TAMPA — Justin Lansford, his service dog, Gabe, by his side, smiled broadly Thursday as he imagined the future of a sprawling resource center for people who need artificial limbs and those interested in helping them.
One day, Lansford said, he might even want to train for a profession himself at the new Veterans International Institute of Orthotics & Prosthetics.
"Maybe I can help others," he said.
In April 2012, Lansford, now 27, was the turret gunner on an armored vehicle in Afghanistan when it hit a roadside bomb. The explosion knocked over the vehicle, crushing Lansford's left leg and requiring its amputation above the knee.
Now using a prosthetic leg, and with help from his golden retriever, Lansford joined dozens who showed up for the opening of the new center at 4809 Memorial Highway, near Rocky Point.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, was also among them, saying the new institute "will enhance the capability and effectiveness of practitioners who serve the veterans."
The institute was established last year as a resource center for educators, researchers, practitioners and patients. The new center cost more than $6 million to purchase and remodel, founder Arlene Gillis said. The money came from private donors and people in the profession.
At 40,000 square feet, the center is a full acre in size — as big as a large supermarket.
Gillis, 47, a former program director at St. Petersburg College, has 25 years' experience in the field and a simple explanation for why she came up with the idea of a resource center: "Because of my dedication to our veterans."
The institute, she said, will provide services including an education for those who want to enter the field of orthotics and prosthetics, help for veterans seeking to obtain artificial limbs, and adjustment to a life of using them.
Yoga, massage therapy, career counseling, tutoring for children and service dog programs also will be offered.
Partnering with Florida International University, the institute will offer a master's program in orthotics and prosthetics, Gillis said.
When operations are fully up and running, Gillis said, she expects the institute and its two dozen staff members will see more than 100 clients a day.
The institute is primarily geared toward active-duty service members, veterans and their families, and those eligible can use their veterans benefits for treatment.
Those attending will be eligible to apply for special $500 scholarships offered by AVAST, an all-amputee honor guard, said AVAST's Rudy Salas, 69, a Marine veteran and Purple Heart recipient who lost his left leg in Vietnam.
"We want to help people going to school, because they will take care of us down the road," Salas said.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.