Like a birthday or an anniversary, August 17 is a date the Bernt family will always hold dear.
After months of hard work on a much-needed renovation to the family house, Andy Bernt, his wife Brenda and their son Nikolas finally returned home on Friday. They came back to a place that looked quite different from the one they had left.
"I will cherish this for the rest of my life," said Bernt, who had lifted his arms in triumph from his wheelchair as his wife led him within sight of the new and improved house.
Bernt originally enlisted in the Air Force in 1980 at the age of 19 and served 10 years as a firefighter and emergency rescue responder, including overseas service in Germany. After being honorably discharged from the Air Force, Bernt served in a similar capacity as a civilian at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa for 18 years before his forced medical retirement in 2005. Bernt was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma but overcame the cancer only to contract Transverse Mellitus, which has weakened his spine and nervous system.
In December of 2011, the Buccaneers announced a $40,000 dollar donation towards the renovation project. The effort was carried out with help from members of the Buccaneers' staff, Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay and C1 Bank, the Official Bank of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. All were on hand Friday morning for the big reveal, along with several of Bernt's former Air Force colleagues, additional project supporters and Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik.
"This shows what you can do when you team together with good people and create a great project," said Dominik.
Bernt's emotional fist pumps delighted the cheering crowd. Having seen little of the house since the renovations began, he was clearly overwhelmed by its transformation, and what it will mean to his life.
"I'm home! This is my home!" said Bernt. "I am so touched; I'm going to enjoy this."
C1 Bank CEO Trevor Burgess said the decision to step up and help the Bernt family had come easily.
"We have a responsibility to the community," said Burgess. "We want to find ways to give back. For this family, that's what is really important."
Bringing awareness to the issues and challenges affecting local military has been a community emphasis for the Buccaneer organization, and especially Dominik. He has focused his outreach on working with war veterans and all branches of the military, utilizing training camp, a game day ticket program, events and appearances to support service personnel throughout the Bay area community.
"Any time you have a chance to give back to a serviceman or woman it's extra special for us, because we know the sacrifices they have made for our country," said Dominik. "I think this speaks volumes about how important the military is to our organization and to our community. It's a way to say thank you."
After touring the house for the first time, checking out remodeled bathrooms, wider doorways, a new kitchen and updated household appliances, the Bernt family was presented with another special gift on Friday: luxury suite tickets to Friday night's Buccaneers-Titans game at Raymond James Stadium.
The contest at Raymond James Stadium should serve as icing on the cake for Bernt, an active participant in wheelchair sports and recent silver medalist in the National Wheelchair Games. A long-time advocate for disabled veterans, he has helped mentor fellow veterans and others with spinal injuries. For him, the renovation is about more than helping himself.
"If I am an advocate for anybody else in a wheelchair that needs some encouragement, I will be there," said Bernt. "I plan on walking one day, whether it be tomorrow or next week. I think that dreams do come true."