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The Texas teenager of a fallen soldier received a remarkable surprise for his birthday: a sweet ride that pays tribute to the boy’s late father.
Justin Rozier was only 9 months old when his father, Army Lt. Jonathan Rozier, was killed on July 19, 2003, while serving in Iraq.
His mother, suddenly finding herself a widow and single parent, sold her husband’s 1999 Toyota Celica convertible back to the dealer shortly after the loss so that she wouldn’t have to pay for a car that was “just sitting in my driveway,” she told NBC News.
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More than a dozen years passed before Jessica Johns thought about the car again.
This past August, Johns, 36, came across the vehicle’s registration. It sparked an idea.
Her son, Justin, was now nearly at driving age and had already obtained his permit. Johns imagined tracking down her late husband's car and delivering it to their son in time for his 16th birthday next year.
“I was thinking I would go on a yearslong search to find this car,” Johns said.
As it turned out, Justin's Sweet 16 would come early.
Johns took to Facebook, asking friends: "Can someone please help me find this car?"
She posted her idea, along with the car’s vehicle identification number and a picture of the car.
"It was Jon's car (1LT Jonathan Rozier, KIA Iraq 7-19-03) and when he died, I wasn't thinking ahead to when Justin (his son) would be driving 15 years later," she wrote. "If you facebookers could work your magic and help me find it, it would be an amazing present for his 16th birthday if it hasn't become a tin can by now."
Just days later, Johns heard back from the daughter of the car's owner, who lived in Utah.
The woman told Johns that she wasn't sure that her father was willing to part with the car, but suggested Johns make her case and provided her with a phone number.
“It took me 12 hours to get the courage to call him,” Johns recalled.
When she did, the owner told her he needed some time to think about the offer — but then called her back an hour later.
“I think that your son will get more enjoyment out of having his dad’s car than I would,” she remembered him saying.
By then, a Utah-based group named Follow the Flag heard about the story and got in touch with Johns. The organization, which said its mission is to promote patriotism, started a crowdsource fundraiser to pay for the car, restore the vehicle and transport it back to Texas in time for Justin’s 15th birthday.
“Imagine the feeling of holding the steering wheel of a car your late father once drove. A father you never knew. A father who died in the line of duty serving his country,” the group’s co-founder, Kyle Fox, wrote on the GoFundMe page. “What a priceless gift.”
The restoration and detailing took less than two months to complete, with the big reveal taking place just weeks ago at Justin’s birthday party in October.
“I started getting emotional because I never saw John drive that car home,” Johns said.
Johns said she won't ever forget the expression on Justin's face when he saw the car and then turned to her for confirmation.
"I was waiting for him, for it to click that’s Dad’s car,” she said. “He starts looking at it, gets in. He looks so much like his dad."