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Staff Sergeant Matthew Bernard - Someone You Should Know

Here's a story about a good friend of mine who's been featured in the Boston Globe:

Soldier who received 2 Purple Hearts in Iraq reflects on experiences
By Jenn McDowell, The Telegraph  |  November 10, 2006

MILFORD, N.H. --A group of children in Ramadi, Iraq, walked safely to school March 4 because Matt Bernard and his fellow soldiers fell upon and activated a roadside bomb first.

Earlier this year, Bernard, a National Guard staff sergeant, and his men drove cautiously in an armored Humvee on a road children frequently walked on their way to school. They were checking for any life-threatening hazards, such as an IED, or improvised explosive device, that could kill or seriously harm the children.

"There was this immense flash of light, and the boom just shut my ears down," Bernard said. He saw some of his men's mouths moving, but no sound came out. The squad leader's first thoughts were for his men's safety.

"The brotherhood that you develop in the war zone, you can't find that anywhere else," he said...

More about Matt after the Jump:

The 29-year-old father of four from Milford suffered a serious concussion and injuries to several vertebrae. Shrapnel from the explosion was embedded in his head and limbs. An inch-thick piece of steel was lodged into the side of the Humvee, right next to Bernard's open window. Another few inches, and the makeshift bullet would have penetrated his skull. Bernard kept this artifact as a reminder of his toughest day in the field.

"In my unit, it was sort of a rite of passage to endure an IED," Bernard said. Some of the other men in his unit had experienced up to 15 roadside bombs, he said.

Just a week before the roadside bomb, on Feb. 27, Bernard said his squad was questioning locals about a recent violent incident when insurgents launched a rocket attack. Bernard said he had only minor injuries in this attack, including a slight concussion and lacerations.

"They wanted me to take some days off, but I wanted to stay with my men," Bernard said. President Bush's office has since awarded Bernard two Purple Hearts for the wounds he suffered in the two incidents. The latest of the two was presented to him at the U.S. Army National Guard Armory in Nashua on Tuesday.

Hundreds of thousands of service people in every branch of the U.S. Armed Forces have received the Purple Heart for being wounded or killed in action, including incidences of friendly fire and terrorist attacks.

Bernard now suffers from long-term damage as a result of the IED explosion, including hearing and memory loss, inner ear damage that affects his equilibrium, neurological ailments and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I've got all my limbs, so I'm very fortunate," he said.

Despite the tragedies of fallen soldiers in Iraq, Bernard wishes the nation would focus on the positive steps troops are taking overseas. The veteran said the majority of people in Ramadi, and all over Iraq, appreciate the U.S. presence there.

"What we do over there is more than just killing the insurgents. We're helping the people," he said.

The troops are providing the residents with the opportunity to live as normal of a life as they can, he said. They make it safe for businesses to open and for commerce to take place in relative normalcy.

Bernard's company even donated brand-new computers to an all-girls school in the community. "If I gave them just a little piece of what we have, then I can look at myself in the mirror with a clear conscience," he said.

Bernard was released from active duty at the end of March and returned home. He was admitted to Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Fort Gordon, Ga., after a short stay at a hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. Subsequently, he underwent extensive rehabilitation session for his injuries.

Bernard said one of the first things he did upon arriving back in the states, aside from greeting his family, was get a beer.

"I'm just trying to get back to normalcy," he said, as his 3-year-old daughter, Saryn, climbed onto his knees at his home Wednesday.

Bernard currently works as a network engineer at Nortel Networks' Billerica, Mass., plant. Despite his return to civilian life and his loving family, he said it feels surreal at times to be outside the war zone.

"Seven thousand miles away, there's another soldier going through the same thing I went through," he said.

His wife, Shayne, said one of the hardest parts of her husband's absence was when she could not get in contact with him. Thanks to modern technology, troops in Iraq can stay connected to family and friends through internet-equipped computers on each base. However, when there is a fatality in the field, all communication is shut down until the family of the deceased is appropriately notified.

The stress of being kept in the dark about her husband's well being got to her, at first. "I just learned to accept it," she said. She is pregnant with the couple's fifth child. She added that she joined a Concord-based support group with the families of 28 other soldiers from the area.

"Our spouses were all with different units, but we grew really close. It's been nice to have that bond," she said.

Bernard said the focus on the negative aspects of the war is a result of the poor conveyance of information and planning on the part of the administration. If people understood the gratitude the Iraqi residents have for the troops, he believes their perspective would shift.

"I think the government should give the people a general idea of how we plan to eventually leave Iraq. As soon as people can be more informed of the realities of what we expect from the Iraqi people, I think people can support us," he said.

And, in case you're wondering, Nortel has treated Matt very, very well before, during and after his deployment.  Next time I'm in Boston, I'll buy him a beer (or many) from you all...