The State of the Union address Tuesday night played host to a special guest from Pasco County: Justin Gaertner, the Marine minesweeper who lost his legs in Afghanistan.
Gaertner, 21, watched President Barack Obama's speech from a wheelchair-accessible corner of the House chamber's gallery. The Marines supplied him with new dress blues — most of his clothes remain at Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base on California's southern coast — and a full set of his medals, including a Purple Heart.
Gaertner was the sole guest invited by Rep. Rich Nugent, the former sheriff of Hernando County, who took Gaertner and his family this month on a tour of the Library of Congress and the Capitol building. After the speech, Nugent took Gaertner to the majority whip's office to watch the presidential motorcade drive away.
Larry Dalla Betta, Gaertner's father, recorded the broadcast on two TVs at his home in Trinity. He has manned the home alone for the last month, shepherding Gaertner's siblings, Larry Jr., 11, and Nicole, 5, between school, football games and tumbling practice. After doctors advised the family Gaertner would need someone at his side for the next six to nine months, his mother, Jill Dalla Betta, quit her job and moved to Washington, D.C.
Gaertner, a lance corporal, was moved this month from the surgical ward of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to the Malone House, an outpatient hotel on the campus of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He attends physical therapy daily to regain use of his left arm. Within the week, specialists will fit him for his first prosthetic legs.
Larry, Larry Jr. and Nicole will visit Jill and Justin this weekend in advance of his 22nd birthday on Wednesday. Though Larry Jr. spent Christmas break with Justin, it will be Nicole's first time seeing her brother since his deployment.
"That's all she keeps talking about," Dalla Betta said. "I think she's overexcited about seeing him."
Since 1982, gallery seating at the State of the Union address has been reserved for Americans noted for extraordinary heroism or achievement. Among the other guests on Tuesday: Daniel Hernandez Jr., the young intern who cared for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after the Tucson shootings, and Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, the first living soldier awarded the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.
The president made no specific mention of Gaertner but spoke briefly of the nation's commitment to the troops.
"Tonight, all of our men and women in uniform — in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and around the world — they have to know that we — that they have our respect, our gratitude, our full support," Obama said. "And just as they must have the resources they need in war, we all have a responsibility to support them when they come home."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 869-6244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.