Triple amputee vet and his therapist form brotherly bond

 

Washington

Army Sgt. Monte Bernardo had been in the Rockville, Maryland, Target only a few minutes when he hobbled away from his red plastic shopping cart and slumped on a couch in the furniture department.

"This leg is killing me, dude," he told Capt. Erik Johnson, his occupational therapist. He winced and rubbed his plastic and titanium right leg. His left prosthetic leg was OK, but his artificial hand was acting up, too.

It was a rare moment of complaint for Bernardo, who lost both legs and his left hand in a makeshift-bomb blast in Afghanistan on July 4. Johnson handed him his cane. They would just pick up a few more things, the captain said, "and then we'll roll out."

The two men looked at each other in silence. Bernardo shook his head in frustration. Johnson sat beside him: the sergeant in a T-shirt, shorts and missing limbs; the officer in fatigues that covered most of his burn scars.

Amid thousands of encounters between soldier and caregiver in recent years, these two men, marked by war and service, have formed a unique friendship.

Bernardo, 30, has been recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md., for five months. Johnson, 35, the head of amputee occupational therapy there, has been helping him.

Bernardo is a stubborn, dedicated, somewhat cynical combat veteran with an outrageous sense of humor and a low opinion of officers. He grew up on a dairy farm in California.

Johnson is a clean-cut officer whose family goes back four generations in the Army. But his specialty is healing wounds, psychic and physical, not inflicting them.

Bernardo has a Ford F-350 pickup and has never worn a business suit. He is a former plumber who has been in the Army for 61/2 years.

Johnson was a high school baseball star and has a master's degree. He drives a sleek Mercedes Benz, a gift to himself after a tour in Afghanistan. He has been in the Army for 16 years.

They are two very different men.

But they have bonded over Bernardo's wounds, both focused for months on the mechanics, physiology and psychology of his recovery, both engaged in a careful dialogue between patient and therapist, both with their own disfiguring injuries.

Soon they will part ways. Johnson is getting promoted to major and is being assigned to another hospital. Bernardo has improved so rapidly he hopes to be out of Walter Reed by the summer and then start college.

Bernardo was a cavalry scout and team leader with the 82nd Airborne Division last summer in Afghanistan, he said during a recent therapy session at the hospital as he assembled a bookcase and bantered with Johnson.

"I led all the patrols," he said, "navigation, taking care of my squad, stuff like that — [looking] for bombs with your feet."

Standing nearby, Johnson asked jokingly: "Did you find any?"

Bernardo laughed: "I was awesome at my job!"

For five months, he had been waiting to encounter a makeshift bomb.

"I waited for it every single step," he said. "There was times I stepped on soft earth, I was like, 'Oh s---. That's it. Oh. I'm still alive. All right, cool.' "

Fifteen of his comrades had already become casualties in the same small area where he was wounded.

On July 4, he said he had done everything right. "I placed my guys [with] the proper intervals between them so that when I did step on that bomb the only one that was injured was me. Nobody else got hit."

"We were just on a regular mission," he said, in an area that was a 25-minute helicopter flight south of Kandahar.

"We got ambushed," he said. "They left us only one place to go. It was on a berm. They had the bomb set up . . . on the berm."

But it was buried so deeply that it had eluded the mine detectors, and the area had been declared clear.

"That's why I'm missing this hand," he said. "I was going to sit down, and I was catching my weight with this hand. And I rolled my entire body weight across it. And it set it off. I sat right on top of that bomb."

"I remember hearing a noise," he said. "I didn't know what it was. Then I hit the ground. . . . Then my buddy came running through the smoke and dust and stuff. I asked him if my legs were gone. He said, 'Yeah, your legs are gone.' I was like, 'All right, that sucks.' "

His legs were severed just above the knee. His left hand had been blown off.

"I was real calm about the situation," he remembered. He asked for a cigarette.

He was flown to Kandahar, where he recalls saying, "Hey, this s--- hurts. My responsibilities are over with. Put me to sleep."

"It was like somebody turned off the TV," he said. Four days later, "I woke up here."

His younger sister, Stella Shafer, 27, who has been staying with him in an apartment on the hospital campus, was there when he came to.

"It was so awful," she said. "He had tubes and everything coming out of his mouth and all over him. . . . I actually started to pass out when I first saw him. It broke my heart."

Bernardo was a determined patient. He was antsy in bed and quickly graduated to a wheelchair. He took his first steps on temporary artificial legs called "shorties" 47 days after his injury.

He began physical therapy, rebuilding his basic strength and muscles, he said.

Then he started occupational therapy — "learning to do the things that you did before, the things that you're going to do on an everyday basis . . . the stuff that you want to do."

Cooking, building, shopping, drinking a soda, cutting food, getting dressed, using the bathroom.

At Walter Reed, he said he was told the average stay for a triple amputee is 18 months to three years. Not for him, he vowed.

About three weeks after his injury, Bernardo arrived in a motorized wheelchair in the hospital's Military Advanced Training Center, a large gym-like facility where physical and occupational therapy takes place.

He was still hooked up to tubes. He still had stitches in his legs and arm, a devil tattooed on his right forearm and an attitude.

There he met Johnson for an initial assessment.

"I'm typically skeptical of officers, because a lot of them suck. They really do," Bernardo said. He said he partially blamed an officer's bad decisions for his injuries.

"I said, 'OK, we'll see how this goes,' " he said. " 'I have an Army [therapist]. This is going to be stupid.' "

They sized each other up.

Bernardo had been a jump master in the 82nd Airborne, a leader who has responsibility for, and directs, the jump of paratroopers on an airborne mission. He was a veteran of 30 parachute jumps.

Johnson figured that Bernardo saw the airborne insignia on his uniform and guessed the officer was a "five-jump chump."

"That's what we call people who went to airborne school, and that's all [the jumps] they've done," Johnson said. He was, indeed, a five-jump chump.

What Bernardo couldn't see were the extensive burn and skin graft scars on Johnson's arms, sides and legs beneath his uniform.

The burns were from a deadly incident in Johnson's early days in the Army.

It was Aug. 12, 1997. Stationed in Germany, Johnson, then a private, was driving his car on the autobahn accompanied by a sergeant.

Johnson was driving 95 mph, as he said many motorists do on that roadway, when he blew a tire. The car flipped over, landed on its roof and exploded. Johnson and his buddy were trapped and engulfed in flames.

"There was fire everywhere," he said in a recent interview in his office. He remembers seeing a burning picture of his girlfriend. Then he noticed that the rear window had broken out and managed to crawl to safety that way.

"I get up and start to walk away," he said. Then he noticed the skin on one arm hanging, and "my entire right arm is just a giant blister."

He was also burned on both legs and his face. "I looked at my hands, and . . . the skin was removed from them," he said. "Some of my skin was dripping." He looked back. The car was a fireball, and the sergeant was still inside.

Just then, another group of soldiers happened by and helped the sergeant escape.

The men were taken to two different burn centers in Germany.

Johnson was bandaged head to toe. He had suffered second- and third-degree burns over 25 percent of his body. At one point, he dreamed that he died.

It was decided that both men would be transferred to an Army burn center in San Antonio. Johnson survived the trip. But his sergeant, who was burned more severely, died en route.

In San Antonio, Johnson underwent skin grafts and began to get physical and occupational therapy. It was excruciating and frustrating. His burned skin was shrinking and had to be painfully stretched.

Before the accident, he had been an excellent baseball player. He hit .500 one year in high school. Now, he believed he would never play again.

"My right hand was so mutilated," he said, "I was not going to be able to hold a bat."

But as the tortuous occupational therapy progressed, he said he suddenly realized that he might be able to play again — that this was the reason for the agonizing exercises he was forced to do.

"The light went on," he said. "It was a very profound moment."

He knew this was what he wanted to do in the Army. He wanted to do for other soldiers what had been done for him.

Most mornings, Johnson and Bernardo would meet in the training center at 9 a.m. The captain would make the sergeant use his prosthetic left hand to work with blocks, tiny metal pegs and washers. Bernardo used tools to assemble things.

They traded good-natured insults. Humor, Johnson said, can be crucial. As part of the therapy, they went to the supermarket together and prepared meals in the center's occupational therapy kitchen.

There were some problems.

"It was frustrating when we started because that prosthetic [hand] wouldn't work," Bernardo said in a recent interview in his apartment. "I wanted to throw it out that window."

The prosthetic hands resemble natural hands and are fitted over the stump of an arm like a long glove. The thumb and fingers, which can open and close, are activated by movements of muscles in the forearm that stimulate sensors.

"The hand never, ever worked for more than five to 10 minutes," Bernardo said.

As he spoke, the verbal jousting with Johnson went on. Good-natured barbs flew, along with jokes about idiot officers, and wicked jokes about amputees. Through the cloud of insults, it was clear the two men are fond of each other.

"This guy is one of the most phenomenal people that I know, period," Johnson said in a serious moment.

Bernardo said: "He's actually been pretty much one of the best occupational therapists that I've seen around here."

"For other people, it's a job," he told Johnson. "It's more than that to you."

Earlier this month the two men, accompanied by Bernardo's sister and his girlfriend, Amanda Simmons, went Christmas shopping at Target. Once Bernardo had rested his leg, they headed for the wrapping paper department.

Rounding a corner they ran into a group of handicapped schoolchildren chaperoned by their teacher and other adults. The children spotted his legs.

"Oh my gosh!" one child said.

"You want to touch them, dude?" Bernardo said. "They're just robot legs, man. I've got a robot hand, too. Look."

The kids gasped. Bernardo chuckled.

"Were you a soldier?" one of the chaperones asked.

"Yes," Bernardo replied. "I was a soldier."

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