By Justin George
Petersburg Times |
November 11, 2009
Veteran honored with donated wheels
Giant red and green bows rested on the bronze
Chevy Malibu's hood like a Christmas television
commercial when veteran Kyana Stewart got the
"I'm the driver," her 4-year-old
son, Kyle, said scurrying into it.
"I'm the driver," Stewart shot back.
Surrounding them on Tuesday at Toyota of Tampa
Bay stood the men and women who had made this
gift possible. Oil-stained auto technicians
who had rebuilt and repainted the 2002 sedan's
body. Tie-clad dealership managers who approved
a year's warranty and maintenance. State Farm
insurance workers who donated the car. Members
of the nonprofit Wheels of Success who put
the deal together.
This was not another car giveaway for a needy
person, but one honoring a veteran for Veterans
Stewart crawled into the driver's seat and
stuck the key in the ignition. A smile broke
out upon hearing the low hum.
"It's perfect," she said when she
drove off later. "It's smooth."
Stewart, 25, joined the Army seven years ago
to experience more than she could growing up
in Spring Hill.
She studied biology at the University of Tampa
until 2003, when the military put her behind
the wheel of an 18-wheeler moving supplies
from Kuwait to Iraq as part of the first wave
of the U.S. invasion.
Like a trucker, she was given a handle, "Phone
Book," because she stood 4 feet, 11 inches.
She spent days driving without music and air
conditioning, eating MREs, Doritos and Hot
Tamales, wearing a helmet, staring through
sandstorms at sheep and camels.
But she loved the road, having grown up with
a father who road-tripped everywhere.
When she returned home, the path she had been
on became filled with detours.
For one, Kyle was born. She postponed school
for three years before she enrolled this semester
at Hillsborough Community College, where she
studies for an associate's degree in pharmacy.
She remains an Army Reservist.
School is about an hour from her Tampa home,
and she shared family cars or rides to get
there, and to and from day care.
"It's an inconvenience," she said.
Wheels of Success heard her story through
a veterans group and stepped in. Susan Jacobs,
founder of Wheels of Success, hopes to help
several more vets a year through the pilot "Vehicles
for Veterans" program if sponsors emerge.
Stewart is the second veteran the group has
"It's a financial relief on a stressed
financial income," Stewart said.
It was also freedom. The open road became
Stewart's again, and she began dreaming of
another desert road trip.
"I've never been to California. I want
to explore the West and Southwest. No particular
place in California — just California," she
said. "Real soon."
Justin George can be reached at email@example.com
or (813) 226-3368.