Soldier overcomes injury to help others
July 10, 2011
FORT CARSON, Colo. -- When the rocket-propelled grenade came through the windshield of Sgt. 1st Class Marc Dervaes’ Humvee, it knocked him unconscious.
After a few moments, he awoke to see another RPG come through his door and go out the roof, knocking him unconscious again.
He woke for a second time to chaos.
“That’s when I realized my arm was gone,” said Dervaes, a Westchester, Pa. native. “My entire door and windshield was covered in bits and pieces and chunks of this and that. I looked out my driver’s window and saw this guy on the side of the road just spraying us down with a machine gun.”
Dervaes, then serving with Company C, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, had been traveling with his convoy in Kunar province in Afghanistan when insurgents ambushed his vehicle.
“We were coming through an area where we had never received contact from and I was shot by an RPG from the left side of the road,” Dervaes said. “We were the trail truck so we were a bit further back than the rest of the patrol.”
Dervaes tried to communicate with the rest of his platoon but his helmet and headset had been knocked off by the second rocket.
“I put my arm, what was left of it, over the back of my seat and told my medic to put a tourniquet on it,” he said. “I grabbed my headset and I tried to notify the rest of the patrol what had happened.”
As his driver continued to maneuver the truck through the commotion, Dervaes relayed instructions for medevac procedures.
“We were in an area that was inaccessible via helicopter so I had to get loaded up into another truck and we had to go back about 30 minutes or so to an area that was not as dangerous,” he said.
Dervaes’ truck was driven back through the ambush site to meet medevac helicopters.
“We got shot up again a little bit but no rockets, just small-arms fire at that time. We didn’t stay to engage because they had to get me out of there pretty quick,” he said.
When Dervaes arrived at his forward operating base, he apologized to his sergeant major.
“I told him, ‘They didn’t kill me, but I’m not going to be able to help you guys out anymore,’” Dervaes said.
After evacuating to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Dervaes eventually landed in San Antonio, where he spent the next nine months at Brooke Army Medical Center, or BAMC, at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, enduring five surgeries, battling infection and learning to adapt.
Recovering on the home front
When she first got the phone call that her husband had been injured, Michi Dervaes said she screamed.
“I was worried,” she said. “Is he going to be able to do anything he likes to do anymore? He loves the kayaking and mountain biking.”
Michi Dervaes flew from Colorado to be by her husband’s side.
At BAMC, Marc Dervaes faced multiple surgeries, including two amputations on his right arm.
“They originally amputated below the elbow, but there wasn’t much to save so they had to amputate above the elbow,” he said.
In recovery, Marc Dervaes struggled.
“The initial recovery was the hardest,” he said. “I had three surgeries in the first couple weeks. Just being in that fog of narcotics was difficult. It was so cold.”
Marc Dervaes said he relied on his wife to help him with everyday activities.
“I didn’t want to leave his side,” Michi Dervaes said.
When Michi Dervaes had to return to Colorado, Marc Dervaes was forced to learn simple tasks.
“You really had to put 100 percent into learning to trust (the doctor),” Marc Dervaes said. “I found that out by being stubborn -- missing appointments, feeling sorry for myself.
“It took me about four months in San Antonio before I started to realize that the world is bigger than I am and I can’t let something like this get in the way of progress and me getting on with my life and doing things that I need to do and want to do,” he said.
Marc Dervaes began working with a prosthetics doctor to design arms to allow him to return to his favorite activities.
“When I started recreational therapy, that’s when I started coming around,” Marc Dervaes said. “Before, I found excuses. There’s no legitimacy in excuses -- because you just don’t want to do it.”
For the last five months of his recovery at BAMC, Marc Dervaes learned adaptive scuba diving, skydiving, kayaking and archery.
“Some stuff takes a little longer than before but he gets it done,” Michi Dervaes said.
Looking to the future
After nine months at BAMC, the Army reassigned Marc Dervaes to the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Carson.
“Now that my military career is coming to an end, it’s time for me to give back to the agencies that did so much for me,” he said. “Working in this WTB, I know just from talking with the cadre there that Soldiers need to get out more, especially the single ones in the barracks. As a wounded warrior, I can relate to them better.”
Marc Dervaes said he hopes he and his wife can help other Soldiers and their spouses dealing with injuries.
“There are agencies out here that have a lot going for them that can help these kids heal,” he said. “I know how hard it was, and there are people who are worse off than me and I’m sympathetic to that, but too many of these guys are sitting around feeling sorry for themselves.”
“From what I’ve seen, a lot of them don’t want to heal,” he said. “And they have to break out of that shell and the social workers and the therapists on Fort Carson have the tools to help them, but the servicemember has to be willing, has to want to do it.”
Marc Dervaes said he believed his wife’s support and encouragement helped him and that spouses play an important role in a Soldier’s recovery.
“I think getting spouses involved would help the quality of life of those struggling with injured servicemembers,” he said. “There were times that I’ve fallen in a hole and [Michi] pulled me out of it.”
Michi Dervaes, who kayaks alongside her husband, said it’s important for spouses to watch their loved ones and to motivate them to get active, even if they resist.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Michi Dervaes said. “There is always a light at the end of the tunnel and it opens up for different opportunities. Be tough.”
“Don’t expect things to happen immediately -- to recover overnight,” Marc Dervaes said. “You have to be really patient. You have to have a positive mental attitude. If not, you’re not going to improve and heal.”