When Justin Gaertner gets married in October, his dog “Gunner” will be by his side. It’s only right, as Gunner has been by the side of Gaertner, a computer forensic analyst with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Tampa office, since 2012.
Justin Gaertner and his full-time service dog Gunner. (Photo courtesy of ICE Public Affairs)
Gaertner was injured in an improvised explosive device blast in Afghanistan on Thanksgiving Day 2010. He lost both of his legs above the knees and experienced severe damage to one of his arms. When Gaertner was in the hospital, facility dogs would come around the hospital and calm the patients. It was a welcomed change from the normal routine.
“All you’d see were doctors and nurses all day and people who’d come in and ask different types of questions. The dogs would come in and just lay on top of you,” Gaertner said. “I thought that was really calming.”
Although Gaertner enjoyed the company of the facility dogs while in the hospital during his rehab, he didn’t believe that a full-time service dog would be beneficial to him. His primary focus was getting up and moving. It was not until Gaertner started the transition out of the hospital that he applied for a service dog.
After a year and a half of boot camp with Gunner, a Belgian Shephard specifically trained for Gaertner and his disability, the two were paired together when Gaertner settled back in Tampa.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better dog,” Gaertner said. “We instantly connected. He was my stabilizer. If I would stumble, he would be my cane. He was my balancer with my prosthetics. He knows the difference of my being in a [wheel]chair versus not being in a chair.”
Gaertner joined HSI in October 2013 as a Human Exploitation Rescue Operative (HERO) Child Rescue Corps intern. He was one of the 17 interns to graduate from the inaugural class.
“It gave me a second chance to serve my country. Without this program, I don’t know where I would be in life right now,” Gaertner said of the HERO program. “I fought hard to get back overseas with my platoon and once that wasn’t happening, I was able to find a way to keep serving my country.”
Gaertner’s training to become a computer forensic analyst took place at the HSI Cyber Crimes Center (C3) headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia. Gunner was right there throughout the process and became well known around C3 as the office dog.
Gunner’s role would soon expand beyond being “just” Gaertner’s service dog and the office dog at C3 and HSI Tampa.
Justin Gaertner's dog Gunner provides invaluable services. (Photo courtesy of ICE Public Affairs)
Gaertner does presentations in the Tampa area on behalf of Project iGuardian, HSI’s national cyber safety campaign to help protect kids from online sexual predators. Gunner would become one of the “faces” of the iGuardian brand. A kid-friendly representative that was aimed to soften the image of iGuardian from the serious-faced agents and criminals used to brand the program.
“When Gunner shows up he becomes the star,” Gaertner said. “The kids often lose interest in a presentation, but when he shows up, they love him. We always get compliments from the teachers.”
In crowded areas such as schools and other venues where Gaertner presents on behalf of the agency, Gunner provides a boundary between someone who’s paying attention to him and to Gaertner. When the pair travels, Gunner always keeps people away at a distance.
Gunner’s seven years old now, and a lot has changed over the past few years. As he’s aged and Gaertner has become more independent, a lot of things he trained for are not used anymore. Yet, he’s still there, working to help Gaertner and be a symbol in the agency’s fight against online predators.
“There’s not one place he hasn’t gone. When I walk he’s right there and the same thing when I’m in my chair,” Gaertner said. “He’s gone on rides with me at Disney World and every single time I fly for work, he’s right there in between my legs.”