Gunnery Sgt. Dorian Gardner can’t see much anymore.

He lost his left eye in 2010 when a bomb blast in Afghanistan blew shrapnel into his temple and caused his optic nerve to die. In his right eye, he has no real depth perception — his view largely blacked out by scars that healed over his eye after it got pushed back into his skull.

After years of rehabilitation at the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton and at Balboa Naval Hospital, Gardner, 34, has adjusted to his new normal, re-enlisted in the Marine Corps and continues to serve through the Permanent Limited Duty program.

He gets around without a cane. At nearly six-foot-seven, the Purple Heart recipient knows to dip when he goes through doorways and he uses shadows to gauge where to step when he takes a staircase. He watches other people who move in front of him to determine elevation changes or obstacles along his path.

Gardner had an opportunity to test his skills Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 5 and 6, at a newly constructed vacation cottage at San Onofre State Beach, a military recreation site on the north end of Camp Pendleton that overlooks Church, Old Man’s and Dogpatch — some of the area’s most popular surf breaks.

The new cottages, open to all branches of the military, replace aging and rusted Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers that have been at the site for more than 30 years. The cottages range from one- to three-bedroom floor plans and are fully furnished. They include a kitchen, a living room, a bedroom and a front porch.

Most importantly, particularly for visitors such as Gardner, they all comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and are easier than the FEMA trailers to maneuver around.

The Pendleton Cottages Project is a collaboration between the base and San Diego Nice Guys, a nonprofit that helped raise funds to construct the 13 cottages. Each cottage, funded by private donations, cost about $80,000 to build.

About 50,000 active and veteran military service members take advantage of Camp Pendleton’s Marine Corps Community Services (MCCS) at three base recreation sites — San Onofre State Beach, Del Mar Beach and Lake O’Neill.

San Onofre gets about 15,000 visitors a year. Demand is high and reservations typically need to be made three months in advance. Summer rates range from $72 for a one-bedroom cottage to $150 for a three-bedroom cottage per night. In the summer, stays are limited to a week; at other times of the year, a cottage can be rented for two weeks.

Rates vary based on rank and pay grade and active-duty Marines get priority.

About a third of the military members visiting the beach cottages are disabled. Marine Corps officials say they now hope that number will increase with renovated accommodations.

Gardner, formerly of Rialto, visited the cottages with his wife, Navy Chief Petty Officer Lilia Gardner, and their four-year-old daughter. He said the weekend getaway was a nice way to decompress from serving as a “den mother” to 17 Marines with Camp Pendleton’s Communications Strategy.

“It’s moments like this that help me and my wife unplug,” he said. “We go from 4:45 a.m. to 8:30 p.m before we get to sit down. These little breaks are necessary. It gives us time to enjoy each other, especially in an environment like this with the sea breeze and the waves kind of talking to you. Just that calming sound of the ocean. It’s beautiful out here.”

With the disabled military community growing after 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ADA-compliant cottages are being well-received.

“I’ve been out here at the clinics they have every year for the Wounded Warriors and I can imagine what this affords them,” Gardner said. “There are plenty of Marines and veterans out here who surf and get right back out of the water and into their wheelchairs because they can’t walk anymore. And, what MCCS has done, has afforded them an opportunity to enjoy this. That and all the benefactors that have made this possible.”

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