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Vet, wounded in combat, and his service dog are inseparable on Penn State’s campus

by on April 30, 2018 3:35 PM

Edward Bonfiglio, a senior rehabilitation and human services major, can often be found in one of the many Penn State gyms as he exercises between his classes.

Bonfiglio, from Runnemede, New Jersey, always has his best workout pal with him.

That pal is a service dog named Bravo.

“Everyone knows Bravo, and it’s pretty hard to miss a one-legged guy with a service dog,” Bonfiglio says with a laugh.

Although many people recognize Bonfiglio and Bravo, many don’t know Bonfiglio’s story.

Bonfiglio, a Navy veteran, has a strong military family background.

“My brother is Air Force, my dad is Air Force, my uncle is Navy, and my grandfather is Navy. I moved around a lot as a kid,” Bonfiglio says. “I don’t remember much of the different places that I lived, but I do remember White Sands, New Mexico. There was no snow, so we would sled on sand.”

Bonfiglio spent his time in the military as a corpsman and combat medic with the Fleet Marine Force. Bonfiglio did two tours in Iraq with Marine infantry units, and one tour in Afghanistan with amphibious assault vehicles that worked as an infantry unit.

Bonfiglio lost the lower half of his left leg due to a traumatic injury during his third tour, in Marjah, Afghanistan, in 2012.

He was injured as his unit was walking down a long, gravel road in Marjah. They were taking fire for 30 minutes before they were able to begin pushing the enemy back. As his unit began to go into a nearby house to clear the compound, Bonfiglio was shot in his lower left leg.

The bullet hit his sciatic nerve, causing his leg to collapse beneath him.

Once inside the compound, Bonfiglio was taken care of by his good friend Mike Whealan.

“If I was to go down, he was the one who knew some background in medical,” Bonfiglio says. “My Marines were protecting me when we were still taking fire. We finally got inside the compound and I could lay down. My Marine was trying to assess me and I tried to help him, like how much blood I had lost and if it was still bleeding.”

Bonfiglio didn’t want to take any morphine until a helicopter arrived, because he feared he would go unconscious.

“I was really the only medical person on station, so we had to wait for the helicopter to come in. An Army medic came out and took over after that,” Bonfiglio says.

When it was time for Bonfiglio to inform his parents of the injury, he had just been given morphine for pain.

“When I called my parents, I was given a satellite phone. I was really out of it. My dad answered and it was the middle of the night over there. They were in bed, but he picked up,” Bonfiglio says. “He asked me what was up, and I immediately told him in a quiet voice not to tell mom. For some reason after that, I yelled ‘I got shot!’ into the phone. My mom overhead it and started freaking out.”

Bonfiglio says that friends found out about the injury from his family members, and that many family members came to visit him upon his arrival back to the United States.

Bonfiglio decided to try to rehabilitate his leg, to no avail.

“I wanted to save my leg. I went through something called a sciatic nerve graft. They tried to put a sizeable cadaver nerve graft into my leg to try to get movement back into my foot and calf, but I still couldn’t move muscles in my lower leg because it was all atrophied,” Bonfiglio says.

He was unable to pick up his foot and had to wear a brace to walk around. He decided after three years that it was time to have an amputation.

“I had to wait a while because I was out of the Navy and I was medically retired, so when I did want an amputation, it took a while because there was an influx of injuries coming in from Afghanistan. The hospital can only have so many people coming in at a time.”

The process was not easy.

“Before amputation I had to see a psych doctor and see an orthopedist surgeon. They had to make sure that they weren’t cutting into good flesh,” Bonfiglio says. “A lot of guys I know tried to salvage their limbs but ended up going back and getting amputations later.

A student at the time, Bonfiglio had to take a semester off from Penn State during the spring of 2015 to allow time to recover from the amputation. He took online classes in the fall of 2015 before returning to campus.

“Nobody really asks questions [about the amputation] until they get to know you, and you occasionally catch someone staring at you. I actually get people coming up to me in the gym at school and they will thank me for my service,” Bonfiglio says.

Renee Thorton-Roop, the associate director of the office of veteran programs, says that just fewer than 1,000 students are using GI benefits at Penn State.

Within the past year, Thorton-Roop has only seen five people with service animals.

“Ed and Bravo are very in sync. Bravo is an amazing animal and Ed does a fantastic job with him,” Thorton-Roop says. “Ed has made some very tight connections in the community and is well-liked. He’s a funny, approachable guy.”

At Penn State, Bonfiglio and Bravo are never seen apart.

Bonfiglio found Bravo through Harvey Naranjo at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Naranjo specializes in caring for wounded veterans.

“I got Bravo from a group called America’s VetDogs. I went through Naranjo because he gets in touch with different service dog groups and helps pick out the best dog for you or gives you options,” says Bonfiglio.

America’s VetDogs says it costs more than $50,000 to breed, raise, train, and place one assistance dog. All of VetDogs’ services are provided at no charge to the individual. “Funding comes from the generosity of individuals, corporations, foundations, businesses, and service and fraternal clubs,” the organization says.

America’s VetDogs trains and places seeing-eye dogs, PTSD service dogs, hearing dogs, and service dogs for those with other physical disabilities.

Bravo, a golden retriever and black lab mix, can assist Bonfiglio in picking up items, opening doors at home, pushing handicap buttons, and for balance when going up stairs.

“Bravo is a good dog, he’s such a ham. Everybody loves him. He’s well-behaved and doesn’t interrupt in classes and when he wants attention, he’ll let me know by sitting up and putting his paw on me,” Bonfiglio says.

One of Bravo’s favorite toys is a stuffed carrot.

“He definitely puts in his work, but he’s a companion,” Bonfiglio says. “We’re always together.”

Bonfiglio will graduate from Penn State in the fall, and has enjoyed his time at the university. He’s in the process of exploring career options.

“One thing I have noticed is that Ed has so many friends here at school,” student Linton Benitez says. “He’s a friendly person. He is always great to be around because how optimistic about life he is.”

Benitez, a veteran of the Marine Corps and a kinesiology major at Penn State, met Bonfiglio while working out at the gym.

They work out together, and Benitez says that Bonfiglio doesn’t let his amputation get the best of him.

“He squats more weight than most of the guys at the gym,” Benitez says. “He has an exceptional work ethic, and I would trust him with my life.”

 

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