Marine, mom honored for contributing to freedom
By SSgt. Arsenio R. Cortez Jr.
| | September 11, 2002
On the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attack on American soil, many paid tribute to the victims and heroes of September 11. Among those acknowledged were a local Marine and his mom.
At the Miami-Dade County Public Schools commemoration ceremony themed "We Remember 9-11," fire fighters, police officers, emergency medical servicemen, the military and other uniformed public servants were honored for their respective contributions to our country.
On a corner set aside for the chiefs and VIPs sat a young solemn Marine in his dress blue uniform, while his mom looked on among the spectators. He listened intensely to the words the speakers were saying to the crowd and to the 380,000 students in their classrooms watching the ceremony throughout Miami-Dade County.
"We were shaken, but not destroyed," said Dr. Robert B. Ingram, Miami-Dade County Board Member. "These men lay down their lives so that our lives may be worthier. We will let nobody turn us around."
Toward the end of the ceremony, Miami-Dade County Schools Police Chief Donald Cuccaro stood and called upon Cpl. Derek S. Mills, 24, a graduate of Southridge High School.
"Throughout time, there are ordinary people doing extraordinary things, not by intention, but due to circumstances," he said introducing Mills.
Mills recently came back from his deployment to Afghanistan.
He represented the Miami-Dade County Public Schools alumni for what he has contributed to the war on terrorism initiated by the attacks to the nation's capital and to the World Trade Center towers, according to Jeff Ronci from the school system's Office of Public Relations.
As a Military Policeman with the 26 Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), Mills' main responsibility was to guard captured terrorists in Afghanistan.
Through the dead winter, the number of the detainees in their facility in Kandahar gradually grew to more than 300. It was a blinding moment of realization, Mills explained. "A single mistake would have caused lives. We had to deal with the prisoners day in and day out."
Although occupied by the gravity of his job, Mills, like many noncommissioned officers of the United States Marines, took time to foster the welfare of his Marines. He e-mailed his mom, Laurie, and asked her to send care packages.
Understanding her son's objective, Mrs. Mills sought help within their community. It didn't take long before their family church, Peace United Methodist Church, and several schools, to include South Miami Heights and Cutler Ridge Elementary Schools, Southridge High, Ammons, Mays and Cutler Ridge middle schools were sending letters to the 26 MEU Marines and sailors.
Mills and his mom's effort reached hundreds of Marines and sailors, keeping their spirit and morale high, knowing that the American people support and appreciate what they do for their country; understanding why men and women like them had taken the words honor, courage and commitment into their very soul and defend freedom and America's way of life at the expense of their lives.
He read a letter he sent to the school district when he was in Kandahar. He said, "Here I am off the coast of Pakistan, when I started thinking, 'How does my being here have anything to do with school and teachers'" As I started the thought process towards writing this, it all ran through my head - math, science, reading, etc. One subject stuck in my mind-history. Everything that's happening now is going to be someone's history. It is up to the teachers to teach the generations to come. The teachers will set alive the pictures in the books and the other media. It is the teachers who will explain what the Marines, we in Kandahar, Afghanistan did to preserve their freedom."
He went on thanking the teachers, students and everyone who partook in sending those hot chocolate packets that helped them fight the frigid Afghanistan winter, the socks that kept their feet warm and dry while patrolling the stiff mountains, and the letters full of encouragement that kept them strong during their weakest moments.
"Enjoy your freedom; we stand poised to protect it," he said.
Cuccaro called for the then tearful Mrs. Mills. She was recognized for her part in supporting the deployed Marines. The crowd of mainly school board members, educators and the uniformed public servants applauded them as they realized the drama between this solemn looking Marine and his mom unfolded before their eyes.
Three days after, Mills and his mom took the spotlight once more. In front of about 10,000 Florida International University football fans, Mrs. Mills was presented the Blue Star Banner to recognize her sacrifices and support to her son and the Marine Corps. Before the game started, Mills took the honor of tossing the coin to kick off the FIU and Butler University game Sept. 14.
Letter to the Miami-Dade Public Schools by Cpl. Derek S. Mills:
"Here I am off the coast of Pakistan, when I started thinking, 'How does my being here have anything to do with school and teachers?' As I started the thought process towards writing this, it all ran through my head-math, science, reading, etc. One subject stuck in my mind-history. Everything that's happening now is going to be someone's history. It is up to the teachers to teach the generations to come. The teachers will set alive the pictures in the books and the other media. It is the teachers who will explain what the Marines, we in Kandahar, Afghanistan, did to preserve their freedom.
Before September 11, our way of life was taken lightly by all Americans. After that day, all was taken away. But again, tied into history just like Pearl Harbor, the American people pulled together and united as one nation. I can't remember the exact translation but there is a phrase on all currency. "E Pluribus Unum" - of many as one. No one notices it. It is an everyday thing. But it is America.
The American government has shown its strength and resilience through these hard times. This must be taught to the citizens of tomorrow. They will be the leaders, the senators, the governors, as high as their potentials will carry them. These are all predicted by their teachers. They must be taught.
I can remember sitting in my high school government class and everyday we would watch current events. Mrs. Brown would explain to us that one day what we're watching would be someone's history and that we should know the present as well as the past, because they both can and will affect us.
As I close I would like to thank all of the teachers and students who took part in sending letters to the Marines and sailors of the USS Shreveport. Enjoy your freedom. We stand poised to protect it."