Richmond, Va. --
Former Marine poolee Derrick Owen was awarded the title Honorary Marine during a ceremony in front of a gathering of friends and family at the Marine Corps Reserve Center, Newport News, Va., July 23. It is a distinct honor rarely awarded, but Derrick’s story is uncommon, and his dedication to service demanded recognition.
When most children are eight years-old they want to be an astronaut, a sports star, a famous singer, a hero or a princess. This continues for years until, in the blink of an eye, one awakes from the dreams of youth to find he is an accountant, or a short-order cook, or one of the many careers that seem to elude childhood fantasy. Very rarely do our wishes as children become reality as young adults.
When Derrick was eight years-old he wanted to be a United States Marine, and every day since he has maintained that centered focus of earning his Eagle, Globe and Anchor.
“He has lived and breathed the Marine Corps since he was a little kid,” said Tammy Owen, Derrick’s mother. “This is all he has ever wanted. His entire persona is built around this goal. He was born to be a Marine.”
Derrick remained dedicated and on the earliest possible date he was eligible he joined the Delayed Entry Program. He was counting the days. Derrick was one school year away from fulfilling his childhood aspirations of service in the Marine Corps. Then on Jan. 10, he was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer that attacks tissue and bone. His first reaction, however, was not one of concern for his health.
“My very first thought was that my career as a Marine was ruined,” said Derrick. “It sounds weird and you might not believe it, but my main concern was that I wouldn’t be able to join the Marine Corps.”
It certainly is hard to believe that when faced with a diagnosis with a 67 percent mortality rate that his first thought was of the Corps, but he and his family swear to it. And his history in the DEP backs up their claim.
“From the very first day he joined, he was the first poolee in the door for everything,” said Gunnery Sgt. Jermail Foster, staff noncommissioned-officer-in-charge of Recruiting Sub-Station Newport News. “He never missed a pool function. Derrick always pushed others to do more and try harder. He is a natural leader, and everywhere he went he ate, slept and breathed Marine Corps.”
When he first received the explanation from the doctors, they told Derrick that the cancer was in Stage 4 and had spread to most of his torso, arms and legs. The cancer was concentrated on the left side of his body, and the prognosis was far from favorable. Amazingly, Derrick never let fear overcome him. His step-father, Douglas Denny, recalls a conversation he had with Derrick just after they all heard the news.
“He told me he wasn’t going to be the typical patient,” said Denny. “He was going to beat it and that was that.”
“I am a very confident person,” said Derrick. “I was sure I was going to beat this, and I am beating it.”
After just six weeks of Chemotherapy and radiation, his bone marrow test came back negative for cancer. During the 20th week, the doctors told him the cancer was totally gone from his body except for one small spot on his left femur. Derrick was winning the battle of his life. He never lost faith, and he contributes his recovery to those he has been surrounded by everyday of this fight.
“I couldn’t ask for better support from both my friends and family,” said Derrick. “I am so grateful, because stuff like this can be really hard to deal with by yourself. I am doing great and having an excellent recovery.”
His mother said, everyday has been a challenge and she believes faith has carried her family through this difficult time.
“Every single day has been emotional, but Derrick has come a long way,” said Tammy Owen. “We take it day by day. We put it in God’s hands and know that He will take care of it.”
This is an incredible story on its own. A young man facing a difficult battle against a deadly disease comes together with his family to discover a renewed faith and togetherness on the road to recovery. An amazing thing happened along the way however, which added to the uniqueness of this inspiring tale.
The Marines of RSS Newport News and the Command Group of Recruiting Station Richmond were so inspired by Derrick’s dedication to his goal of becoming a Marine they submitted him for the rare title of Honorary Marine. This award is so rare that it must be approved and signed by the Commandant of the Marine Corps. After careful consideration, Derrick’s package was approved. On July 23 he stood, at attention, in front of RS Richmond Commanding Officer Maj. Benjamin Sanders to accept the title of Marine.
“He has lived the Marine Corps ethos since he was very young,” said Sanders. “Life circumstances prevented him from fulfilling his dream but, he deserves this. This was the right thing to do.”
The emotional ceremony brought many in the audience to tears. Derrick was not one of them. He stood with his body locked at attention staring forward as Foster read his certificate.
“I thought the ceremony was awesome,” said Tammy Owen. “It really touched me so much. He is a wonderful young man. He wanted this for so long that I am just glad that I was able to watch him receive his [Eagle, Globe and Anchor.]”
He has yet to make his trip to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, but he has not given up hope on fulfilling his life-long ambition.
“I don’t want this to be the end,” said Derrick. “The honorary title is the greatest honor I have received in my life. But when I beat this, I want to take the challenge of becoming an actual Marine. The cancer has left me with no debilitating effects. I am as healthy as I was before this all started. I am good to go, and you can pass that along to the Commandant.”
“This focus on the Marines will stay with him his entire life,” said Tammy Owen. “He has high hopes that he will one day make it, and he believes he can get everything he needs in life from the Marine Corps.”
It seems like a long shot right now. Derrick’s chemotherapy doesn’t end until February 2011, and he still has a long way to complete recovery, but anyone that has ever talked to him would not rule it out. The determination in his eyes overshadows any doubt that his cancer has created. Whether or not he ever makes it to Parris Island, he has earned the title of Marine. It is a rare honor for a unique young man that disease can never diminish.