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.