Christian Haerter sat in the driver’s seat and couldn't tear his eyes off the hood of his 1953 Dodge M37 Power Wagon.
It made him proud to see an airbrushed painting of his son, Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter, a Marine killed by a car bomb in Iraq in 2008 at the age 19, in military uniform standing in front of an American flag.
Haerter purchased the classic military vehicle for $6,500 two years ago and soon after asked Eastern Suffolk BOCES Automotive Technology students to repair it so he could drive it during Veterans Day parades to honor his son's memory.
“I told the students, 'Do as much as you want, or as little as you want,’" said Haerter, 55, of Sag Harbor, who dropped off the truck in March 2011. “I saw it as a learning experience for these kids.”
Under the supervision of automotive instructor Mike O'Hara, 57 students spent a year-and-a-half repairing the truck in a garage at the H.B. Ward Career and Technical Center in Riverhead, where their work was unveiled Friday.
“He came to us and asked us to turn the truck into a rolling memorial for his son and we gladly accepted,” said O'Hara, 56, of Port Jefferson Station. “It's amazing what these kids have pulled off.”
Richard Markham, an instructor at Ohio Technical College in Cleveland, airbrushed a picture of Haerter's son onto the hood while he was at the school as a visiting instructor, and also airbrushed his awards onto sections of the truck.
Haerter shared a love for cars with his son and was overjoyed to have another way to honor him.
“He was my best friend.” Haerter said of Jordan, who was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the Purple Heart and Combat Action Ribbon. “He left behind his black Dodge Ram, which we used to work on together. So, every time I get into this car, I think of him now. The way I keep his memory alive is by doing all of this.”
Students changed the oil, added new lighting, relocated the gasoline tank to the back of the truck, repaired the electrical wiring and exhaust and replaced all four tires.
“This is about as basic as it comes,” Haerter said of the vehicle, which he will soon have transported to Sag Harbor. “Its max speed is 45 mph, there's no power steering and I maybe get 9 miles to the gallon. You break a sweat driving it down the street because it’s so hard to turn the steering wheel. I'm interested in using it only for presentation purposes.”
Tevin Parrish, a senior at Greenport High School, who helped rewire the windshield wipers and install the gauges, was proud of everyone’s effort and would do it again in a heartbeat.
“I'm honored to be doing this,” said Parrish, 18, of Greenport. “This is one way of shaking his hand for what his son did for our country. And his son deserves this recognition.”
Another student, Alexander Peele, a senior at Westhampton Beach High School, rewired the brake and headlights and installed the turning signal box.
“I understand what he [Christian Haerter] went through,” said Peele, 18, of Westhampton Beach. “I just lost my cousin in a car accident last year and a good friend of mine who was in the Army died. Being a part of something like this means a lot to me and I'm just glad he'll finally be able to take the truck home soon.”