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Wounded soldier inspires family

Army Sgt. Monte Bernardo's mother, brother and four sisters hurried to visit the wounded soldier, who lost parts of three limbs in a bomb blast in Afghanistan on July 4.

They wanted to comfort Bernardo, 30, who grew up in Petaluma and was serving his second tour in Afghanistan when the bomb went off during a firefight in Kandahar province.

But the inspiration seems to be flowing the other way.

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“When I looked him in the eyes, I knew he was very proud and he was strong,” said his brother, Frank Bernardo, 36, of Dallas. “One of the first things he said was, ‘I'm an American hero.' ”

“He knows what he has sacrificed for his country and for our freedom, and he's proud of it,” said Frank Bernardo, an Air Force Reserve staff sergeant.

On Friday, Monte Bernardo was moved from the intensive care unit at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to the fourth floor, known as the “wounded warrior” floor.

His right leg was amputated above the knee, his left leg cut off below the knee, and his left hand is gone.

Stella Shafer, 26, of Portland, Ore., was the first sibling to arrive at Walter Reed on July 8, the same day Monte arrived from a military hospital in Germany.

“It felt like my heart broke for a second,” Shafer said, recalling how she was shaken by the first look at the tubes and IV lines attached to her brother's body. “I was still in my head trying to tell myself it wasn't real.”

By last weekend, Shafer said, he was back to being the beloved older brother she had grown up with.

“He has his high spirits back, joking around,” she said. “It's inspiring. I can't believe how strong he is.”

Shafer, who has an indefinite leave from her job in Portland, said she plans to stay with her brother for a month or two.

“He's my brother, and I love him,” she said. “I know he would do the same for me.”

The soldier's mother, Helena Westlake of Petaluma, has been at Walter Reed since July 9.

Frank Bernardo said his brother is not ready to be photographed or interviewed. The soldier's wife and 11-year-old daughter live in Petaluma and want to preserve their privacy, he said.

Monte Bernardo, who attended Petaluma High School, joined the Army's 82nd Airborne Division in 2006, served one tour in Afghanistan without injury and re-enlisted, intent on returning to Afghanistan.

His unit was on a foot patrol, taking small arms fire from the enemy when a hidden bomb exploded, Frank Bernardo said.

Improvised explosive devices have accounted for 63 percent of the 2,041 fatalities sustained by U.S. forces in Afghanistan since 2001, according to the website iCasualties.

More than 15,320 troops have been wounded, including a rising number of double amputations due to IEDs, The Huffington Post reported last year.

Army Pfc. Stefan LeRoy of Santa Rosa lost part of both legs in a hidden bomb blast on June 7 and also is recuperating at Walter Reed. LeRoy, who also served with the 82nd Airborne in Kandahar province, sustained a fractured arm and an eye injury.

Frank Bernardo said he's impressed with the care his brother is getting at Walter Reed, along with support from other amputees on the fourth floor.

Monte Bernardo lives on the Army base at Fort Bragg, N.C., and enjoyed hunting, fishing and motorcycle dirt racing. His goals include getting back on a bike, his brother said.

Monte told his brother that despite his injuries he wants to go to college and pursue a degree in aerospace engineering.

Shafer said her brother has “picked right up where he left off.”

“He doesn't sweat the small stuff,” she said. “When there is a big problem, he just figures out a way to deal with it.”

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©2012 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)

Visit The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.) at www.pressdemocrat.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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