It’s a wonder Derek Savage is still alive.
But as his name suggests, he is not one to give up.
"I try to take the worst and turn it around," he said.
Born out of wedlock, Savage was placed in foster care when he was 4 years old.
He was physically abused when he was young. By the time he graduated from high school at age 18, he was homeless.
“My dad told me I was useless and incompetent,” said Savage, now 41. “He said I wouldn’t amount to anything. So I left.”
He’d been homeless for about a year and a half when an unexpected door opened for him.
“I was walking down Main Street (in Brockton, near Boston where he grew up) in the snow, and this recruiter knocked on the window as I was passing by,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about the military back then.”
The recruiter invited Savage into his office and gave him a test to see if he qualified for service. He did.
So he enlisted.
“It was an open door – and I walked through it," he said.
That day was the beginning of a military career in the Navy that would last 18 years.
A career that would take him to all 50 states, as well as 25 ports around the world, including Nova Scotia, the Netherlands, Europe, the Middle East, Okinawa and Guam.
Savage has engaged in conflict in the Persian Gulf War (Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm), Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia Herzegovina, Yugoslavia, Russia - and Iraq.
“I’ve escorted lives, saved lives and taken lives,” he said. “I’ve done everything. You name it, I’ve done it.”
Savage served as an engineer from 1989 to 1995, and then as a military police officer until 1998.
His living room walls are covered with framed photos, newspaper clippings, achievement medals, and award certificates and plaques.
There’s a certificate with a photo for completing McGruff character training in 1996.
“I got to be McGruff the Crime Dog,” Savage said with a wide grin. “You have to be certified to do that.”
Savage was also M60 Gunner “Sailor of the Year.”
He received a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for service in Iraq.
Savage was assigned to half a dozen Naval ships during his career, including: the USS Canopus AS-34, USS Harry E. Yarnell CG-17, USS Ainsworth FFT-1090, USS Mount Witney LCC-20, USS Juneau LPD-10, and the USS Dubuque LPD-8.
He was part of the first-ever cruise swap, sailing aboard the USS Juneau to Japan, where the Juneau met the Dubuque nose-to-nose and the crews were switched in a formal ceremony.
In December 1999, Savage was involuntarily discharged from active duty due to High Year of Tenure (HYT). He joined the reserves the following January as a Seabee (member of the Navy construction battalion).
He made this decision for two reasons.
“I was past the hump for retirement and I wanted to keep my feet in,” he said.
The other reason was that he’d fallen in love.
Savage met a Japanese woman while stationed in Sasebo for the cruise swap. She said she wouldn’t marry him if he remained on active duty.
So he joined the reserves and she came to live with him in Pennsylvania, where Savage had been relocated. They married and had a son.
Meanwhile, Savage’s parents had moved to California, and his dad – after years of estrangement – was asking to reconcile.
So in 2004, Savage and his family moved to San Ramon.
And then, he got deployed.
That’s when the marriage started to fall apart.
Within a year of returning from Iraq, Savage’s marriage had ended.
But Savage has no regrets about going to Iraq.
“I was like a dog who finally got the bone,” he said. “You train for it for years. People who train like I did want to be deployed.”
While he was in Iraq, he ran convoys.
"We were the security element," he said. "We cleared buildings and detained insurgents."
He said it's hard to pinpoint a particular moment that was toughest or scariest.
“While stationed in Ar Ramadi, we were continually bombed with rockets and mortars on a daily basis,” he said. “Hearing them whistle through the air, you never knew if that was the last sound you were going to hear.”
He described an incident where his convoy allowed another convoy to depart ahead of them because they were running late. As the other convoy departed base, they came under enemy fire. Their number 3 gunner was shot in the neck.
“I was number 3 gunner in my convoy,” he said. “That should have been me.”
Savage watched two of his buddies get blown up by three stacked anti-tank mines while driving an MTVR (Multi Tasking Vehicle Replacement) during a convoy to the Al Asad Airbase.
“We called it ‘mortar alley’ because, if you made it through without getting hit, you were lucky,” he said.
In another incident, his best friend, Senior Chief Builder Robert Westover Jr., went out on a mission and fell victim to an IED (Improvised Explosive Device).
Miraculously, Westover survived - he was the only survivor in the vehicle. His many injuries included burns, partial and full amputations, broken bones and a shattered ear drum.
He had to undergo more than 23 surgeries.
“Despite his injuries, he had no regrets,” Savage said. “Just like me.”
It was difficult to visit his "brothers" after incidents like that, seeing their injuries and the pain in their faces.
“You tend to feel guilty, as if you could have or should have prevented what happened,” he said.
When asked what he is most proud of, Savage said it's the positive changes he helped make during his service.
“I am proud to serve. I am proud that I was part of Phantom Fury and the first Iraqi elections, watching the men shave their beards, women unveiling their faces, local Iraqis voting, kids waving to us as they departed for school for the first time, people knowing they now have running water, paved streets, electricity, operating hospitals, sanitation pumps - taught a trade by the US Navy Seabees.”
He said he feels privileged to have had the honor of serving this country, and he would do it all again.
"Honestly, no certificate, letter of appreciation, medal or award will ever justify what a service member goes through," he said. "To me, it's all paper."
Savage, who is now a federal police officer, said he wouldn’t be where he is today without all the military training he had, putting in his time.
“I’d probably still be homeless,” he said.
His most difficult moment?
“Hanging up my uniform.”