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Pasco County Marine calls home to say he lost both legs in explosion in Afghanistan

Lance Cpl. Justin Gaertner takes position after coming under fire in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan in 2009.

Getty Images (2009)

Lance Cpl. Justin Gaertner takes position after coming under fire in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan in 2009.

TRINITY — The call came at 1:28 p.m. Friday, the caller ID cryptically reading, "U.S. Government — Honolulu."

Larry Dalla Betta, just getting home from a youth football game, answered in the kitchen.

"Is this Larry?" an operator asked. Dalla Betta said yes. Then he heard another voice, speaking from half a world away, sudden, strained:

"Dad, I've been hit. I've lost both my legs."

"Where are you?" Dalla Betta asked. "Where are you?"

"I'm in Afghanistan," his son said. "I can't talk. They're taking me to Germany. I can contact you in 24 hours."

Dalla Betta began to talk. The line went dead.

He screamed. "Justin! Justin!" He started to cry. Justin's siblings Larry Jr., 11, and Nicole, 5, started to cry, too.

• • •

Two months ago, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Justin Gaertner touched down in Afghanistan, into the Helmand Province, a war zone of Taliban insurgent strongholds.

The Mitchell High School grad had been deployed twice before — aboard a Navy cruiser in the Persian Gulf and into the gunner seat of a Humvee — but this trip was different. At the behest of his sergeant, the 21-year-old had taken on a new assignment, leading a specialized sweeper unit to detect and defuse improvised explosives rigged to blow.

His mission Friday morning: travel among an eight-truck convoy through the desert's embattled roads, clearing the way for patrols. As lead sweeper, Gaertner took point — if anyone saw action, it would be him.

Suddenly, the third truck in line triggered an explosion, likely set off by a pressure plate buried beneath the sand. The convoy stopped. As the dust settled, several Marines, including Gaertner, rushed to assess the damage.

The second bomb blew. Triggered remotely, it caught the Marines by surprise. Gaertner's legs, and those of a friend he had met at Camp Pendleton, were blown to pieces. A third Marine was killed.

Medevac units sped the men to Camp Dwyer, a Marine base and airstrip near the Helmand River.

A few hours back and several time zones away, Gaertner's family had just been looking for him during the Thanksgiving football games. They wondered if they would see him in one of the live shots of the troops.

They never did. Dalla Betta thinks, by that time, he may have already started his patrol.

• • •

After getting the call from his son, Dalla Betta, 48, phoned his wife at work. She rushed home, panicked. He told her what he knew, which was a little, and what he didn't, which was a lot.

When two Marines knocked on the door of their Trinity home an hour later, Jill Dalla Betta, 44, shook and collapsed with the fear her son was dead. Instead, the Marines said Gaertner was scheduled to fly out of a German airstrip to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center near Bethesda, Md.

As they waited for word on when they could see him, a friend in Gaertner's unit posted on his Facebook wall:

"I GOT BACK TO THE TENT LAST NIGHT I SAT IN FRONT OF UR RACK N I CRIED FOR ABOUT AN HOUR," Darrell Brown wrote. "TO SEE U HURT LIKE THAT, MY OTHER HALF GONE."

Jill Dalla Betta will fly out of Tampa today to meet with Gaertner and her 23-year-old son, David, a Marine sergeant training in Twentynine Palms, Calif. On Tuesday she went shopping for Christmas decorations for his hospital room, where doctors say he'll likely need six months of surgery, rehabilitation and fittings for his prosthetic legs. His arm was badly shredded by shrapnel, and he'll need to learn how to walk with his legs severed above the knees.

It would have been Gaertner's last deployment. His end date, after four years of service, was scheduled for March. Entranced by the indoor ski resort at a Dubai megamall he visited during deployment, Gaertner planned to work as a paramedic on the slopes of the American West.

In the days since the explosion, Larry Dalla Betta said, Gaertner has regained much of the spunk that attracted him to the "leathernecks." He has flirted with nurses, pledged to ride his motorcycles again and joked with his parents that his Christmas list included roller skates.

But his weaknesses remain. He asks that visitors follow two rules: no crying and no loud noises.

"He'll likely wake up many, many nights with that vision, that noise, that dream," Dalla Betta said. "We've got a long road ahead."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 869-6244 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Pasco County Marine calls home to say he lost both legs in explosion in Afghanistan 11/30/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 1, 2010 2:07pm]
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