Fallen Marine’s father champions Afghanistan fight
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Former Marine John Bernard is the anti-Cindy Sheehan.
Bernard, a retired first sergeant, and Sheehan, the controversial Iraq war protester, share the excruciating burden of having lost their sons to war. However, Bernard is campaigning not to end the fighting in Afghanistan, but to intensify it.
He launched a blog last week called "Let Them Fight or Bring Them Home" and contends the new "immoral rules of engagement" put troops at "unreasonable risk." Troops are being hamstrung, he said, by the civilian-centric counterinsurgency strategy.
"We went in with a very defined mission: to seek al-Qaida and destroy them. All of a sudden it’s turned into a quasi-military mission to help the people of Afghanistan," said the New Portland, Maine, resident.
Bernard speaks with a unique authority. The death of his son made instant headlines.
Not because of the issues raised by his father, but because of photographs of the dying Marine distributed by The Associated Press.
The photos — which John Bernard and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asked the AP not to run — sparked debate among media outlets, bloggers and the public about the merits of publishing graphic images of those killed in combat.
Bernard said he is trying to focus the residual media coverage stemming from his son’s death on, as he sees it, the undue perils faced by troops under the current strategy in Afghanistan.
"There is a bigger picture here," he said. "I can’t do anything about my son, but there are hundreds, thousands of other sons that will be killed or maimed if we continue down this road."
"When you make the decision to send in an armed force, you fight," said Bernard, whose son Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard was killed Aug. 14 during a fight with Taliban insurgents.
"Deep inside us, we all anticipated this. We could see it coming for months," said Bernard of the reaction he and his wife and daughter had upon hearing the news. "We actually believe that Josh really was kind of prepping us, that he expected not to make it back."
Bernard, a 26-year Marine Corps veteran who served in the first Gulf War, began criticizing the war strategy in July, five weeks before Josh was killed.
Just days after Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, restricted air and ground firepower and ordered troops to scale back fighting against insurgents to save civilian lives, Bernard began sounding off to his representatives in Congress.
In a series of letters, he urged the politicians to review the situation and elevate the debate in Washington about McChrystal’s strategy.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, raised the issue in a hearing with Pentagon leaders late last month. The Washington Post reported that Collins asked Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to respond to Bernard’s letter, which said McChrystal’s rules of engagement were "nothing less than disgraceful, immoral and fatal for our Marines, sailors and soldiers on the ground."
At the time John Bernard wrote the letter, Josh was fighting in Helmand province with Gulf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.
During brief phone conversations that month, Bernard said his son spoke of firepower missions being denied and about the growing dangers on the ground in the Taliban strongholds of southern Afghanistan.
"The guys on the ground are angry beyond reason that they’re not able to do what they’re trained to do," Bernard said. "They’re watching their fellow troops get wounded or killed while we’ve turned over the battle space to the enemy."
McChrystal concedes that shielding civilians from excessive violence and working more closely with Afghan security forces will put U.S. and NATO forces at greater risk. But he insists the hazards are short-term and that winning over the Afghan people is the best way to succeed in Afghanistan.
Impossible, Bernard said.
"When you try to make nice with one side of the population and try to fight the other, you end up bringing the enemy into camp with you," said Bernard, who believes the Taliban fighters who killed his son were tipped off by Afghans working with the Marines.
Bernard is not planning anything grandiose to spread his message, no rallies in the capital or lawsuits against the Department of Defense. Instead, he is calling politicians, trying to tap Washington insiders for help and posting blog entries.
"The best I think I can do is to reach people with a larger audience to ratchet up the pressure," said Bernard, 55, who owns a woodworking company in New Portland and speaks with matter-of-fact authority no doubt honed during his military career.
As for his efforts being cathartic, Bernard is ambivalent.
"I can’t tell if it’s helping or interfering" with the grieving process, he said. "All I know is that the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan are deteriorating and our focus there is deteriorating, and we’re the ones eroding the situation."Read John Bernard’s blog at: http://letthemfight.blogspot.com