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Car dealer gives injured Marine a ride on Memorial Day

HOLIDAY — We don't notice the normal things. Walking from the bedroom to the living room. Driving across town. But even these mundane abilities can be snatched away, and it's not easy to take them back.

Justin Gaertner, 23, was a Marine stationed in Afghanistan in 2010 when an explosion destroyed both legs and damaged his left arm. During the past two years, he has relearned everything and mastered the use of prosthetics. He has eight pairs of legs for every activity from walking to swimming to snowboarding.

Gaertner, a graduate of Trinity's Mitchell High School, has taken each step on his own. Then on Monday, Sun Toyota gave him a lift: They gave Gaertner the keys to a 2012 Toyota Tundra truck fitted with handles and a hand control so he can drive independently, as he hasn't been able to for more than a year.

In a few months, he'll be a college student who drives to campus in a truck that looks like any other from the outside.

Just another Florida man.

• • •

Gaertner's home was the picture of normal an hour before the Florida Patriot Guard Riders escorted him to the dealership.

They were all recovering from his 7-year-old sister Nicole's surprise birthday party the night before. Nicole sleepily ate cereal at the breakfast bar with Gaertner's younger brother, Larry. Jill, his mother, talked with her sister, Barbara, and Gaertner about what would await them at the dealership. Barbara said there would be a rock climbing wall.

"You've got long arms," Barbara said to Gaertner. "You've got that going for you."

"I've got my right arm," Gaertner replied. He flexed it on the table, squinted. "I've got that going for me."

Joedilia Leal, Gaertner's girlfriend of two months, came into the kitchen ready for a day in the spotlight in a white polka-dotted dress. Dating Gaertner would make her famous, too.

Gaertner met Leal, 26, in Washington, D.C., where he will live until August to finish an internship with the Marines. Then he'll head to Jacksonville for a program at Florida State College to adjust to life as a normal Florida man.

The quiet of the neighborhood shattered about 10 a.m. when dozens of motorcycles, the Patriot Guard, roared around the corner. They escorted the Marine and his family 8 miles to the dealership in a flashing procession fit for a dignitary.

• • •

Gaertner was received as a celebrity at Sun Toyota. Crowds of veterans and citizens alike pressed near the stage as Gaertner climbed the stairs, ready for speeches and photos.

"Are you able to do the stairs?" Dave McKay, a morning radio show host at WQYK, asked Gaertner from the stage.

"What do you mean, am I able?" Gaertner replied as he reached the platform.

McKay related the exchange to the crowd. They went wild, cheering and whistling.

"How handicapped do we feel compared to this guy?" McKay asked.

Many people thanked Gaertner, presenting him with plaques and handshakes: David Nicholson, an Afghanistan veteran who, too, lost his legs in an explosion that killed half of his team; Greg Amira, president of WoundedVets.org; Joe Reth, the general manager of Sun Toyota who presented Gaertner with the keys, title and license plate.

The truck, however, wasn't ready for Gaertner on Monday. A part from Arizona didn't ship in time, Reth said. They decided to have the lavish ceremony regardless, and Gaertner will have his truck as soon as it's finished.

Gaertner reached the bottom of the steps after Reth handed him the keys to his soon-to-be vehicle. He was crowded by television cameras and people wanting to pose with him for their disposable Kodaks.

Leal quickly reached under large brown sunglasses to wipe away a tear before the cameras flashed again.

Mary Kenney can be reached at mkenney@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6247.

Justin Gaertner, who lost his legs during combat in Afghanistan, visits Monday with Chris Reth of Spring Hill moments after Sun Toyota gave him keys to a new 2012 Toyota Tundra truck.

Photos by DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Justin Gaertner, who lost his legs during combat in Afghanistan, visits Monday with Chris Reth of Spring Hill moments after Sun Toyota gave him keys to a new 2012 Toyota Tundra truck.

Car dealer gives injured Marine a ride on Memorial Day 05/28/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 30, 2012 12:08pm]
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