Honor your hero with thoughts, memories, images and stories.
The Full Measure of a Marine's Life
By Bob Derga Gold Star Father
My son gave his life on Mother's Day 2005 while conducting house-to-house searches with his unit. Insurgents opened fire with machine guns from inside the house as Dustin's fire team was opening the door. He was hit in the back by an armor-piercing round that tore through the walls of the house. Three additional members of Dustin's team were wounded during the firefight, one seriously. Members of the unit laid suppression fire as Dustin lay unconscious near the doorway. A wounded Marine carried him to safety and shortly after he was transported by helicopter to a field hospital. Dustin died in route. He was the first of 23 Marines and Navy Corpsmen killed in action during Lima Company's 7-month deployment.
Many view that as his story, but the end of Dustin's life has so very little to do with his story. Dustin's story is everything that proceeded that fateful moment in the Iraqi desert. It is also what has happened since. As a Gold Star Parent, I want people to remember Dustin for who he was and how he lived. I want people to know how he is still impacting people today in ways I never dreamed possible. When people see his name I want them to know the story of a full life, not just this single chapter.
Where does one begin to tell the story about my hero? He was a simple person yet had so many complex dimensions that defy definition. I will try to share with you a little bit about him but I know my words will fall short.
Dustin was a unique young man, but was also made of the same American fabric common to many of our fallen heroes. He was all boy. He loved playing army with his GI Joes as a child while wearing his "cammies." Dustin loved playing baseball and was an excellent pitcher and catcher. He was the happiest when he was working with his hands...making something unique or fixing something broken. Dustin was not afraid of trying the impossible and pushed the envelope of life every chance. He loved his mom, his sister, his girlfriend, his step-mom, and me. He loved helping people and doing what others couldn't do or in some cases, wouldn't do. He loved his country and willingly took an oath to defend it at all cost, including his life. Most of all my Dustin loved life -- every heartbeat!
Dustin always said as a youngster he was going to grow up to be either a soldier or a fireman. In 1999, just days after his graduation from Pickerington High School, he headed off to the uncertainty of Parris Island -- the place Marines are born. In the weeks that followed he faced the Crucible and received his Eagle, Globe, and Anchor. He earned the right of passage into the brotherhood of the Marine Corps.
There he learned the importance of putting others ahead of self and the meaning of honor, courage, and commitment. Most importantly, he learned that any dream is possible if you believe in yourself and put your heart and soul into achieving it. When I asked him why he joined the Corps, the answer was simple. "I want to be part of the best,".....nothing more, nothing less. Dustin had a simple way of saying it all with wisdom far beyond his young years.
Dustin was torn between joining the Marine Corps and pursuing his other passion of becoming a firefighter. He chose both by applying for the Marine Reserves and enrolling at Columbus State University to pursue a degree in fire science. While he was completing his studies, Dustin became a volunteer fire fighter for Basil Township. He was thrilled when he earned his fire card and was allowed to actually go into a burning building.
Dustin wanted it all and wasn't going to compromise anything. At times he wasn't certain about where his life was taking him, but when he would calm his head and follow his heart amazing things always followed.
Dustin had an uncanny ability to make you forget about your troubles and have you laughing over the craziest things when you least expected it. You could never stay mad at him. His contagious smile and dimple would melt your heart in seconds and soon you would completely forget what made you upset. I think Dustin used that trait to his advantage. His fellow Marines commented that Dustin didn't take things too seriously except on missions. They said he had a gift of making the toughest times a little easier with his laughter and antics. Virtually every picture of him in Iraq showed him smiling even though he sorely missed home, cool spring breezes, and home cooked meals. Dustin complained about the hardships but always made others forget about them through his gift of laughter.
Dustin lived life to the fullest. I know with certainty that he is now with God, and I will see him again someday. The hardest part of being a Gold Star Parent is the waiting for that day -- that someday when I will hear his laugh again. It is so hard starting each day without his voice, ending the day without his smile.
Grief can consume you if you let it. I choose not to allow the terrorist act that took him from us to also destroy me. I will not give them the satisfaction.
I choose to follow Dustin's example and make the most of each day. I choose not to let Dustin's story end with that scene in New Ubaydi. I tell his story and I share the lessons he has taught me, but most important I reach out in pain to comfort other Gold Star families and returning troops. In doing that my pain is always lessened.
We now stand in the gap for Dustin. His story continues through us and the other lives he has touched. As you grow old and raise children you often think they will become your legacy. How ironic I have become the legacy of my son.
This Memorial Day or any day, when you see the name of a fallen hero, realize there is more to the story than a name and date of death. Take the time and learn about the lives of our heroes. Don't focus on their untimely ending. I promise you knowing their entire stories will enrich your own life. After all, the full measure of a life is not in way one dies but the life that was lived.
Bob Derga is the Proud Father of Cpl Dustin Derga, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines. Dustin was killed near the Syrian border in Iraq on Mother's Day May 8, 2005 during Operation Matador.
Speech of Senator Mike DeWine- Ohio
FLOOR STATEMENT TRIBUTE TO LANCE CORPORAL DUSTIN A. DERGA
UNITED STATES SENATE
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Mr. President, today I rise to pay tribute to a courageous Marine, Lance Corporal Dustin Derga of Pickerington, Ohio. Dustin was killed in Iraq while fighting insurgents on May 8, 2005, Mother's Day.
After taking an interest in the military as a child, Dustin served 5 ½ years as a Marine, and Operation Iraqi Freedom was to be his final deployment. Sadly, 24-year-old Dustin died just one month short of his scheduled homecoming. He is survived by his mother, Stephanie Derga, father and stepmother,Robert and Marla Derga, sister, Kristin, and girlfriend, Kristin Earhart.
A 1999 graduate of Pickerington High School, Dustin went on to attend Columbus State Community College where he pursued a degree in EMS and Fire Science. He also served his community by working as a firefighter.
Robert Derga shared these words about his son: "Dustin was a great pitcher and could play just about any position. He loved to play catcher, which was unusual. I remember all the weekends we would go out to the ball diamonds and watch him play ball. We really enjoyed that. He loved working with his hands. He just loved doing things and getting his elbows dirty."
Friends described Dustin as fun-loving and said he was always trying to make others laugh. His father recalled that: "Dustin had a wonderful, fun personality. When you first met him, he seemed quiet and reserved, at least he let you think that. But once he got to know you, he would reveal that he is a practical joker at heart and the life of the party. He always had a great smile on his face. All the guys in Dustin's unit said he was always making them laugh."
Laura Giller of Pickerington said this about Dustin: "Dustin was my friend, and I always enjoyed seeing his face wherever I went. I worked with him, and whenever he was there it made the day that much better. He always told the silliest jokes.I will never forget the friendship that Dustin gave me. Thank God for men like him."
Erik Mellquist, another hometown friend of Dustin's, wrote the following on an Internet tribute site:"Dustin was a great guy. I remember laughing constantly during cub scouts and Little League baseball whenever Dustin was around. Thank you for sharing him with the rest of us."
Friends also emphasized Dustin's loyalty to the Marines. Fellow Reservist Jeff Schmitz of Pickerington commented; "I saw Dustin around the Reserve Center on drill weekends. He was a great Marine and an even better human being. He will be greatly missed." Retired Marine Mike Hamilton added: "Dustin was a friend and fellow firefighter here in Baltimore, Ohio. I used to kid him about being too small to be a Marine! He would set me straight, and then we would discuss the difference between the new Marine Corps he was in and the old one I was in. We both loved the Corps."
Dustin's loyalty to his military service was also apparent to his family and to those with whom he served. Robert said that his son "had a passion for the Corps and was proud to be a Marine. Dustin really respected his brothers in the unit and he tried to have a good time with his comrades, even under the worst of conditions."
Dustin's girlfriend Kristin Earhart wrote that: "Dustin was a great man. I wish everyone would have been given the opportunity to know him. He was my world, my heart, and my soul. His smile would make your heart melt. He was so honored to be a part of the Unites States Marine Corps and defend every last one of us."
A friend named Martin shared the following memories of Dustin and his good friend Nick Erdy, a fellow Marine who died three days after Dustin: "Derga and Erdy were some of the first guys I got to know when I joined the unit. They were all about having fun and enjoying life. Even in Iraq they seemed to make the worst situations turn into great ones. Their character is what made our platoon what it "˜was'. We were full of jokes, laughter, and memorable experiences. First platoon will never be the same without them and the others we lost. They were great guys, and they will be remembered in our hearts forever. They will never be forgotten."
Upon returning from Iraq, Dustin planned to finish college and use his savings to buy a new truck. In one of his last notes home, he wrote, "I miss everyone a lot and can't wait to get home and go on about three vacations." He looked forward to one vacation in particular, a trip to Disney World that he and his girlfriend Kristin had been planning on taking with his friend Nick Erdy and his fiancée Ashley Boots. Ashley said they just wanted to go somewhere fun to relax, but these plans came to a tragic end when both men died within three days of each other in Iraq. After their deaths, Kristin wrote, "I just wish we could have had the chance to continue our lives the way we planned, but at least you are with Erdy. And don't worry, Ashley and I will never forget you two."
Nor will the rest of us forget the brave sacrifices made by these fine young men. My wife Fran and I continue to keep the family of Dustin Derga in our thoughts and prayers.