Justin Gaertner lay naked in his hospital bed, a thin sheet rumpled along his waist. Metal staples lined his stomach. His thighs rounded into bandaged nubs.
It was the Monday before Christmas. Snow edged the sprawling campus of the National Naval Medical Center, far from Gaertner's home in Trinity, Fla. Carolers echoed through the surgical ward halls, lined with young Americans torn apart by bombs and gunfire, and into a recovery room where the 21-year-old Marine lance corporal learned some unexpected news.
"So I'm going to piss all over myself, then?" he said, cutting his eyes at the two bedside corpsmen. They had come to remove his foley catheter, which Gaertner had depended on for the past three weeks, and he was agitated no one had taught him how to live without it. "I'd like to know before I go all over myself."
Larry Dalla Betta, Gaertner's stepfather since grade school, stood in a yellow isolation gown near the bed. His son's frustrations were hard to watch. The three-year Marine was tough, independent and action-hungry. He lashed out at plans to prolong his treatment: "I'm a man, and I'm going to be treated like a man."
The long window next to his bed, hazy from the cold outside, was dotted with holiday ornament stickers, a stocking and photos from home: his two younger siblings, a neighbor kissing his cheek, an ultrasound of his brother's new baby. Larry and Jill Dalla Betta, Justin's mother, had decorated his room for Christmas.
Three weeks earlier, on the day after Thanksgiving, Gaertner had managed to make one phone call home.
"Dad, I've been hit," he said. "I've lost both my legs."
• • •
He remembers the explosion.
Launching into the desert air. Flipping. The taste of dirt. Then falling back to earth.
Gaertner's company had been scanning for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, along the rural roadways of Marja, Afghanistan, when one detonated below the convoy's armored Husky. Troops had unloaded to gather the scattered front end and scan for more mines when a second IED exploded below Cpl. Gabe Martinez, Gaertner's best friend.
Troops raced to help the screaming Marine. Gaertner wanted to run to his side, but as the team's chief sweeper, and the only one left standing, he knew he needed to keep searching. Panic set in as the company feared more mines beneath the sand — or, even worse, that a wave of ambushing gunners lay waiting to attack.
Gaertner found the yellow pressure plate that had detonated the first mine. He called for a bomb technician to recover it. He kept looking.
That's when the third mine, concealed in a glass jug, exploded. Someone, somewhere, had detonated it from afar. Gaertner landed hard on his back and looked down to see blood and dirt and strips of skin. The blast had flattened his left arm, giving it the look of a doll inflated, then popped.
"I wanted to get up. I tried to get up," he said. "I'm screaming for help. I can see the others looking messed up in the head, freaking out."
Technicians rushed to stanch Gaertner's bleeding, telling him the Medevac helicopter was on its way.
He looked down and screamed.
"They're not picking up my legs or anything," he said. "They're picking up mush."
• • •
In Bethesda, surgeons rebuilt the lost veins and musculature in Gaertner's left arm using "skin flaps" from his gut, a complex and grueling surgery that lasted 14 hours. A splint held the arm upright, his fingers bloodied by shrapnel. His shoulder rested near a nerve block he could trigger to ease the pain.
"When he comes out of surgery," Jill Dalla Betta said, "he relives everything. He has to learn everything again. We have to tell him, 'You're here, we're here, it's okay.' He thinks he's back in Afghanistan, getting blown up."
Progress has been slow. Treatments to shrink the ends of his legs for prosthetics and remove the glass shrapnel have taken time. To help his healing, doctors implemented a strict diet, including a ban on chocolate.
"I need to crawl right now," he said. "I'm not running, I'm not even at the walking phase. I'm crawling."
Martinez, the other sweeper, rested in a room down the hall. He visited Gaertner between surgeries. After the explosions, as a helicopter flew them to Camp Dwyer, they had said they loved each other and held hands between the stretchers.
Martinez lost his legs, too, but his other wounds were less severe. The night before the surgery on Gaertner's arm, Martinez had toured Washington, D.C., from a wheelchair. Gaertner couldn't leave the bed. Jill Dalla Betta worried her son felt left behind.
But Gaertner was already making plans for when he can move. He would like to visit Arlington National Cemetery, where a fire team leader and an explosives technician from his platoon, killed by IEDs in the southern Helmand province, are buried. He remembers crying at their makeshift funeral in Afghanistan, bagpipes playing Amazing Grace on the CD player. He would like to pour Jack Daniels, their drink, on their graves, and say goodbye. It would be his own small victory.
In the afternoon, as Gaertner watched MTV2, his dad placed a miniature Christmas tree on his bed tray. He had hung a few tiny ornaments off the side.
"You're not getting out of this," Larry Dalla Betta told him. "You've got to put one on."
He bent the tree a bit so Justin could finish the top.
Larry handed Justin a box he had received in the mail, a gift from his grandfather. Justin's mouth dropped in disbelief.
"You freakin' serious?" he said.
Inside: three bags packed with dark chocolate.
"That's so messed up."
He stared at the forbidden. Silence. Finally, he decided.
He opened a bag with his teeth and bit off two big chunks.
• • •
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Justin Gaertner sat in a Kansas middle school, watching the news. He was in seventh grade. He didn't know what the Twin Towers were. The images stayed with him.
He moved to Florida with his mother and stepfather, leaving behind his older brother David, now 23. David joined the Marines, and it wouldn't be long before Justin followed.
At 18, fresh out of Mitchell High School, Justin left for training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island, S.C. A talented tuba and trumpet player, he entertained thoughts of joining the Marine band. That didn't last long. He chose combat.
"I don't want another man fighting for my family's freedom," he said.
Gaertner first deployed aboard an aircraft carrier crossing the Pacific Ocean into the Middle East. He worked in the kitchen and, during one stop, helped teach Jordanian soldiers how to "blow stuff up." During off-time he would stand on deck for hours, watching the passing waves, smoking cigarettes to combat the nausea.
During his second deployment, in Afghanistan, he manned the .50-caliber mounted machine gun aboard a Humvee as part of a fire team patrolling Helmand. Later he worked as a combat engineer, hunting IEDs. Over his two Afghanistan tours, he would find more than 100.
He loved the thrill.
• • •
He wants to run marathons. He wants to snowboard. He wants to, for the hell of it, climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
He'll be out of the hospital soon enough, he said, in college studying to become a paramedic. He would like to work the ski slopes somewhere out west.
Larry, 48, a recycling representative for Waste Management, and Jill, 44, a housemaid, said they would like to rebuild their home for Justin's rehabilitation. He's adamant — he wants to live by himself. He has applied to a veteran program that could build him a three-bedroom house, and he seemed excited at the thought of having guests.
He misses the wild freedom of war. He misses the drive to "f--- things up." He wavers from exhaustion to boredom to rage. But he's ready to start again.
In the coming weeks surgeons will graft skin onto his arm, and in the coming days his brother, Larry Jr., 11, will come to visit. His sister, Nicole, 5, has had night terrors in recent days, crying, "I wish Justin had his legs."
"I'm doing this for them, not for me," Gaertner said. On his biceps, above the bandage, he wears a tattoo: "Protect What's Yours."
• • •
As night fell over Bethesda, he was still having trouble urinating. He hadn't been able to go since his catheter was removed hours ago, and the pain was growing too much to bear. After an hour of intense struggling, he finally stopped trying.
He was talking about his deployment gear that night when suddenly his eyelids began to flicker.
"I'm peeing," he said. "I think I'm peeing. I think I'm gonna pee in the bed."
Justin grimaced. Larry smiled. As he rushed to help with the act, he couldn't help but laugh.
"Tap a freakin' keg," Larry yelled. "Have a party!"
Justin lay his head on the pillow and let out a long breath. His face was flush with relief.
Big challenges. Small victories.
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 869-6244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.