October 15, 2009
Fallen Marine's Father Wants Change in Afghanistan
Fallen Marine's father wants change in Afghanistan
NEW PORTLAND, Maine — It was the last way John Bernard would have wanted his voice to gain prominence in the national debate over the war in Afghanistan.
The retired Marine had been writing to lawmakers for weeks complaining of the new rules of engagement he believed put U.S. troops at unacceptable risk in the insurgency-wracked country. He got little response.
Then Bernard's only son, 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard — a Marine like his dad — was killed in an insurgent ambush in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province, the latest victim of a surge in U.S. combat deaths.
Three weeks later, Joshua became the face of that toll when The Associated Press published photos of the dying Marine against his father's wishes and John Bernard was thrust into a national debate about the role of the press in wartime.
Suddenly, for all the worst reasons, John Bernard's voice was being heard.
The loss of his son and the furor over the photo have given new resonance to his view that changes must be made in how the war is fought before President Barack Obama sends any more troops to battle the Taliban and al-Qaida.
"For better or for worse, I may be the face of this. That's fine," said Bernard, sitting on his porch as he drank coffee from a Marine Corps mug. "As soon as someone bigger can run with it, they can have the whole thing."
Bernard's criticism is aimed at new rules of engagement imposed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the senior American commander in Afghanistan, five weeks before Joshua Bernard was killed. They limit the use of airstrikes and require troops to break off combat when civilians are present, even if it means letting the enemy escape. They also call for greater cooperation with the Afghan National Army.
Under those rules, John Bernard said, Marines and soldiers are being denied artillery and air support for fear of killing civilians, and the Taliban is using that to its tactical advantage. In a letter to his congressman and Maine's U.S. senators, Bernard condemned "the insanity of the current situation and the suicidal position this administration has placed these warriors in."
"We've abandoned them in this Catch-22 where we're supposed to defend the population, but we can't defend them because we can't engage the enemy that is supposed to be the problem," he said in an interview with the AP.
The military says the new rules, while riskier in the short run, will ultimately mean fewer casualties.
Before Joshua died, his father lived quietly as a professional carpenter and church volunteer.
That changed on Aug. 14, when Joshua was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade while acting as point man for his squad in the town of Dahaneh. He died that night on the operating table.
On Sept. 4, the AP distributed a photo of the mortally wounded Marine being tended to by comrades. Many newspapers opted against using the photo, and the distribution launched a fierce public debate, especially after Defense Secretary Robert Gates publicly criticized the AP.
John Bernard still believes the AP's decision to release the photo — to show the horror of war and the sacrifice of those fighting it — was inexcusable, but he says the bigger issue is how the war is being conducted.
As he sees it, the U.S. was right to go to war in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but eight years later the focus has shifted to counterinsurgency instead of hunting down the enemy. Marines are trained to "kill people and break things," not to be police officers and nation-builders, he says.
The Taliban "are tenacious and you have to fight them with the same level of tenacity," Bernard said. "If you're going to try to go over there as a peacekeeper, you're going to get your butt handed to you, and that's what's going on right now."
Bernard also disagrees with U.S. troops working side by side with Afghan soldiers and police. The mission on which his son was killed was compromised by someone who tipped off the Taliban, he says, citing gunfire from all directions that targeted the Marines' helicopter when it landed. Bernard believes the Marines were led into a trap.
Bernard writes a blog sharing his views with others.
"I don't think John changed because his son died," his pastor, the Rev. Valmore Vigue, said. "He was committed to this cause because he believed it was right, and that's why he's doing it."
It's been a little more than a month since Joshua was buried in a small cemetery about five miles from their 1865 farmhouse in the rolling hills of western Maine, where the leaves of maples, oak, birch and poplars are turning fiery red, orange and yellow.
Bernard has accepted the loss, but his grief is obvious. He pauses from time to time to take deep breaths as he speaks of his son. Several times, he closes his eyes, as if remembering.
Bernard, 55, joined the Marines in 1972 and served 26 years on active and reserve duty, leading a platoon as a scout sniper in the first Gulf War in 1991. Physically fit, with closely cropped hair and a Marine Corps tattoo on his arm, the retired first sergeant remains a competitive shooter.
He and his wife, Sharon, raised Joshua and their daughter, Katie, 25, in New Portland, population 800. The family attended Crossroads Bible Church in nearby Madison.
Father and son shared the same philosophy: service to God, family, country and Marines — in that order, Bernard said.
Joshua was quiet, polite and determined. He leda Bible study in Afghanistan and earned the call sign "Holy Man." He also was a crack shot — best in his company, his father said.
Bernard says the battle that claimed Joshua's life was just one example of all that's wrong in Afghanistan.
When four Marines were killed in another ambush, near the Pakistan border, a McClatchy Newspapers reporter embedded with the unit wrote that its request for artillery fire support was declined because of the rules of engagement. The reporter quoted Marines as saying women and children were replenishing the insurgents' ammunition.
In another recent incident, an Afghan police officer on patrol with U.S. soldiers opened fire on the Americans, killing two of them. The assailant managed to escape.
The solution isn't that complicated, Bernard said. He wants the U.S. military to return to its original mission of chasing and killing the Taliban and al-Qaida. Otherwise, he said, bring the troops home.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, raised Bernard's concerns to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during an Armed Services Committee meeting last month.
"Getting this right in the long run will actually result in fewer casualties," Mullen said, according to a transcript of the hearing. "That doesn't mean risk isn't up higher now, given the challenges we have and the direction that McChrystal has laid out."
Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, also raised Bernard's concerns in a letter to Gates, requesting that someone from the Pentagon chief's office formally contact Bernard. So far, no one has.
As a retired Marine, Bernard said he's obligated to speak up. His son is now gone, but he said others are still at risk.
"We've got guys in harm's way getting shot at and getting killed," he said. "To me, it's immoral that anybody in this country wouldn't have that first and last on their minds."
Wild Thing's comment..........
May John Bernard find an ear in the midst of the Idiot in leadership who is currently hijacking and risking our armed service members with the call for a repeal of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’, crap ROE’s, favoring of the Taliban and blind and absent strategy.
We have a president who is playing politics with the lives of these brave men. Damn his soul!
Looking at the General's history, I really believe these horrid R.O.E.'s come straight from Obama and not the idea of the General. But I really have no idea of course just a gut feeling.
Prayers for this wonderful family.
....Thank you Mark for sending this to me.
3rd Mar.Div. 1st Battalion 9th Marine Regiment
1/9 Marines aka The Walking Dead
Posted by Wild Thing at October 15, 2009 06:49 AM
My Prayers to First Sgt, and to your Family. I only wish they would let our Men do the job, they were sent to do.I said before when this Iraq/Afgan. Started to get it over yesterday or it would be another Nam.. or we will loose to many of our young Men/Women. let Them Do there Job. And Keep the press out..It's bad enough already.
Posted by: George at October 15, 2009 10:53 AM
These damned ROEs. It has been proven that the ROEs have now directly contributed to American deaths. They should be dropped, NOW! Maybe Adm. Mullen should spend a few months with an infantry unit. He might learn a bit aout increased risks and who pays the price. He, and other military leadership, might learn that you don't win wars by playing nicer than your enemy.
Posted by: TomR at October 15, 2009 11:47 AM
We have to remember that General McCrystal was hand picked by Obama. But, that being said, any good military leader, either NCO or Officer, will NEVER blame unpopular decisions or orders as coming from above. When you give an order, no matter who above initiated it, you make it YOUR order. In the military, that's what's called Leadership.
Posted by: BobF at October 15, 2009 07:05 PM
That may be true Bob, but when you can't get support when you are surrounded and taking incoming, thats bullshit. The ROE's are slanted in favor of the enemy and the troops know it. When those orders cost American lives then its time for someone to either get fired or quit and resign. And that starts at the top.
The Top sergeant knows that too.
Posted by: Mark at October 16, 2009 07:43 AM
Yep, Afghanistan is going real well, just like in Viernam, ROE made by and for arm chair generals and douche nozzle politicians all the way to 1600 Pennsyvania Ave. Hanging is too good for these traitors who send our young soldiers and marines to their deaths who fight for America with their hands tied. Needless to say, I am really pissed.
Posted by: cuchieddie(former Army Infantry) at October 16, 2009 09:48 AM
my disgust is so deep that I'm having trouble commenting. What will be next? Requiring soldiers to fight in pairs, taped together at the leg, so they can share ammo....?
Posted by: pontiff alex at October 16, 2009 12:18 PM
I agree Mark. But, McCrystal issued the ROE's as if they were his own. I was pointing out that as a good leader, that's what he's suppose to do. We all know where the ROE's come from. If McCrystal,or any other General, had their way, they would release the dogs and get it done with.
Posted by: BobF at October 16, 2009 03:37 PM