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Wounded veteran gets the keys to donated house

Retired Army Staff Sgt. Monte Bernardo has his running legs on standby.

The 31-year-old wounded veteran, who lost his legs and left hand when he stepped on an improvised explosive device while on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan on July 4, 2012, will have plenty of space to run as the newest resident of the Iola community of King Oaks.

"There's no way I could ever repay you guys," Bernardo said to his neighbors after receiving the keys to his 2,300-square-foot, mortgage-free home on Saturday.

"You already have," the crowd responded.

Bernardo toured his finished four-bedroom, two-bathroom house for the first time on Saturday as neighbors lined his driveway to welcome him home. A motorcycle Patriot Guard escorted Bernardo, his fiancee Amanda Simmons, 24, and 12-year-old daughter Felicity to the property in the Kings Oaks community about 20 minutes east of College Station and Texas A&M, where Bernardo hopes to study engineering next spring.

"I don't deserve this more than any other soldier," Bernardo told the crowd. "We all went out there and did the same thing. I just had a bad day."

The retired Army sergeant, who joined in 2006, was discharged from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last fall after spending five days in a coma, three weeks in intensive care and months rehabilitating. He "ditched" the cane last summer and hasn't sat in a wheelchair since December, he said proudly.

Bernardo's gratefulness and his go-getter attitude played a role in Operation FINALLY HOME's decision to award him a house.

"We'd like to build homes for every person that's injured and everyone who served ... but we have limited resources so we make the most of these resources by building homes for people who will take the opportunity and make the most of it," said Lee Kirgan, vice president of construction with the nonprofit organization, which has built 50 homes for wounded veterans and their families across the country.

The custom home with an estimated value between $375,000 and $400,000 was made possible by SouthStar Communities, which donated a one-acre plot of land in King Oaks, as well as five area builders, donors and volunteers involved in what builder Randall Pitcock called an "act of service for a debt already paid." Neighbors even pitched in to purchase outdoor furniture, a grill and a flag pole for the Bernardos.

"This house was built because of the love the builders and community have for this family," Kirgan said. "It's wrapped in notes of love, messages of encouragement, support and thanks."

"It changes the lives of everybody that's involved," he added.

The presentation of the home brought closure to his family, including brother Frank Bernardo, Aggie class of 2004.

"For him to finally be able to have a place to call home, where he can feel safe and secure and where he can relax and enjoy life the way it's supposed to be, is huge," Frank said.

Having spent the last three months on an extended roadtrip, visiting family and friends, Simmons said coming home felt like a weight lifted off.

"Home is where the heart is, and my heart's with you," Simmons said, remembering the lines she wrote to Bernardo on the frame of the house last July. "All three of us are here. We're home."

Welcome home, soldier.

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