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.
He writes a blog sharing his views with others.
“I don’t think John changed because his son died,” said his pastor, the Rev. Valmore Vigue. “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 led a 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.”
On the Net: John Bernard’s blog: http:///letthemfight.blogspot.com