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A Marine fights to stand after losing his legs in Afghanistan

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created over 1300 amputees in the US military, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Each one is a story of life-changing pain and rehabilitation. 

Here, PhotoBlog highlights an unusually intimate report of one such story by Tampa Bay Times photographer Kathleen Flynn. Flynn followed Justin Gaertner, a U.S. Marine lance corporal who lost both legs to an explosion in Afghanistan, through several months of recovery. Those months included surgery, 40-hour weeks of physical therapy and an emotional reunion with fellow Marines.

Kathleen Flynn / St. Petersburg Times

Above: Jill Dalla Betta walks near her son Justin Gaertner as he wheels his prosthetic legs through the MATC at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington DC in June 2011. Justin trains there Monday through Friday, 40 hours a week. The workouts consist of motions using weights and treadmills. Julie Castles, Justin's physical therapist, said he is one of her most motivated guys, almost to a fault. He'll keep working when he's hurting.

Kathleen Flynn / St. Petersburg Times

Above: Cpl. Austin Carter hugs Justin Gaertner as their unit returns from Afghanistan in May 2011. From the time he was injured by an IED in late November, Justin's goal was to be up on his prosthetic legs by the time his unit returned in early May. It usually takes above-the-knee amputees eight months to a year to be up and walking on their legs. Justin did it in four months. "Being able to see my boys come off the plane was my motivation to go in twice a day, every day," he said.  "And even going on the days that I'm supposed to have off I still go in every day and PT. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, work on my arm, work on my legs." Before the plane's arrival, Gaertner said, "I'm scared they're gonna tip me over they're gonna be so happy to see me."

Kathleen Flynn / St. Petersburg Times

Above: Gaertner holds his head for a moment after a morning workout at the MATC at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington DC in June 2011. "I'm never really gonna get used to the pain," he said. "I can overcome it because I'm a Marine. But it's always gonna be there."

The full story describes Gaertner's treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. His mother stayed on campus too to help with his recovery:

She wants him to see a counselor, but Justin says there’s nothing wrong. Doctors have asked him to arrange blocks and shapes, asked if he thought someone was trying to steal his soul, asked if he wanted to kill himself. They say he has short-term memory loss, problems focusing and a quick temper. “I don’t get mad very easily,” he says, “but when I do it just kind of — it goes from nothing to a lot real quick.”

Justin does not take pain pills, says they’re for the weak. Doesn’t like sleeping pills either. Asleep, he is haunted by searing nightmares: the death of his fire team leader, the explosion beneath his best friend in the seconds before Justin lost his legs. 

Kathleen Flynn / St. Petersburg Times

Above: Gaertner gets a hug from his relative Cheri McPherson as he arrives at Tampa International Airport in May2011. "I'm really excited," she said. "I have not seen him. He's come a long way."  This is Justin's first visit home since he lost his legs to an IED in Afghanistan in November 2010. After two weeks he will return to Walter Reed to continue his therapy. Along with family and friends, Justin left the airport in a limo which took them to a VFW in Trinity where he was greeted with a party.

Full coverage at the Tampa Bay Times includes many more pictures and a video.

To see another Marine's life in the wake of war, look at this PhotoBlog post about Brian Scott Ostrom, who returned to the U.S. from Iraq with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

And for more visual coverage ofAfghanistan, see our slideshow:

Qais Usyan / AFP - Getty Images

More than ten years after the beginning of the war, Afghanistan faces external pressure to reform as well as ongoing internal conflicts.