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After harrowing duty in Afghanistan, twin brother Marines finally home to Tampa Bay

TAMPA — The crowd assembled slowly around the walkway where the Marines would arrive at any moment. These were not just any Marines.

Jake Gauthier carries a long horizontal scar on his left cheek from a piece of shrapnel, hurled during a firefight this summer.

Max Gauthier walks with a limp, clutching a cane. Metal rods prevented him from losing his left leg. A wooden prosthesis stands where his right leg once did, bearing the name and insignia of their unit: 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.

Max and Jake Gauthier are twin brothers. They were both snipers, serving in Helmand Province, one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan.

When Max lost his leg in July from the blast from an improvised explosive device, the military plucked Jake out of the battlefield. They most recently were in California, where Max underwent therapy at a military hospital.

On Sunday at Tampa International Airport, they came home.

• • •

Max is older than brother Jake by one minute. The two joke that the younger one followed the older one, but throughout their lives the brothers have been neck-and-neck.

As students at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, they studied, competed on the swim team and courted their future wives. Max has talked since childhood of a career in the military, but after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, both proclaimed a desire to serve their country.

After their 2007 graduation, both married their high school sweethearts and enlisted in the Marines. Jake was assigned to a Washington, D.C.,-based platoon while Max worked a nuclear security post in Georgia. They missed each other, but time drew them back together.

By 2011, the twins were both lance corporals and had trained together in sniper school at Camp Pendleton in California. They got assigned to the same unit, H and S Company. Their next stop: Afghanistan.

• • •

Jake had a bad feeling before he knew what had happened. He heard the explosion. Moments later, a Marine radio confirmed what he had already felt.

Max had just finished checking the ground for improvised explosive devices when he took his next step and found himself caught in a massive blast. A 25-pound IED threw him into the air. His right leg was blown off and the other leg was nearly lost.

Some of his fingers had been severed, but medical personnel later were able to sew them back on. A severe concussion left him with memory problems.

"There was a little while there when I thought I wasn't going to see Florida again," Max said.

• • •

David Gauthier paced the empty walkway as he waited, cellphone in hand, and turned around occasionally to shake hands and chat with the more than 200 people who turned out to welcome his sons home.

Some were family. Some were friends. Some were veterans who had served in Afghanistan or Iraq or Vietnam. Some had never met the Marines or their families.

Gauthier has the face of a man who has seen his share of dire struggles. A Navy man, he served in Vietnam. But when he talks about his twin sons, his eyes tear up and his voice quavers.

"This is truly overwhelming, a response like this. It says a lot for my sons," he said. "Other than their birth, it's the best thing that's ever happened."

His wife, Darlene, was never happy with her sons' decision to join the military. Her nights were sleepless and she couldn't eat after both boys deployed in March.

No one notified her when shrapnel scarred Jake's face in a June firefight. She read about it in a military newsletter.

A month later, she nearly collapsed when the phone rang and the caller ID read "Quantico, Va."

She flew to San Diego when Max arrived there, 10 days after he was nearly killed. Jake was soon to follow as his brother underwent five months of therapy.

• • •

The crowd waved American and Marine flags and held up banners. As an airport tram approached, voices hushed and arms raised signs and heads peered over shoulders to catch a glimpse of the reunion.

Wild cheers and applause and kisses from relatives greeted the surprised brothers.

Max's wife, Nicole, was there with their 3-year-old daughter, Sydney, as was Jake's wife, Becky, who is expecting their first child.

They made their way out of the airport to the curbside, where more than 50 motorcyclists from the Patriot Guard Riders revved their engines before leading the way for the black limousine that took the Marines to Seminole, where their parents live.

Jake has talked about becoming a fireman after he is discharged in January. Max has until June to decide. He's interested in law enforcement, but his heart remains with the military.

"I've been pushing to go back," Max said. "I'd like to try to stay in the Marines."

For now though, it's just good to be home.

Dan Sullivan can be reached at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3321.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Twins Jake and Max Gauthier served in the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. An earlier version gave the incorrect unit

After harrowing duty in Afghanistan, twin brother Marines finally home to Tampa Bay 12/18/11 [Last modified: Monday, December 19, 2011 11:44pm]
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