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Milwaukie businesses help keep vets ride rolling

Vendors restoring soldier's classic '68 Barracuda for free
by: ellen Spitaleri Edwin Claudio’s “dream car,” a dark blue Barracuda, is being restored at Bernard’s Garage in Milwaukie.

The explosion in Afghanistan that nearly killed U.S. Army MP Sgt. Edwin Claudio blew a crater 30 feet around and eight feet deep. It was a wonder that Claudio survived.

Today, he's grateful to be alive and with his family this Christmas.

Claudio was on his second tour of Afghanistan in February when he and another soldier were critically wounded in the explosion. Of the three soldiers in his truck, one of them did not survive.

Claudio's injuries included two hairline fractures in his spine, which have since been fused with titanium rods, a shattered right knee cap, shattered left femur, puncture wound in one elbow, loss of peripheral vision, broken teeth and other injuries.

After going through months of rehabilitation, Claudio, although wheelchair-bound, will regain the use of his right leg and will be able to drive.

That's where Bernard's Garage in Milwaukie and seven other local vendors enter the picture. Before he was injured, Claudio was slowly restoring his 'dream car,' a 1968 Barracuda. But after the explosion, he was airlifted to Madigan Hospital in Tacoma and he and his family were moved into disability housing at Ft. Lewis. Because they no longer had a place to keep the car, family friends Tony and Donna Ruland agreed to store the Barracuda in their Gladstone garage.

Although the Claudios live on the Army base, his wife, Riki, grew up in Milwaukie, and graduated in 1996 from Rex Putnam High School. Her sister, Rika Conrey Warner, still lives in the area. Rika and the Rulands began to explore options to get the Barracuda repaired locally.

A complete overhaul

Warner eventually sent an email to Susan Lehr, president of the North Clackamas County Chamber of Commerce, who has business connections in the community, and finally word of the project came to John Sciarra, the operations manager at Bernard's Garage in Milwaukie, who jumped at the chance to take on the challenge.

'I gathered information from other shops in the area, gathered my crew and said, 'We have a project.' They said, 'Bring it on - let's go,' ' Sciarra said, adding that he called Jim Bernard, the owner of the garage, who said he was onboard to donate the labor.

'Many of the guys who work here or who have worked here are vets, or have family members who are vets,' Sciarra said. 'Now we have someone who has come back with injuries he sustained - he's beaten the odds. His wife's family is from Milwaukie, and we wanted to give back to the community.'

The connection is also personal for Sciarra, who noted that his own son will be going to Afghanistan in 2012 or 2013.

The brilliant blue Barracuda was eventually towed to Bernard's, where Sciarra figured out that he and his crew would need the help of other local vendors.

'We currently have the car's major components completely removed from the body. This means the radiator, engine, transmission, drive shaft, fuel tank, rear differential and carburetor have all been removed and are being sent out to various shops around Portland, Gladstone and Milwaukie for complete overhauling,' he said.

The car will also be converted to electronic ignition, to make it easier for Claudio to drive it.

'All of this is being done by donation, at no cost to the family. Edwin will be liable for some parts, but Bernard's is donating all the labor,' Sciarra said, adding that the crew will document all the work on video, and make a DVD to give Claudio when the restoration is complete.

'But we are still looking for a vendor to donate a new set of wheels and tires,' Sciarra said.

Milwaukie 'steps up'

When Warner realized that her email set off a chain reaction of response in the community, she said she at first could not believe how much support was being shown from the number of businesses involved and how quickly everything was happening.

'I have volunteered in the North Clackamas School District and the Milwaukie community for many years now, so I wasn't entirely surprised, because this is indicative of the character of our community. We may not be the demographic with the most money, but I believe what we do have is the biggest heart. When Milwaukie sees a need, we step up to the plate to fill that need,' said Warner, a 1989 Milwaukie High School graduate.

'I've never had anything like this happen - there is so much support. I can't thank people enough,' Claudio said, adding that he has been in the service for 12 years, and would like to remain in the Army for eight more years.

Warner also noted that she and her family have military connections, going back to her paternal grandfather, who served in the U.S. Navy in World War II, and her father and uncle, who both served in Vietnam.

More recently, Warner served in the Navy and met her husband in basic training; her younger sister, Rie Conrey Heffron, a 1992 Milwaukie High School graduate, was in the Coast Guard; and even Claudio's wife Riki, served in the Army.

'Through this process, my husband and I are inspired and motivated to start our own nonprofit organization that would bridge needs of veterans and their families with their surrounding community. I'd love to see this idea come to fruition,' Warner said.

'Since this is so close to me personally, I am filled with enormous pride and happiness for the depth of support that my brother-in-law is receiving. All of our active duty [personnel], veterans and their families deserve this kind of support; I wish we could do this for every one of them. Edwin and Riki still feel like this whole thing is surreal to them. In their words, 'This kind of stuff doesn't happen to us; we're not very lucky people.' '

How you can help

These vendors have come together to help rebuild injured Army Sgt. Edwin Claudio's 1968 Barracuda. Still needed is a vendor to donate four wheels and tires. Monetary donations will be accepted at Bernard's Garage: call 503-659-7722, or stop by the garage at 2036 S.E. Washington St., Milwaukie.

Vendors: Bernard's Garage, Holbrook Specialties, Mac's Radiator, Majhor and Murray LTD, Merle Ross Upholstery, O.C. Transmission, Olson Bros. Towing and Portland Engine Rebuilders.