“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.
A helper emerges
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.