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Wounded warrior inspires community

Published: Monday, October 1, 2012 at 8:48 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 1, 2012 at 8:48 a.m.

When Petaluma resident and Wilson Elementary School teacher Helena Westlake arrived at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland in late July — there to see her 30-year-old son, Sgt. Monte Bernardo, who lost three limbs after stepping on a bomb during a firefight in Afghanistan — she said he pulled her in close and asked her who was going to mend his troops' clothes now that he wasn't there.

Westlake had taught her son to sew in elementary school, but never dreamed he would use the skill in his military career. “The guys in his command called him ‘Mother Hen',” Westlake said tearfully. “They would stack their clothes that needed mending next to his cot and he would fix them. When I got to his bedside, that's what he was worried about — his guys.”

Bernardo, who attended Petaluma Junior High and Petaluma High School and worked in Petaluma as a plumber and carpenter before joining the army six years ago, was leading his troop of 47 soldiers on July 4 through the high desert of the Kandahar province when his company began taking fire. During the melee, Bernardo stepped on a landmine.

“Guys in the field kept donating their blood to keep my son alive while they waited for the chopper,” said Westlake, as tears rolled down her cheeks. “My son carried a small Mini-Mouse figurine in his pants pocket that reminded him of his daughter back home. After the explosion, the guys in his troop searched for hours until they found it and made sure he got it back. It's really amazing.”

Westlake said that it was very early on the morning of July 4 when her phone rang. Her husband, Bernardo's stepfather, picked up the line to hear Bernardo's wife on the other end, telling him to prepare Westlake for the news.

“When he got off the phone with her, he told me that Monte had been seriously hurt,” Westlake said. “Then the Army called at 5:45 a.m. to tell me the nature of his injuries and I knew it was bad.”

Army officials told Westlake that her son was in critical condition and had been in a medically induced coma for five days while he traveled from the Kandahar province to Bagram, Afghanistan, to a stop in Germany and finally onto Walter Reed stateside. Bernardo had finally been awakened in Maryland.

His right leg was amputated above the knee, his left leg below, and his left hand was also removed. Westlake said that the army flew Bernardo's wife, 11-year-old daughter and herself out to Walter Reed the second week after he arrived.

“His daughter has been so brave,” Westlake said. “She never cried, not once. She even helped him with his physical therapy training. She's been so strong and wonderful and is really doing well with it.”

Bernardo's wife and daughter live in Petaluma and currently want to protect their privacy. “We're just trying to keep things normal for his daughter,” said Westlake.

Bernardo spent 42 days in the military hospital before his injuries had healed enough for a new prosthetic hand. Five days later his legs were healed enough for him to receive non-prosthetic temporary legs. Westlake said Bernardo called her Friday morning with some of the best news she's heard in her life.

“He said ‘Mom, I just got a prescription for new knees this morning', and I was so proud,” she said. “Monte is making really great progress,” she said.

Bernardo recently moved from the medical unit next door to a recovery apartment, specially designed to help veterans adjust to life after amputations and prosthetics. Westlake said her son will live there for one to two years, depending on his recovery rate.

But being in a wheelchair hasn't slowed down Bernardo's mind. He currently plans to finish recovering and then attend college to become an aerospace engineer, his mother said. “The world isn't losing a smart man, thanks to the great work at Walter Reed,” said Westlake.

He's also been extremely active during his recovery, walking a mile for the first time last week and playing in a veteran golf tournament at the Cove Creek Country Club in Chesapeake Bay.

Westlake said that neither she, nor Monte, is angry about his injuries. “What's there to be angry at?” she asked. “It is what it is and we have to deal with it. Even jobs that don't involve public safety have risks. I knew his heart was in it and that's what counted to me.”

But with Bernardo's lengthy recovery and forced career change, Westlake says that financial costs for his family are a serious concern. She pointed out that Bernardo's new condition means he won't be able to go to school and hold down a job as easily as everyone else. Bernardo's family has started up a donation website and hosted several fundraisers around the county since his injury. When the Petaluma Police Officers Association heard about the efforts, they decided to help.

“We're going to do a fundraiser BBQ for Monte at the Veteran's Day Parade,” said POA President Paul Gilman, who served in the Marines from 1993-1997. “We want this to be the first of several fundraisers that we do for him. It will be a long-term commitment to his family from the POA.”

Westlake said that the money raised will go towards funding Bernardo's equipment, such as ramps for his home, specialized changes that need to be made to his vehicle and anything he needs to adjust to his new life.

“(Monte) looked at me and told me that he felt funny about taking money at first,” said Westlake. “I told him, ‘Sweetheart, I want you to live 50 more years and to do it all on your own again'. His whole life is going to have to change and he'll need help to do it.”

For more information or to make a donation, go online to http://montebernardo.org.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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