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Tampa Bay veteran marks 10-year Alive Day this Thanksgiving

Posted at 5:27 PM, Nov 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-25 17:27:33-05

TAMPA BAY, Fla. — Thanksgiving is a day of gratitude for many, but it also marks 10 years of Justin Gaertner's Alive Day.

Gaertner's Alive Day marks the day he survived injuries overseas.

"It's a day to remember how far you've come in life and that nothing can hold you back," said Gaertner.

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November 26, 2010, Gaertner and his best friend, Gabriel Martinez, were on a clearance mission in Marjah in Afghanistan's southwestern Helmand province. While sweeping after a vehicle in front of them, the vehicle rolled over an IED, Gaertner said Martinez hit a secondary IED and as he swept to secure a landing zone for a medical helicopter, he triggered a tertiary IED. Both lost their legs.

"I remember every second of that moment. The smell. The looks. The sound. Everything that was going on, and it's something I'll never forget. But regardless, he was right there by my side the whole time, throughout the whole thing," Gaertner said.

A photo shows the two with injured hands, holding each other's pinky fingers. They had each other's backs in the Marines through their recovery. Now, both work as computer forensic analysts for ICE Homeland Security Investigations, Martinez for HSI Denver, and Gaertner for HSI Tampa.

"We never let each other go because going through something like that by yourself is hard enough and then having him by my side that whole time, I guess there's really no feeling or words that can describe having your best friend, your brother right there next to you throughout the entire journey," Gaertner said.

They were brought on through the Human Exploitation Rescue Operative (HERO) program.

"The child exploitation cases are really close to my heart, close to everybody's heart, and it's just nice when you come home and know you made a difference today," he said.

Gaertner said he's now worked on close to 300 federal and state cases, dealing with things like child exploitation, drug smuggling, and national security. He also helped in the aftermath of the shooting attack at Naval Air Station Pensacola.

He said the past ten years have been a journey.

"Highs lows, accomplishments of conquering challenges, starting my family, marrying the love of my life, having a beautiful daughter together. It's just been a journey and something I don't take for granted because I shouldn't be here, but I am, and I'm trying to make the best of it," he said.

He said his wife and daughter are his rocks.

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"With the challenges of 2020, the challenges over the last 10 years of my life, my daughter has been a blessing. We lost a daughter in 2018 and have been praying every day since then for the arrival of our daughter Callie now and on top of her I've prayed for a wife such as mine, and I couldn't have made it over the past few years without her," Gaertner said.

His wife, Paige, said while Thanksgiving before was a day to acknowledge blessings, now it's also gratitude, celebrating Justin's life.

"I think Justin's greatest ability in life is to adapt and overcome, and to me and having a daughter now and him being a father, I think it's just an example to all of us that no matter what we go through, I mean losing his legs has been a huge trial in his life, but he has done it and overcame it like it was a blessing to him," she said. "And so he always makes the best out of every situation, and I think no matter where we are in life that it's important to remember that."

On this Thanksgiving, Gaertner doesn't dwell on what happened to him on his Alive Day.

"I don't really think about it too much, I just think about everybody else that's serving and the sacrifices that they're making while I'm able to sit here and enjoy Thanksgiving with my family," he said.

This story was first reported by Haley Bull at WFTS in Tampa Bay, Florida.