Above and Beyond


“Ever since I was old enough to open a book, I’ve really enjoyed learning about history. The timelines of both classic and modern civilizations are filled with so many intriguing stories, and there are so many things that we can learn about ourselves, both as people and as a society, from the exploits of those who have come before us.

As a United States Marine and a veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m also acutely aware of the toll exacted on soldiers as they fight for the honor of their country in lands far from home, and the countless brave souls who never return.

In World War II alone, roughly 78,000 U.S. soldiers are listed as missing in action (MIA). Many of those MIAs were deployed to what was known as the South West Pacific theatre; a vast expanse of islands and atolls stretching from the Philippines south to Australia. Some of the bloodiest battles of WWII were fought in that area, and the impact can be felt to this day through the stories of the veterans who were there.

Those stories are part of the reason that, over 65 years later, I travel thousands of miles to the remote Palau Islands with an amazing organization committed to recovering American military aircraft shot down by Japanese forces during WWII. Our group is called the BentProp Project, and we’re headed by Dr. Pat Scannon, a man who shares my passion for uncovering the clues that will lead to the whereabouts of the U.S. planes scattered throughout the islands, and, ultimately, the crews who flew them.

Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about the importance of strong leadership, and how quickly things can head south if there is none. As a recent graduate of the Master’s in Higher Education Leadership program at USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences, I’ve been lucky enough to work with, and learn from some amazing professors, and they don’t just provide you with theories, they really work with you on incorporating the ideas of leadership into your own life. I know that people like Dr. Reed and Dr. Monroe have really expanded my horizons, but it’s not just the professors; it’s the classes themselves, the interactions with fellow students along with the faculty, that really get me thinking about applying my education to real world situations.

Just this past year, I was named mission leader for the BentProp Project in Palau, and I got the chance to put my SOLES education to good use. The environment in the Palau Islands is demanding to say the least, as the daytime temperature can soar to 120 degrees, and the islands are a mixture of clay, coral and mangrove-strewn beaches that give way to dense tropical foliage as you head inland. It’s tough to navigate at the best of times, but when you’re carrying 50-pound backpacks full of equipment for research, things can get really dicey.

Making sure that everyone in our group communicated and worked together was no small chore, but the knowledge I gained from my time in the SOLES program proved invaluable. I’m really proud of the work that we accomplished on that trip, and all the work that BentProp has done in helping bring lost servicemen home.”

— Derek Abbey ’11, MA, 
Higher Education Leadership

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