It was the day after Thanksgiving in 2010. U.S.Marine Lance Cpl. Justin Gaertner , twenty one years old, was in Afghanistan leading a specialized sweeper unit. The sweeper unit,detecting and defusing improvised explosives,was traveling with an eight truck convoy in the desert. One of the trucks set off an explosion.
Rushing to assess the damage, Justin and several other Marines were surprised, when a second remotely triggered bomb exploded. Justin’s legs and those of a Marine friend disintegrated in the blast. The blast also killed a third Marine.
Back at home in the States, Justin’s dad, Larry got the phone call. Drew Harwell, of the St.Petersburg Times, reported what was said in the call home.
” Dad I’ve been hit. I’ve lost both of my legs…I can’t talk. They’re taking me to Germany. I can contact you in 24 hours.”
As the line went dead, Larry screamed, “Justin! Justin!”
Larry began to cry. Justin’s little sister, Nicole, and little brother, Larry Jr. began to cry too! When two Marines showed up at their door an hour later, Jill, Justin’s mom, collapsed on the floor. She thought her son was dead. The Marines were there to tell the family about the flight schedule from Germany to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center near Bethesda, Md.
Fast forward to May 2011. Alex Tiegen writes in an article quoting Justin, “I didn’t want to come home until I could walk and stand proud.” Justin’s dad says.“He’s the first one to therapy and the last one to leave. He’s been busting his butt to get back on his feet, and that’s what he’s done.” Justin is working with his third pair of prosthetic legs and jokes about being taller. He is 6’1″ as compared to his original height of 5’11”. Besides losing his legs, Justin’s left arm was severely injured.
Tiegen reports in the article, “Gaertner is home until the end of the month, and then he returns to D.C. for further treatment. His arm still isn’t whole, and it will probably be two years before he finishes occupational therapy. Tendons from his right arm will be transplanted into his injured limb.”
A motorcade of 42 motorcycles escorted Justin from the Tampa International Airport to a to the VFW hall near his home in Pasco County. The community lined the way with flags and signs to welcome Justin home. God bless you and your family, Justin on your road to recovery. Thank you for your service.