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Decorated soldier gets customized SUV at New York International Auto Show

Sgt. Joe Mille, seen with his wife, Katelyn,

Sgt. Joe Mille, seen with his wife, Katelyn, was presented with a customized 2017 Toyota RAV4 at the New York International Auto Show in Manhattan on Saturday, April 15, 2017. Credit: Steven Sunshine

A decorated American soldier who lost part of his right leg when he stepped on a Taliban bomb in Afghanistan got a new ride Saturday — a customized sport utility vehicle with an accelerator installed for his left foot.

“JOE P H” reads Army Sgt. Joe Mille’s personalized license plate on the 2017 Toyota RAV4 — the “P H” signifying his Purple Heart medal. The carmaker gave him the vehicle free in a ceremony to officially start the New York International Auto Show. The show runs through April 23 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan.

Mille, 25, who originally is from Sitka, Alaska, but now lives in upstate New York, said that he hasn’t been able to drive the regular way since he lost his leg below the knee in the 2012 explosion.

When he drives, “right now, I crisscross my feet, which is all fine and dandy, but this makes it a little more easy,” Mille said, his wife, Katelyn, at his side. His two children spent the morning with their grandmother.

The RAV4 normally sells for $29,030, auto show spokesman Chris Sams said. The accelerator work was done by Bussani Mobility, which has a location in Bethpage and did the switch for free, he said.

In an interview Saturday, Mille recalled the January 2012 explosion that blew up his leg. He was patrolling through the war-torn country, which the United States invaded in 2001, when suddenly he encountered what felt like “fireworks”: one bomb had exploded, injuring a fellow soldier, then Mille triggered another bomb nearby as he ran to help. The other soldier also became an amputee from the twin explosions.

“I stepped on it. It was a dismounted IED,” Mille, now stationed at upstate Fort Drum, said of the improvised explosive device that blew up in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

He’s since re-enlisted for another six years.

“It’s interesting to me,” Mille said. “I had no real urge to not go.”

At Saturday’s auto-show ceremony, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo presented Mille with the special license plate for his Purple Heart — a decoration awarded to those who are killed or wounded in action — “so every New Yorker will know exactly who you are and how proud we are of you.”

There are about 1,115 such plates in New York, according to Cuomo spokeswoman Dani Lever.

“A better example of commitment and loyalty and bravery I can’t imagine,” the governor said, noting the 15 months of recovery Mille spent at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Mille said he was overwhelmed by the gift and the ceremony.

“This is great,” he said. “I never had anything like this happen before.”

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