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Driving into the sunset: Local veterans receive free cars at Fort Hamilton Army Base

Ready to ride: Sgt. Justin Ruiz hopped in the driver’s seat of the Honda CRV he received at Fort Hamilton Army Base on Nov. 8.
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These vets got the keys to their future!

A pair of local veterans received newly refurbished cars at Fort Hamilton Army Base on Nov. 8 — three days before Veterans Day — as part of an insurance company’s annual giveaway. The free wheels will go a long way toward helping one of the lucky recipients become more independent, he said.

“I’m still in shock over all this,” said Sgt. Justin Ruiz, who lives on bucolic Staten Island. “By all these people helping me and having my back, they’ve given me more freedom.”

Ruiz received a 2015 Honda CR-V as thanks for the four years he served as a laboratory technician in the U.S. Air Force in Texas, and the six years he served as a combat medic in the Army — 14 months of which he said was in Iraq — as part of Progressive Insurance’s sixth-annual Keys to Progress event, which distributed more than 100 refurbished cars to vets across the country.

Ruiz also received six months of prepaid insurance for his new ride, along with approximately $2,300 in gift cards redeemable at gas stations and local eateries, he said.

The event is organized each year to give back to those men and women who have given so much their country, according to the insurance company’s New York claims manager.

“We work with a lot of local organizations and charities trying to find the best people to really use these cars,” said Michael DiPiazza. “Whether to work, volunteer, or get medical treatment, we’re trying to help them.”

Ruiz entered the giveaway contest after finding out about it from an advisor at the College of Staten Island, where he’s studying computer science and created a group for student-veterans to bond, he said.

“We try and provide good morale and keep people moving forward,” Ruiz said. “We don’t want them to get stuck.”

But the vet hurt his knees while serving in Iraq and, because he previously didn’t own a car, relied on the city’s bus system and his girlfriend, who lives in faraway New Jersey, to get him to school, he said.

“It was either staying at home, dealing with public transportation, or going on someone else’s schedule, so it was really hard,” Ruiz said.

And now, he can zip around on his own thanks to his new ride — which he said he was shocked to receive.

“I don’t have to do things on other peoples schedules. If I want to stay late to study or go in early, it’s only on me,” he said. “I was honored that someone thought of me, and I never thought I would win something like this.”

Ruiz’s record of service made him a worthy candidate for the car, according to DiPiazza.

“Those are the candidates we try to target, who are impacting other individuals within the community,” he said.

The other Kings County recipient of a car, Petty Officer Second Class Retired Kotora Pack — who received a 2015 Nissan Rogue — spent 21 years in the U.S. Navy, and previously relied on public transit for her work with do-good groups the International Masons and Eastern Stars, which provide school supplies to needy children and wheelchairs to the elderly. She could not be reached by press time.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
Updated 2:45 pm, November 12, 2018
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