Healinghero Triple Amputee Veteran Forms a Special Bond with Therapist

Article excerpt

Byline: Michael E. Ruane The Washington Post By Michael E. Ruane The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Army Sgt. Monte Bernardo had been in the Rockville, Md., 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 6 1/2 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 ----. 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. …