A New Jersey Marine who lost both his legs in Afghanistan earlier this year got a huge surprise when a man he met while he was recovering at Walter Reed Hospital showed up at his home Thursday with a new, top-of-the-line $13,000 wheelchair.
U.S. Marine Sgt. Aaron Alonso lost both legs after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan in February. A couple of months later, Jim Tignanelli of the Police Officers Association of Michigan met Alonso while he was visiting the hospital in D.C., and he was overwhelmed by his courage and spirit.
"I said, this guy's getting a chair," Tignanelli recalled, thinking of when he met the Jefferson Township man.
Tignanelli, who visits the Walter Reed Hospital on a regular basis to visit veterans, runs a program out of Detroit that raises money to buy the special chairs. The organization has given chairs to three other veterans in Michigan, but Tignanelli said he was so impressed by Alonso he said he had to figure out a way to get a chair to him in New Jersey.
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After securing an all-terrain robotic chair designed to go where a regular wheelchair can't, he showed up at Alonso's home with a knock on the door and an honor guard secretly waiting on the street.
"Aaron, come on out, baby! I know you don't remember me, but I haven't forgotten you," said Tignanelli as a surprised Alonso opened the door with a laugh.
"That's yours, and what we want you to do is wear out the tires," said Tignanelli. "Have fun."
The decorated sergeant didn't waste any time putting the Trac-Fab chair, with all its bells and whistles, to the test and taking his daughter for a ride.
"It's just awesome," he said.
"When I first got injured, all I wanted to do was be able to walk and play with my daughter again," Alonso added. "Walking's taking a little bit of time, and there's always going to be limitations. This is just going to increase my freedom."
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"I had absolutely no clue what was happening, I thought he was coming over for dinner and to spend some time with my daughter," he said.
Alonso joined the Marines in large part because of the 9/11 attacks, and he said it was an honor to receive the wheelchair on the 13th anniversary, and an honor to serve.
"I'm not sorry at all. If I could go back and do it I'd still do it the same way," he said. "I've grown immensely through it. People have grown immensely through my hardships. I think I'm a better person now for what I've gone through."
Alonso's ultimate goal is to walk, but that's a long, hard road ahead. In the meantime, he plans to go to the beach in his new wheelchair, and maybe even go hunting, but most of all, spend more quality time with his daughter.
Follow Ida Siegal on Twitter @idasiegal4NY