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By Justin George | St. 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 keys.

"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 Day.

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 helped.

"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 jgeorge@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3368.

 
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