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Shift Focus

Wounded Warrior Finds Healing in Competition

by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Patrick Gordon, Defense Media Activity
22 June 2016 Seven years ago, Joseph Derbak's focus was on his Marines. As a Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class serving in Afghanistan, he was out with his unit Sept. 25, 2009 when his life changed forever. "I was about 20 feet away from a 7-Ton [truck] when it hit an IED, and kicked me down off this little hill we were on," said Derbak.

Derbak suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) from the explosion, but wouldn't let it stop him. Refusing to abandon his team, he continued on, enduring further injury the next day.

"I had a grenade come right over my shoulder and hit a Marine right in front of me and cooked off all of his ammo," he continued. "It ended up injuring six others on top of it."

Despite his injuries, Derbak would not - could not - leave his Marines.

"They didn't have anybody to relieve me out there for me to medevac myself back, so it was kind of a choice I had to make whether to abandon my Marines or stay out there to help them," Derbak explained. "So, kind of flip a coin and see what happens."

Derbak's efforts resulted in saved lives and a decoration for valor, but the effects of the deployment took their toll after his return. He began to lose feeling in both legs as a result of the TBI and was showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While getting treatment for his injuries, a chance encounter would change his life dramatically and provide a new goal for the driven Sailor.

"When I got back I was having some serious problems. One of my buddies working at a clinic was part of Safe Harbor said to me, 'I know you had a combat injury, let me put you in contact with this person,' so I went to that person and they in turn registered me for Safe Harbor," said Derbak.
VIRIN: 160622-N-HV737-001

The Navy Wounded Warrior (NWW)- Safe Harbor program coordinates the non-medical care of seriously wounded, ill, and injured Sailors and Coast Guardsmen, and provides help resources and support to their families and caregivers. Part of their support is through the adaptive sports program.

"I think the power of adaptive sports is really contributing to the recovery of the service member who participate by really enhancing their quality of life by giving them a new focus and desire to compete in a team atmosphere," said Capt. Brent Breining, director of NWW - Safe Harbor. "So the main thing they lose when they're diagnosed with a serious wound, illness, or injury is typically that unit connection, because they're then attached to the [military treatment facility] for medical treatment and long-term recovery."

Through NWW -Safe Harbor, Derbak's first experience with adaptive sports was the tryouts for the 2012 Warrior Games, a Paralympic-style event designed to showcase the resilient spirit of the nation's wounded, ill, and injured service members and veterans from all the service branches. Derbak, with nothing to lose from the experience, took to the events with abandon.

I'd never done any of these adaptive sports, so I did everything. I tried them all. I did everything from swimming, shooting, archery, volleyball, everything. The whole gamut."
-HM2 Joseph Derbak

Derbak said the coaches noticed his natural ability for archery and field events and suggested he get a feel for the sports and try out for the games.

"They're the ones that started to push me in that direction," said Derbak. "Just due to the fact that I'd never done this before and they were like, 'Well, you're pretty close to being a natural. You can at least look at it and pick up the sport pretty quick. Watch one of our other athletes strap into a chair and throw.' I got up and tried it, and was doing relatively well."

Before long he was competing - and winning.

"I've done a couple of other venues besides this - the Texas regionals, the Endeavor Games - I've tried them, gone out and competed, did pretty well," said Derbak. "Especially it being the first time going out and doing something like that. And I took gold the first time, that was in Texas, and then I went to the Endeavor Games a couple of months later and took gold again."
VIRIN: 160622-N-HV737-002

After competing in 2012 and 2013, Derbak took time off from competing to focus on personal recovery, but returned for the 2016 DoD Warrior Games in West Point, New York, competing once again in archery and track and field. And while Derbak enjoys the drive that competitive sports provide, he said it is secondary to the team atmosphere he feels once again.

I enjoy the camaraderie part of it more than anything else. And the fact that there are guys who have been in similar situations as you, and they have things that work really well for them. -HM2 Joseph Debak

"Yeah it's great to get a medal," Debak said. "But I'm just out here to have fun. Honestly, I wouldn't have seen or met these guys if I hadn't been doing something like this."

Derbak added that adaptive sports have also helped at home. He explained that he was able to bring his family in to his training regimen, and get closer to them in the process.

"It's been a tremendous help," said Derbak. "It gives me something to really look forward to and strive towards, and push myself to do better in the sports I'm already doing. With archery, I shoot in my back yard. My daughters have gotten interested in it. So now they've got their little fiberglass [bows], so they'll come out with me and shoot, just kind of hang out and chat. My wife too, when she can find the time. So it's a very leisurely thing. And I wouldn't have done any of this if someone hadn't recommended it and I said I'd give it a try."

For more information on Navy Wounded Warrior -Safe Harbor, visit