Marine who lost legs in Afghanistan, gets new set of wheels from Villagers

It was a magical night bringing many to tears, including a young U.S. Marine. Villagers for Veterans Club presented a Track Chair to Justin Gaertner on Wednesday night at Lake Miona Recreation Center.

The corporal was on his third deployment in Afghanistan when he lost both of his legs due to an IED.

Justin Gaertner in his new chair with Paige Haynes.
Justin Gaertner in his new chair with Paige Haynes.

Gaertner had no idea he was receiving the chair last night, a device he calls “a wheelchair on steroids.” It has been on his wish list for a few years and through his involvement with Villagers for Veterans, he was thinking it might work out in a year or two. He was completely blown away to receive the chair so soon.  A resident of Lutz near Tampa, he thought he was coming to lend support to a fundraiser and worthy cause.

The fundraiser, organized by the Villagers for Veterans, was attended by more than 300 people. Dawn DiNome and the Flashback band donated their time. “We host fun events for a good cause,” said Marie Bogdonoff, president of the Villagers for Veterans.

The band opened the evening by playing God Bless the USA. While the crowd was on its feet, the chair was rolled in. Part tank, part wheelchair the Track Chair was sitting on the dance floor when the crowd sat down. Still not clear this was for him until an announcement was made, then Gaertner wheeled over made an effortless swing to get into this chair and rolled out of the room overcome with emotion. After a private moment with his girlfriend, Paige Haynes, Gaertner graciously accepted the congratulations from many well-wishers, took many photos and learned about all the bells and whistles on his new chair.

“This means I can go past my back porch. I can ride around my property. I can go to the beach, mudding, hunting, all the things I used to do before I lost my legs,” said Gaertner.  “This thing can go anywhere my regular wheelchair can’t go.”  The Track Chair is made by a company called TrackMaster. Owner Travis Underwood built the first one for a disabled vet he knew and from that developed a business. The cost for the type of chair Gaertner received is about $15,000.

Marie Bogdonoff with Justin Gaertner.
Marie Bogdonoff with Justin Gaertner.

Gaertner is described as an impressive young man. Now 27, he was injured in November 2010. He was clearing the field so a helicopter could land and pick up his best friend who had just been injured and also lost both of his legs. He and his best friend still talk daily.

“Having to leave my brothers in arms is my only regret,” said Gaertner.

Other than that he said he accepted his new way of life and fought hard in rehab at Walter Reed Hospital, finishing a program that takes most three years to complete in an a year and a half.

“I was determined to get out and start my new life,” he said.

Returning to Florida he now works for the government in an investigative capacity.

It was while he was at Walter Reed that he met Danny Prince.

Prince was part of a volunteer program called New York Fire Fighters Family Transport. Started after 9/11, to honor those who took up where they left off, the firefighters travel to Walter Reed several times a year to throw holiday parties for the injured vets.  Many like Prince travel down on their own from New York a couple of times a month just to visit. It was on these visits that Prince got to know Gaertner. He was so impressed with his determination they struck up a friendship. They have stayed close and Prince was down from New York on Wednesday night to see Gaertner receive his Track Chair.

Danny Prince and Marie Bogdonoff.
Danny Prince and Marie Bogdonoff.

It was through a mutual friend of Prince’s and Bogdonoff’s, Capt. Woody, that the club was made aware of Gaertner.  It is a mission of the club to raise funds for veterans in Florida so this was a perfect match.

It was because of her interest in helping veterans, that Bogdonoff was invited by Capt. Woody to a Christmas Party the firefighters group was holding at Walter Reed.

“It changed my life forever,” she said.

She came back to Florida and started Villagers for Veterans in 2014. Since then the group has raised over $160,000 and 100 percent of the money earned goes to veterans.

“The generosity of the people on the Villages for Veterans is amazing.”

Gaertner returned to the room to a standing ovation. “You guys better sit down if you want to be able to see me,” he joked.  He then rendered a heartfelt thanks to the crowd, to the Villagers for Veterans and Danny Prince. He also noted that this crowd had made him do something he hadn’t done in years – cry.

“The work your group is doing is keeping guys like me alive,” he said.

For more information about the Villagers for Veterans you can contact Marie Bogdonoff at 516-220-5068 or Marie.bogdonoff@villagersforveterans.org or their volunteer director Connie Giacobbe at (813) 220-7994 or Connie@villagersforveterans.org.  To see the Track Chair in detail visit track2freedom.com.  

Villagers for Veterans board members with Justin Gaertner.
Villagers for Veterans board members with Justin Gaertner.
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