Justin Rozier grew up never knowing his father, an Army first lieutenant who was killed in action in Iraq when Justin was just nine months old. So you can imagine his surprise last month when, on his 15th birthday, he received as a gift the same 1999 Toyota Celica convertible his dad once drove but had been offloaded all those years ago.
How his mother found the car is a tale of luck, the power of social media and the goodwill of strangers eager to help out the family of a fallen veteran.
Jonathan David Rozier was killed by an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade in Baghdad on July 19, 2003, leaving behind his newborn son and his wife, Jessica Johns. Soon after, she was able to forfeit the loan and return the car to Toyota to help pay for Justin's daycare. Life, as it does, went on.
But as his birthday approached, Justin told his mom he'd love to one day have any car that his father once owned. "Just knowing that he had it, it's a whole lot different than just any other thing, really," he told CBS News.
In August, his mother found the old car's registration and figured she had to try to find the car, as improbable as it seemed. So she turned to Facebook, posting the car's VIN along with photos of the actual car, her son and his late father, adding "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."
Her Facebook network obliged, doing sleuth work and quickly establishing that the car was in fact still in use and had last been registered in June in Pleasant Grove, Utah. Five days after her post, Johns had an update for her friends: "We've been in contact with the owner and he's selling us the car for Justin!!! He said he really loves the little car but he knows it will mean more to Justin.
"My faith in humanity is strong today."
From there, Johns heard from a Utah nonprofit organization called Follow The Flag, which set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to help her buy back the car and pay for repairs. The organization also tapped students at Brigham Young to redo the upholstery on the car's tattered seats. "It's what we do, it's something we do in hopes of inspiring others," Kyle Fox, the organization's founder, told NBC News. He drove it to Justin's home in Moore, Texas, for his 15th birthday (a year ahead of the hoped-for surprise).
"It's a link to the past for him," Johns said. "It's a big thing for me too. I never got to see him come home. So that just one moment right there was – I think I needed that."Related Video: