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Soldier, a new father, killed

His family says Army medic Cpl. Aaron Griner only wanted to help others.

By REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published July 1, 2006


A Tampa Bay boy, Cpl. Aaron Griner longed for Florida's beaches when military service took him to other parts of the world.

"All I want is to go back to Florida where it's warm and the beach is right outside my window," the 6-foot-2, blue-eyed Army medic wrote on his MySpace.com blog last year while stationed at Fort Drum, N.Y.

Griner, 24, died Wednesday in the deserts of Afghanistan, far from the beaches, the wife and the infant son he pined for.

He was traveling across Helmond Province when the vehicle he was in struck a land mine, the Defense Department announced Friday.

Griner's aunt, Beverly Bridges Fernandez of Tampa, said three others were riding in the Humvee. Griner was the only one killed.

"This wasn't supposed to happen," said Fernandez, 57.

Her nephew joined the military when he was single and seeking career direction. But when Griner fell in love in New York and married Amanda Helmer, 24, a redheaded occupational therapist, a couple of years ago, his life ambitions shifted a bit.

Son Austin arrived Feb. 10, just weeks before Griner left for Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division of Fort Drum. The Army delayed the expectant father's deployment so he could welcome the infant into the world.

At 9 pounds, 3½ ounces, Austin was the spitting image of his father, with the same bright blue eyes, strawberry blond hair and chubby cheeks. It was suddenly harder for Griner to leave.

"He was not a fighter," Fernandez said of her nephew. "He felt the calling to help the innocent people affected by war."

As a medic, Griner was able to deliver humanitarian services, which suited his easygoing, peace-loving personality, Fernandez said.

Griner grew up in Brandon, the second child and only son of Anita Lovallo of Tampa and Ernest Griner of Riverview. From a devout Catholic family, he attended Sacred Heart Academy in Tampa from kindergarten on. Griner spent his youth surrounded by his two sisters and 15 cousins, playing soccer and, as a striker, always looking to score goals.

He loved novelist Kurt Vonnegut, comedians Chris Farley and Adam Sandler and, if his Web site is any indication, Corona beer.

As a youngster, Griner battled a slight learning disability, Fernandez said. He passed the GED test and began searching for a career path. After working various odd jobs and traveling to Costa Rica with his mother and uncle, the athletic young man decided to join the military.

He hoped the skills he learned as an Army medic would help him build a career after his service ended.

The family learned of Griner's death on Wednesday, about two months shy of his 25th birthday. On Friday, relatives gathered at Griner's grandparents' home in Seminole Heights, comforting one another, navigating inquiries from reporters and trying to plan a funeral they had hoped not to attend for decades.

Wife Amanda and baby Austin are expected to arrive in Tampa over the weekend. For now, Fernandez said, the family is still trying to grasp what has happened.

"He was a good kid, a very sweet child," she said tearfully. "People need to know there are good kids over there."

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

[Last modified June 30, 2006, 23:30:00]


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