we could help others.”

Today, which Gov. Dennis Daugaard has proclaimed, “Post-Traumatic Stress Injury Awareness Day,” represents an effort to encourage state residents to reflect on the causes, symptoms and treatment of post-traumatic stress injuries.

“The brave men and women of the United States Armed Forces who proudly serve the United States and risk their lives to protect our freedom deserve the investment of every possible resource to ensure their lasting physical, mental, and emotional well-being,” the governor’s proclamation states.

Derr, an administrator with Meade County, said he was bolstered by the increased attention the state is giving to PTSD and its veterans, as one of the primary missions of his son’s foundations is to heighten awareness of PTSD issues that lead to an estimated 20 or more veterans and one active duty soldier committing suicide every day.

He also lauded South Dakota’s congressional delegation, and in particular Rep. Kristi Noem, for working to increase awareness of Veterans Administration programs and other resources available to veterans suffering from PTSD. Information about the Derr Foundation may be accessed online at sergeantderrfoundation.org.

“We want family members and the community to be aware that when their sons and daughters come home from the war zone, the war often isn’t over,” he said. “There is a stigma associated with PTSD, just based on the name itself. But these vets are not damaged goods. Many are extremely productive and are a great asset to their country and their communities.

“The best resource you can provide is to listen,” he added. “Listen without judgment.”

Derr said he expected the foundation to conduct its primary fundraiser, The Gallantly Forward Gala, held annually since 2013, again this fall. In addition to raising funds with which it assists veterans, the foundation attempts to put a face on the combatants who have come home only to confront another enemy.

And in that effort, Derr gains some sense of solace, knowing the memory of his late son will never fade away.

“Colton was a hero in life, and today his name is carrying on through the foundation,” Derr said quietly. “He did not die in vain.”


Information from: Rapid City Journal, https://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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