Texas wounded veteran gets first glimpse of his mortgage-free home
By ANDREA SALAZAR | The Eagle, Bryan, Texas | Published: June 30, 2013
Former sergeant Monte Bernardo mastered his prosthetic legs to walk down a slight downslope while touring the bare bones of his new home.
In the wooded community of King Oaks in Iola, future neighbors, fellow veterans and community supporters gathered to shake the Army veteran's hand and write notes of love and support on the wooden beams holding up the 2,300-square-foot, four-bedroom, two-bathroom home.
Saturday was the first time Bernardo, who lost both legs and his left arm when he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan last Fourth of July, saw the house he was promised in a surprise announcement at Kyle Field last November.
"Them giving me this home took a lot of stress off because you just don't know how you're going to live and what you're going to do," Bernardo, 31, said explaining the daunting feeling of trying to figure out his life post-injury.
Thanks to Operation FINALLY HOME, a nonprofit organization providing mortgage-free homes to wounded and disabled veterans since 2005, Bernardo, his fiance and 12-year-old daughter will have a home in Grimes County, less than half an hour from Texas A&M University, where Bernardo plans to study aerospace engineering.
Among the notes left on the home's framework is one from actor and Army veteran J.R. Martinez, who won season 13 of Dancing With The Stars.
"This home is a small token of our appreciation for your service," wrote Martinez, who is also a spokesperson for Operation FINALLY HOME. "You inspire us all with the courage you've shown. God bless you and your family! May this home bring you peace and happiness. From one vet to another! Drive on!"
By partnering with Southstar Communities, which donated a one-acre plot of land on King Oaks Drive, and five area homebuilders that provided volunteer labor and donated material, Bernardo will have a mortgage-free home when he leaves Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. later this year.
"It's the silver lining in this situation that he gets this house and gets to go to the college he wanted," said his sister, Stella Shafer Bernardo, 26. "He's lucky. I know he doesn't look like he's lucky, but he is. He doesn't just deserve this because of what happened. He deserves it as a person."
But the world outside of the hospital will bring more challenges.
Praising Walter Reed for its treatment, Monte Bernardo said the hospital is "like a bubble that closes in on you. Everything there is catered to amputees. All the sidewalks are smooth, but then you get out and the sidewalks tilt."
After spending five days as a "zombie" after hearing of her fiance's injuries, Amanda Simmons has spent the last year helping him recover.
"He's come such a long way in the last year," she said. "He occasionally sees that, but he also thinks he should be further along, and I tell him, 'Babe, you're a rockstar. You're mastering ramps and hills.'"
"I'm inspired by him," she added. "He doesn't think I should be, but I am."
A class of 2003 Aggie, Frank Bernardo, 37, played a large role in getting his younger brother a home. A fellow Aggie and rugby alum heard about Monte Bernardo's story and put him in touch with Operation FINALLY HOME.
"This is the next step for him," Frank Bernardo said. "It's providing him with the opportunity to take the next step forward. He's not defeated."
This Fourth of July, the Bernardo family will celebrate Monte's "Alive Day" in San Antonio.
"It's still the Fourth of July, it's just also the day I stepped on an eight-to-10-pound explosive and lived," Monte Bernardo said with a laugh.
But for his family, Independence Day has gained a new meaning.
"The fireworks will forever be for him," Stella Bernardo said. "He just won't be in the fireworks this time."