LOVE IS THE MESSAGE: Stallion benefits vets in name of one of their own | TSLN.com

LOVE IS THE MESSAGE: Stallion benefits vets in name of one of their own

Nicole Michaels
for Tri-State Livestock News

Colton Derr was a South Dakota cowboy and an Army cavalryman.

He rode bareback horses, saddle broncs and bucking bulls and went on to lead mounted missions in the Kandahar Province of Afghanistan.

Colton Derr dreamed of one day owning his own band of horses, and in a way, he does.

A foundation established in Derr's memory uses a AAA racing stallion to benefit veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

"I thought of it soon after Colton died," says Jerr Derr, Colton's father. "I knew we had to form a foundation in his name so his death was not in vain. I believe Colton's death has and will save others. Colton loved horses and had the touch. Take that love and use it to reach others? It just fit."

Colton Derr, a sergeant, committed suicide on April 28, 2012, in between missions to Afghanistan. His obituary alludes to his father's prompt resolve to form an agency of change in his son's name. By that fall, Jerry Derr had purchased Chicks Dash Easy.

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"Breedings have gone well and he has carried the message," Derr says. "A lot of folks see the stallion and call to ask about the foundation. Veterans call to ask what is this about?"

The dapple gray with progeny earnings of $450,000 will be on exhibit at the Black Hills Stock Show as part of a special presentation from the Sergeant Colton Levi Derr Foundation. The 1998 grandson of Dash For Cash is already booked to five mares for 2015 and it's early in the season. Twenty four mares are in foal to him for the year.

A few supporters bought mares to breed, just to boost the cause. Others came out of retirement as breeders, or donated broodmares.

"The stud is a vessel to carry our message of hope," Derr says. "Animals get peoples' attention. A door is opened and communication begins."

Stud fees of $750 help raise capital. Funds raised are distributed directly and judiciously to veterans in need. Those veterans may receive help with monthly bills, assistance after a job loss, or with legal issues, all stemming from posttraumatic stress disorder and sometimes traumatic brain injury. The idea is to get them back on track.

This year the foundation has a new goal: To open Outpost Colton in Rapid City.

The outpost is conceived as a modest location, like a coffee shop, where vets can come for assistance outside the sphere of the Veterans Administration. That may include job training, legal aid or peer to peer counseling. Donated services will be recruited.

Derr calls the project "an alcohol free place to find peace and comfort." He adds, "That brotherhood they found in a mission, they will find at Outpost Colton."

Derr says his son was an effective and well-liked leader who lived by the motto "Man up."

"Colton was a free spirit. Fearless," Derr says. "The only battle he did not win was that of his PTSD issues and depression."

When he died, Colton Derr was being deployed over the objections of a military counselor he had sought out for help. A commanding officer deemed him mission-ready, and the young Derr died by his own hand at Ft. Drum, New York.

Every day in the U.S., one active duty soldier will take his own life, as well as 22 inactive veterans. Derr feels those numbers are conservative.

An estimated 20 percent of today's veterans suffer from some form of PTSD.

"One major factor is the length of this war on terror," Derr says. "Since 2001, our warriors have experienced multiple deployments, some as many as five times or more. Additionally, our in-field medical care is much more advanced now, and our soldiers are surviving physical wounds that would have killed them in the past…Our VA system is overloaded and ill-equipped to deal with the new influx of 2.8 million vets of the Afghan and Iraq wars."

Once they have served, he says, veterans are essentially abandoned by the system. "Our soldiers prepare a year for deployment. When they come home, the military just cuts them loose and sends them home to their respective families. A mental health debrief is not the priority upon their return and it should be."

Derr says some veterans have trouble finding the brotherhood in civilian life that they experienced in the service. He says farming and ranching communities do a better job of recreating military values. "This is one reason the studs touch the right people. Ag people have this sense of loyalty, commitment and service which ties to veterans."

Stigma remains a barrier to individuals asking for help and to systemic change. Leaders on the ground, he says, must embrace a new ethic. "Changes in the military on mental health can't come from the pentagon."

Colton Derr had sought counseling after his family, concerned about his state of mind, had urged him to get help. "He had a hard time not being able to kick how he felt after his deployments. He was confused as to why his tough guy mentality was not fixing the underlying issues."

The foundation web page http://www.sergeantderrfoundation.org includes instruction on how to recognize the signs of a veteran in crisis, the number of a crisis hotline, statistics on the problem of PTSD and more details about Colton Derr's life and service.

Colton Derr was an Army Reservist who had finished his freshman year of college when he enlisted. He graduated from an Army intelligence school with high honors and a top secret clearance and was assigned to Ft. Hood, Texas, where he was a trooper with the First Cavalry. He served as an intelligence sergeant with a reconnaissance squadron, deploying to the forward of Ninewa Province in Iraq. His work neutralized several suicide vest cells and trained others in the work as well. He developed and led physical fitness regimens to improve combat readiness.

He switched units in order to deploy to Afghanistan, and helped to lead more than 300 mounted and dismounted missions in Kandahar.

Derr says the public, policy makers, and military families need to understand that coming home doesn't mean the work is done. Mission, duty, and camaraderie may be replaced with turmoil, depression, isolation.

Colton Derr had been stateside six weeks and had completed 500 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan when he took his own life.

His uniform patch featured the figure of a horse. F