A Fight To Recover, St. Petersburg Times, 2 Jan 2011
By Drew Harwell
BETHESDA, Md. — 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.”