Under any circumstances, this would be a classic, crazy road trip.
Former Marines Lenny Cestaro and Aaron Showalter leave Anchorage at 5 a.m. Thursday morning to drive a hot-rod, Ford Model A 5-window coupe to Arizona. It's a rig to behold and one Cestaro spoke of with love and laughter Tuesday, the specs rolling off his tongue like military designations: 292 Ford Y-block engine from a 1956 Ford F-100, a 1958 2-speed Fordomatic transmission ("And there's a reason why they stopped producin' 'em," Cestaro says), two three-barrrel Holley carburetors. The "Rat" is a low-slung road warrior "custom fabricated through trial and error" that hits its sweet spot between 70 and 80 mph.
Cestaro, a federal firearms instructor, and Showalter, a certified diesel mechanic, are having fun, but fun isn't why they're strapping in for 3600 miles and change. They're on a mission.
Cestaro recently discovered that Capt. Derek Herrera, one of his old unit commanders, was shot and paralyzed while commanding a special forces operation in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. Cestaro learned that Herrera is trying to remain active duty and to that end is experimenting with a high-tech medical device called an exoskeleton that allows him to walk.
Exoskeletons are cutting edge and expensive at $700,000. Cestaro began by contributing and encouraging fellow Marines to do so. Then he and Showalter began to imagine more and the road trip was born. It's swiftly taken on a life of its own, drawing donors and sponsors for everything from customizing to gas to the artwork on the back.
Cestaro has tripled the goal. He wants to raise enough money for three exoskeletons, so more paralyzed Marines will walk. And if he and Showalter make it to Arizona, they just might try to cross the country to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Herrera's determination to remain on active duty, to keep serving, amazes Cestaro, who said he already had plenty of respect for the captain. "That motivates the hell out of me," he said.
"Just helpin' out a brother in need," Showalter says.
They'll pay a price in pain -- both men have service disabilities and the hot-rod isn't like traveling in a camper. Cestaro suffers a chronic bad back and Showalter (nicknamed "Manbearpig") will have to manage his 6-4 frame and 250 pounds into a tight space.
Cestaro said they'd have caribou skins for the spartan interior, to "Alaskanize" it.
"This is home for me," Cestaro said. A former East High student and graduate of the Alaska Military Youth Academy, he splits his time now between Alaska and Arizona. He and Showalter will be taking a Byron Glacier rock from an ice-climbing trip to Herrera in California, where he's due for hip surgery.
The Model A will definitely attract attention. Cestaro wants to "yell out enough for people to hear" about his old commander. He shouldn't have to yell much. Just drive.
More about Herrera, his story and the exoskeletons is available at www.derekherrera.com. The MARSOC (Marines Special Operations Command) Foundation has information about contributing at www.marsocfoundation.org.
By FRANK GERJEVIC
Anchorage Daily News