Derrick Graham was born and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, but before he became an engineering technician with the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command, he traveled the world for 20 years as a Hospital Corpsman in the U.S. Navy.
He said, “I graduated from high school in 1990 and I gave myself a goal. I said, ‘Okay, you’ve got two years to get a career and get started.’ Two years passed and I didn’t have anything, and I was bussing tables at a fast-food place when a couple of Navy guys came in. One of the dudes left me his card and he said, ‘Anytime you’re ready for a real job, come check us out.’”
However, Graham’s Navy career did not begin just yet, because he thought the Air Force would be a better fit.
He went to the Air Force recruiting office and they were closed. As Graham sat on the steps outside trying to decide what to do next, he was approached by a Marine and a Soldier, both trying to recruit him for their respective service branches; Graham declined because he wanted a job that would ensure he got out of Alabama.
“A Navy chief came out wearing all white,” he said. “I told him I wanted to join the Air Force, but they aren’t ever here, and he said, ‘Well, if you ever decide you want to try the Navy, come in and see us’ — and he walked back inside. He made a big impression on me, so I walked into his office.”
Graham was 19 years old when he joined the Navy. The teenager, who wanted to get out of Alabama, soon found himself in boot camp at Great Lakes, Illinois.
“Now, this was my first time leaving Huntsville, so I’ve got on shorts and a short-sleeve shirt,” he said. “I was a simple city kid who had never been anywhere, and I didn’t know nothing about nothing. When I got off the plane, it was so flippin’ cold. I said, ‘Oh my God, I think I made a mistake.’”
Graham said he never intended to serve on active duty for 20 years, but those two decades of service gave him great memories and even better stories. He also accomplished his goal — he got out of Alabama.
After basic training he attended follow-on schools in Virginia and California. Throughout his career the Navy took Graham to Jerusalem, France, Ukraine, Russia, Germany, Bosnia, Spain, Hawaii, Japan, Afghanistan, as well as several states, including Connecticut, which is where his career took a shift.
“I was trying to go to the Submarine Independent Duty Corpsman School,” he said. “A sub IDC is the lone medical person on the boat and you are responsible for 30 to 100 people. They are also responsible for the nuclear propulsion program, which means, you have a nuclear reactor on the sub, and you have to make sure that anyone who goes in there has the proper device to measure their radiation exposure.”
Graham was not able to finish the school due to personal issues, but he was so close to completing it that he took one additional test and became a radiation health technician and took a position in interventional radiology.
He retired from the Navy in 2012 and found himself back in a much larger Huntsville, Alabama.
Four years later, his radiation training helped him get a position with the U.S. Army Test, Measurement, and Diagnostic Equipment Activity, a subordinate element to AMCOM.
“I’m an engineering technician and I primarily deal with a measuring device called a dosimeter,” he said. “It’s worn on the wrist by personnel to detect radiation exposure from tactical nuclear weapons.”
Graham is responsible for ensuring the dosimeters are checked, calibrated, erased and sent back out to field units. In addition to his work at USATA, Graham is also a published author, who has written several poetry books.
“I’ve always been a writer,” he said. “I was 12 years old when my father passed away and I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, so I wrote down my feelings. Someone once asked me why I write, and I said, ‘Because pen and paper don’t judge; I can write how I feel.’”
Graham said if he could go back and give advice to his younger self he would say,
“Nothing is going to come easy. You’re going to be challenged. You’re going to feel like things won’t work out, but adversity builds character. You have to have a plan A, B, C and a contingency plan. Life is not about failure or success; it’s about what type of person you are. And whatever you do, put forth effort and try, so you don’t look back with regret.”