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Coming home to mountain area hearts

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Young veteran’s adopted town planning warm — and monumental — welcome

By Gabrielle Porter, for the Courier

Judy Berna’s original idea for welcoming her son home from Afghanistan was not elaborate.

The Evergreen resident drove past the “Welcome to Evergreen” sign near Walmart about six months ago, and noticed it had been decorated with flags. Her son, 21-year-old Army Specialist Michael Berna, deployed Feb. 1 to Afghanistan with Apache Troop 1-75 Cavalry of the 101st Airborne Division.

“I thought, ‘Oh, it’d be so great when Michael came back if I could either put flags up there or put up a banner and surprise him,’ ” Judy said.

Michael wasn’t expected home until the beginning of November, and wouldn’t be back in Colorado until early December. So in late October, Judy posted on the Evergreen Colorado Neighbors & Friends Facebook page, asking whether it would be possible to deck out the sign in Michael’s honor.

The response surprised her.

Within minutes, people were posting suggestions for whom to contact, words of support, and even asking that Judy let them know when Michael would be home so they could bring their own flags and greet him. Later, after Judy went to work at her job at the Evergreen Park and Recreation District, she checked the site throughout the day. A teacher said she’d like to bring her high-schoolers to welcome Michael. A Cub Scout den leader said local Boy Scout groups would probably like to get involved.

“It became a community project within the day — before the day was out,” Judy said. “The people on the page are the ones who made this happen.”

As Judy kept getting comments and e-mails, she realized that lining the road probably wasn’t going to be practical.

“There could be hundreds of people that show up for this thing, and we need it make it safe,” she said.

Michael arrived in Kentucky on Nov. 1, and will go on leave in early December. Judy will use the intervening time to finish planning his homecoming celebration, potentially near Bergen Park. The event will be a surprise for Michael.

“He has no idea,” Judy said.

Judy doesn’t yet know the event’s exact date and time because she doesn’t know what day Michael will arrive in Colorado, but she expects it to be during the first week of December. Because of all the uncertainty, Judy said, it might make more sense to hold the event a day or two after he returns home, rather than when he actually drives in for the first time, although she might still try to hang a banner from the Welcome to Evergreen sign.

“He will have no idea that a bigger thing is coming,” she said.

Welcome for a transplant

The outpouring of support for Michael’s homecoming is all the more poignant because, while Judy and her husband, Jeff, have lived in Evergreen for three years, they plan to make it their permanent home.

The Bernas moved frequently for Jeff’s job as an archaeologist, which most recently has included a position as an environmental protection specialist for the U.S. Department of Transportation. When Michael was growing up, he and his three siblings lived everywhere from New Hampshire to Utah. He graduated from high school in New York just before the family moved to Evergreen three years ago. Although Michael lived here for only a year before leaving for training and deployment, the Bernas want their children to feel attached to the community as well.

“The fact that this community has offered to greet him back in Evergreen is huge, because I think it’ll help him feel like, ‘This is my hometown,’ ” Judy said.

Life-long interest

Michael Berna grew up with an interest in the military, and especially in flying. Judy’s brother was in the Navy, her father was in the Air Force, and her mother was a Red Cross volunteer. Jeff is a military history buff, and Michael’s bedroom always featured military plane posters when he was growing up. He was a cross country runner who ran all track seasons to stay in shape, and dreamed of being a pilot.

After graduating from high school, Michael enrolled in Westminster College in Salt Lake City, planning to join the aviation and ROTC programs. When he found that ROTC’s funding wasn’t what it once was, Michael texted his mother, who was flying back and forth from Colorado to New York overseeing the stressful sale of their East Greenbush home. When Judy got a text saying that Michael was dropping out of college to join the Army, she thought it was a joke.

“I said, ‘Michael, really, I can’t take this right now. My brain is going to explode,’ ” Judy said.

Once she realized he was serious, however, Judy said she and Jeff didn’t try to stop him. They knew he was responsible, and had always been mature.

“Then, all of a sudden, I had a kid in the military,” Judy said.

While Michael thought enlisting might help him eventually achieve his goal of becoming a pilot, Judy said he also loves to challenge himself and is motivated by a strong sense of patriotism.

“He wasn’t afraid of the commitment. He wasn’t afraid of how hard it was going to be,” she said. “He’s very headstrong and very determined.”

After basic training, Michael learned that he would be deployed. He flew to Afghanistan on Feb. 1, the day after his 21st birthday, which he celebrated with his father and older sister, Meredith, who saw him off.

Michael was stationed at Bagram Airfield, and often worked 12- to 18-hour missions providing security to the sprawling base and to visiting dignitaries meeting with nearby communities. Judy, Jeff and Michael’s siblings stayed in touch by sending him messages on Facebook. Judy said he usually sounded positive, despite the grueling hours.

“He said, ‘Mom, there’s days when I’m counting down the hours until we’re out of here and I can’t wait to be gone,’ ” Judy said. “ ‘And there’s other times that it’s so cool and awesome. … I sure would rather be doing this than working at a bike shop in Boulder.”

While Michael was expected to be back on U.S. soil in early November, Judy and Jeff originally planned to wait to see him until December, when he would be on leave and could come back to Colorado.

“But then we got the call saying, ‘Your soldier’s flight will be coming in in five days,’ and instantly we looked at each other and said, ‘Nope, we’re going to make this happen,’ ” Judy said.

The couple put everything on hold, left their younger sons, 18-year-old Isaac and 14-year-old Sam, in charge of the house, and drove to Kentucky in time to meet Michael and spend Nov. 2 at his apartment watching the Broncos play the Patriots.

Judy wondered if deployment had changed Michael. He was always responsible and an idol to his younger brothers. After barely a day off in nine months, though, Judy said she noticed how relaxed Michael was, and how happy just to be home.

“He forgot what it was like to just have time to relax,” she said. “He’s the same Michael. It’s just that he seems so content and peaceful and relaxed and thankful to just be here in regular life again. I think he will take nothing for granted.”

An avid hiker and skier, Michael will probably take time to camp with Jeff and “just be in the wilderness” soon after he returns in December, Judy said. After his leave, he’ll be stationed in Kentucky. His hitch lasts through May 2016.

‘I’m just blown away’

As the planning has continued for Michael’s welcome, Judy said, the support has been “surreal,” partially because she’s still not accustomed to thinking of herself as a military mother.

“I understand the reaction, but I’m a little overwhelmed that it’s my family that it’s happening to,” Judy said.

“I’m the mom that answers that Facebook page and says, ‘I’m bringing my kids to hold the flag.’ I’m not the mom who’s the mom of the soldier. … I’m just blown away.”