Most people will never have to face the challenges SPEC Derek J. Gagne has endured; while stationed in Iraq his Humvee hit by an Improvised Explosive Device that tore his body apart and killed two other people. Due to the blast Gagne, who had lost his hearing in one ear from an earlier explosion, lost sight in one eye, his right leg below his knee, all his toes on his left foot, the tip of his middle finger, and his nose, which had to be rebuilt. When he was airlifted from his base he wasn’t expected to survive the helicopter ride.
In the aftermath of this tragedy Gagne made a rapid recovery; he has resumed some of his athletic activities, including bowling, golfing, and basketball and racing street stock cars. However, even after his heroic recovery he has faced many other obstacles, including having to battle the army for his sign-up bonus, which ended with congress changing the law regarding their policy toward disabled veterans. Gagne still faces an uphill battle in trying to gain employment and in finding sponsors for his racing; he believes it is especially difficult for him on both fronts once a potential employer or backer sees his physical condition.
Gagne, a member of the Hannahville Potawatomi of Wilson, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula, was born in 1987. “Soaring Eagle,” his American Indian name, started thinking about joining the military around the age of 6. “I used to hear the stories from my parent’s friends about my stepdad’s brother, he died in Vietnam,” Gagne said. “They praised and loved him, and it seemed like that was something I wanted to do.”
Gagne was active in football, baseball, basketball, track, and cross-country running when he was in high school. His dream of being an NBA star was a fleeting thought as he turned down a basketball scholarship to join the Army National Guard.
In October of 2006, Gagne was stationed in Iraq, and two days before Thanksgiving he lost the hearing in his left ear when a mortar landed 6 feet away from him. “I was running to the bunkers because we were in the FOB, our Forward Operating Base. As I ran into a bunker it landed; I didn’t even stop, I just kept going,” Gagne said. “I didn’t even think about it, I just kept running.”
Gagne was taken out of combat for a few weeks, but he was back on the job by the New Year. Then on January 22, 2007, he almost lost his life.
“We were on our way back from Baghdad international Airport, about 15 or 20 minutes away from our base when; BOOM!!! Our truck was hit by an IED, an Improvised Explosive Device. It shredded the truck, from what I’ve been told. When it went off I thought I got punched in the chest or that a mortar came in again, because I had almost the same feeling, like I couldn’t breathe regularly.”
With black smoke covering the night sky, and accompanying troops having trouble finding them, Gagne cut his strap releasing him from his turret post. He dropped down, and yelled but no one answered. His driver and the interpreter were missing, but Gagne found his team leader. She didn’t respond at first, but then started screaming and crying. He soon realized she could not hear him. Gagne grabbed the back of her flank vest and dragged her out of the wreck and waited a few minutes longer until support arrived.
The FOB was being hit by mortars when they arrived; the guards refused to open the gates until the corporal in charge of Gagne’s team threatened to ram through them. It was a 30-40 minute wait for the helicopter to take Gagne back to Bagdad for medical treatment. “They kept talking to me; I couldn’t see anything,” Gagne said. “I got hit in both eyes and my nose was completely blown off. I was conscious through the whole thing up to the point where they put the mask on me for surgery. I wasn’t really worried about the pain; I was worried about everybody else.”
All through his ordeal no one would tell him that the driver and interpreter were killed. He did not find out until he woke up from surgery.
Gagne was told it would take 2-3 years to recover, but within five months he was walking without a cane and by December 2007 he could run.
While he was recovering, Gagne received word that because of his medical discharge he would not get his entire sign-up bonus because they had to cancel his contract early. Gagne went to his congressman who sat up an interview with CNN. Gagne was not looking to smear the Armed Forces, they were holding back $2,500 from someone who lost a limb in the line of duty. He felt it was wrong and he wanted to change the policy not just for himself, but for the veterans who will come after him. The army caved in and agreed to pay him in order to keep the interview from being aired. “All they owed me was $2,500,” Gagne said. “That’s kind of small, don’t you think?”
The law has been changed due to Gagne’s case.
Gagne plays basketball, bowls, and golfs for fun, but he is starting to look at racing as a possible profession. “It’s the only thing I can do where I don’t feel like I’m handicapped, because I can keep up; it’s up to the car and my instincts, on whether I go fast or go slow.” He calls his car the “Purple Heart Express” in honor of his fallen friends.
He has also earned an Associate’s Degree in Business since leaving the Armed Forces. “I’ve been trying to find a job, but it’s pretty hard getting hired because people see the injuries and they are worried they have to change stuff.” He has attempted to find sponsors for his racing, but feels “no one wants to sponsor a crippled like me.” However he says he is not discouraged.
“God gives us things for a reason and we’ve got to live with it. I was taught not to worry about the lumps life gives you; make them into jumps and ramp them!”