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Sep 4th, 2009

I was startled today when web traffic to this site increased more than 500 percent, with visits from 41 states and 19 countries. It took no more than a cursory review of site statistics to establish that visitors were seeking information on U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard, killed in action Aug. 14, 2009 in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

What brought visitors to this site was a Department of Defense notification of the death of Lance Cpl. Bernard, which I posted on this site Aug. 18, 2009 — as I do to honor the sacrifice of every service member who makes the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq or Afghanistan.

What makes the death of Lance Cpl. Bernard different — and stimulated the extraordinary public interest in his fate – is that the attack that ended his young life was captured on film.

Here is his story.

Calm — Then Sudden Death in Afghan War

Image: Joshua Bernard in Afghanistan
In this photo taken Friday, Aug. 14, 2009, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, patrols on point through the bazaar in the village of Dahaneh in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Less than an hour later, Bernard was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade and later died of his wounds. (Photo credit: Julie Jacobson / AP)

By Alfred de Montesquiou and Julie Jacobson

September 4, 2009

DAHANEH, Afghanistan — The pomegranate grove looked ominous.

The U.S. patrol had a tip that Taliban fighters were lying in ambush, and a Marine had his weapon trained on the trees 70 yards away. “If you see anything move from there, light it up,” Cpl. Braxton Russell told him.

Thirty seconds later, a salvo of gunfire and RPGs — rocket-propelled grenades — poured out of the grove. “Casualty! We’ve got a casualty!” someone shouted. A grenade had hit Lance Cpl. Joshua “Bernie” Bernard in the legs.

Image: U.S and Afghan forces battle Taliban fighters in Afghanistan
U.S. Marines and Afghan National Army soldiers take cover behind a mud wall during a firefight with Taliban insurgents who were firing from an orchard across an open field in the village of Dahaneh, Afghanistan,  Aug. 14, 2009. (Photo credit: Julie Jacobson / AP)

A Marine and son of a Marine, a devout Christian, Iraq war veteran and avid hiker, home-schooled in rural Maine, Bernard was about to become the next fatality in the deadliest month of the deadliest year since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The troops of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines had been fighting for three days to wrest this town in southern Afghanistan from the Taliban who had ruled it for four years. As dusk approached on Friday, Aug. 14, things had quieted down. The Taliban seemed to have gone. Another day had passed in the long, hard slog for U.S. troops serving on the parched plains and mountains of Afghanistan, in a war that has steadily intensified.

Then, as the Marines were enjoying some downtime, reports of mortar, machine-gun and sniper fire sent them scrambling again. The 11 Americans and 10 Afghan soldiers edged their way into the town’s abandoned bazaar. With them were Associated Press correspondent Alfred de Montesquiou, AP photographer Julie Jacobson and AP Television News cameraman Ken Teh.

Eyes scanning rooftops for gunmen and the ground for buried bombs, the patrol pushed past shops still smoldering from U.S. mortar shells, past Taliban posters on the walls exhorting the populace to fight the Americans. Bernard, his face daubed in gray and brown camouflage paint, was the point man.

A young Afghan in front of the family store showed the patrol a patch of upturned earth in a ditch. It was here that insurgents had fired their mortars a few minutes earlier.

“But don’t say I told you, or they’ll kill me,” the man said.

As he spoke, the Marines got word of the ambush being readied nearby. Two Cobra helicopters circling overhead fired Hellfire missiles at a mortar position. The Marines weren’t sure this had settled the matter with the Taliban. They pushed on.

Then they reached the pomegranate grove.

‘I can’t breathe’

At first Jake Godby thought Bernard had stepped on an explosive device. Godby, a 24-year-old 2nd lieutenant from Fredericksburg, Va., quickly regrouped his men and directed the returning fire.

The squad found itself stuck under sustained and heavy fire with a wounded man on a narrow crossroad — buildings behind them, insurgents hidden in the orchard in front of them, and a large puddle from a broken water pump in the middle. Godby had the troops advance to the cover of a mud wall and an irrigation ditch. The orange streaks of bullets whizzing in every direction grew visible as the light faded.

Bernard lay on the ground, two Marines standing over him exposed, trying to help. A first tourniquet on Bernard’s leg broke. A medic applied another.

“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” Bernard said. Troops crawling under the bullets dragged him to the MRAP, the mine-resistant armored vehicle that accompanied the patrol.

“The other guys kept telling him ‘Bernard, you’re doing fine, you’re doing fine. You’re gonna make it. Stay with me Bernard!’ He (a Marine) held Bernard’s head in his hands when he seemed to go limp and tried to keep him awake. A couple more ran in with a stretcher,” Jacobson recalled in the journal.

“Another RPG hit the mud wall on the other side of the street from where we were, about 5 yards away. It was a big BOOM, and I just lay my face in the dirt and everything went quiet for about 10 seconds. It was just silence like I was wearing noise-canceling headphones or like world peace had finally descended upon the earth. The air was white with sand. Then I started feeling the rubble fall down around me. And I thought, ‘Is this what it’s like to be shell shocked? Am I all still here? I can’t believe I am.’

“I was fine and surprised at how calm I was and that I could actually still hear.”

Incoming grenades

The rocket-propelled grenade exploded in a powerful pinkish blast, lighting up the scene and briefly knocking out de Montesquiou and Staff Sgt. Alexander Ferguson. When Ferguson recovered, he helped haul Bernard inside the vehicle. Bernard was driven back to base some 500 yards from there, receiving first aid along the way. Minutes later, a helicopter evacuated him to Camp Leatherneck, the main Marine compound in southern Afghanistan. His vital signs were stable when he left.

At the ambush site, the fighting continued uninterrupted for 10 to 15 minutes. The men could see the grenades coming in at them, and even some of the machine gunners. They estimated they were facing six to eight fighters. …

The fighting ebbed with nightfall. Godby and some of the Marines equipped with night vision glasses pushed deeper into the orchard, but the insurgents were gone. Intelligence pointed to three enemy dead, several Marines said, but it could not be confirmed.

That night, officers assembled the platoon in a darkened room of the run-down house where the Marines had camped after taking Dahaneh two days earlier. There the officers delivered the news: Bernard had died of a blood clot in his heart on the operating table. He was Golf Company’s third fatality since arriving in Afghanistan in May.

Bernard was the 19th American to die in Afghanistan in August. Fifty-one Marines, soldiers and seamen lost their lives that month. Of the 739 Americans killed in and around Afghanistan since 2001, 151 died last year and 180 so far this year.

Faith, honor

Down a rural dirt road in New Portland, western Maine, John and Sharon Bernard sat on their porch and talked about their son.

Joshua, they said, loved literature and showed early interest in the Bible and Christianity. “He had a very strong faith right from the beginning,” his mother said.

His father described him as “humble, shy, unassuming — the very first to offer help.” He didn’t smoke or drink, and always opened the door for others. His main friends were his church group, whom he would visit when on leave, and his sister Katy, 20.

Image: Fellow marines pay their respects to Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard.
U.S. Marines pay their respects to Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard during a memorial service at a forward operating base Aug. 27, 2009 in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (Photo: Julie Jacobson / AP)

Bernard’s father is a retired Marine 1st sergeant. Three weeks before the Aug. 14 ambush that killed his son, he had written to his congressman, Rep. Michael Michaud, expressing frustration at what he described as a change in the Afghanistan rules of engagement to one of “spare the civilians at all cost.” He called this “disgraceful, immoral and fatal” to U.S. forces in combat.

Joshua loved videogames and snowboarding, and hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail with his father. He hoped to become a U.S. marshal.

“Service and personal honor,” is how his father summarized his son.

Dealing with regrets

Three days after Bernard’s death, as his belongings were being packed for shipment to his family, Cpl. Joshua Jackson, his squad leader, was still referring to him in the present tense.

“He definitely doesn’t hesitate,” said Jackson, 23, from Copley, Ohio. “He’s very good, he definitely has the nerves to do what he’s needed to do.”

He called Bernard “a true-heartedly very good guy … probably one of the best guys I’ve known in my entire life.”

The hardest part is “just wondering if there’s something that I could have done different, or maybe prevented him from dying,” Jackson said. “But that’s something we’ve all got to deal with.”

“I think it’s got to do with being a Marine; you just carry on,” said Godby. That night he got two hours of sleep. Before dawn, his platoon took part in a raid on a suspected Taliban stronghold.

Image: Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard
U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard. (Photo: USMC via AP)

Bernard was determined, his comrades said. That’s why he was chosen as the squad’s point man and navigator, moving at the front of his unit.

Lance Cpl. Jason Pignon, 22, from Thayer, Ill., was his close friend. They had been in the same platoon since 2007 when they joined “the Fleet,” as Marines call the units preparing to deploy. They served together near Fallujah in Iraq in 2008, and again in Afghanistan.

Gone quickly

It had all gone very quickly. It was late afternoon when the Taliban fired their first RPGs. It was dusk when the Marine was driven away in the armored vehicle. And it was night when the patrol returning to base saw the dark silhouette of the helicopter that flew him away.

Lance Cpl. Joshua “Bernie” Bernard was 21 years old.


Related reports from

Fellow Marines come to the aid of Bernard after he is mortally wounded by a
rocket-propelled grenade. The AP distribution of the photo became controversial after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asked the service not to publish the image. (Photo credit: Julie Jacobson / AP)

FirstRead: Gates vs. AP over war photo
Slideshow: The patrol and the image in question
Vote: Was AP right to publish the photo?
PhotoBlog: Discuss issues surrounding the photo
Why AP published photo of dying Marine
Journal of AP photographer in Afghanistan


10/13/09 Update

Fallen Marine’s Father Wants Change

Image: Retired Marine 1st Sgt. John Bernard, right, with his wife Sharon, left and late son, Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard, center
Ret. Marine 1st Sgt. John Bernard, right, with his wife, Sharon and late son, Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard, at Joshua’s graduation from Marine boot camp, on Parris Island, S.C., in March 2007. (Photo credit: John Bernard / AP)

October 13, 2009

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.

New resonance to his view

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.

Son hit by grenade

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.

Writes a blog to share views

Bernard writes a blog [“Let Them Fight or Bring Them Home” – link added] 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 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.

Request denied for artillery fire support

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.”


FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago Today — September 4, 2008

On the Campaign Trail: Day 52

One year ago today, on the 52nd day of my campaign against U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann for the Republican nomination as House of Representatives candidate in Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District, I featured information from the League of Women Voters of Minnesota Voter Guide regarding my campaign platform and issue positions.

Following are some excerpts from the League of Women Voters guide.

United States Representative District 6

Republican Primary Election — Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Aubrey Immelman — Republican

P.O. Box 117
Sartell, MN 56377
(320) 240-6828

Occupation: College professor, security consultant

Education: BA (political science), MA (clinical psychology), PhD; University of South Africa, University of Wyoming, University of Maine, Nelson Mandela University

1.  Why are you seeking a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives?

I’m gravely concerned about the unintended consequences of the Iraq war and do not see any other candidate taking on national security as a core issue.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq has exacted a huge toll in American blood, treasure, and loss of international stature. Tragically, the Iraq war has created a vastly more complex national security challenge in the Middle East.

I offer Sixth District voters strong national security credentials, with military training in conventional warfare, counterinsurgency and anti-terrorist operations, and professional experience as a military consultant on nuclear counterproliferation, threat assessment, deterrence, and psychological operations.

2.  What measures should the U.S. Congress take to address rising food and gas prices and related economic concerns?

As a first order of business, take legislative action to curb printing and borrowing money to fund unnecessary wars.

Printing money, deficit spending, and going deeper into debt to pay for the war and occupation create inflation and drive down the value of the dollar, which adds to the high price at the pump and the grocery checkout counter for U.S. consumers.

Congress must work to increase the oil supply by supporting expanded drilling and reduce demand by supporting measures to conserve energy and develop alternative energy sources.

3.  What next steps should the U.S. take in the Iraq conflict? How would you work to get other members of Congress to agree?

We must reduce the U.S. military footprint in Iraq without jeopardizing recent security gains. We should exercise caution in the level of military training and weapons we provide the Iraqi military, which is infiltrated by radical Islamist militias with links to Iran. We cannot ignore the possibility that these weapons and training could one day be turned against us.

We face formidable challenges in Iraq. In Congress, I will attempt to secure cooperation for sensible policies by making reasoned arguments based on vital U.S. national security interests, not ideologically clouded arguments serving to justify past policy failures.

4.  Do you believe healthcare is the responsibility of business, government and/or individuals? What is your vision for healthcare in the United States?

I believe healthcare is a personal responsibility; however, government of the people, by the people, for the people, as envisioned by Abraham Lincoln, has an obligation to provide a safety net for those among us who, despite their best efforts and through no fault of their own — for example, catastrophic illness — cannot shoulder the full responsibility for their own health care.

5.  What are your top three foreign policy priorities?

Restabilize Iraq as much as possible after the ill-conceived decision to invade it, prevent Iran from filling the power vacuum left by the removal of Saddam, end the U.S. occupation as soon as possible, and shift those resources to counterinsurgency and anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Continue our successful deterrence policies against North Korea and prevent nuclear proliferation in the Korean peninsula.

Restore the international stature if the United States by advancing less unilateralist policies and developing a stronger coalition of nations to buffer the United States against emerging national security threats.

6.  What federal action to do you support to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which energy, environment, food, health, and security impacts on the nation and the world?

I have not studied the issue of greenhouse gas emissions and have no preconceived position on the matter. As someone trained in the scientific method, I will look objectively at scientific data and avoid the pitfall of ideologically tainted or emotional arguments. If federal action is required, I will support any reasonable proposals to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, provided it is affordable, does not require a tax increase, and does not result in big-government overregulation.

7.  What steps should be taken to lower the United States deficit?

One step at a time: Stop borrowing money to fund unnecessary wars.

8.  Is there a role for the federal government in assisting to alleviate the mortgage loan crisis?

The fiscally conservative approach is no bailout, but we face a crisis where relief may be necessary to prevent further damage to the mortgage industry and the real estate market.

It’s in our national interest to help homeowners and prevent a market collapse, but we need safeguards that will prevent the enrichment of mortgage lenders on the taxpayers dime.

9.  What should the federal government do to address the state of the nation’s infrastructure?

Get its priorities straight. We spend hundreds of billions on bombing and rebuilding Iraq, while our own critical needs remain unmet. …

5 Responses to “Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard”
  1. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » Iraq-Afghanistan Casualties Says:

    […] Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua M. (Bernie) Bernard, 21, New Portland, Maine, died Aug. 14, 2009 while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force, based out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay. […]

  2. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » U.S. Troops ‘Sitting Ducks’ Says:

    […] Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard (Sept. 4, 2009) […]

  3. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » Horrific Baghdad Bombing Says:

    […] Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua M. (Bernie) Bernard, 21, New Portland, Maine, died Aug. 14, 2009 while supporting combat operations in Camp Bastion, Helmand province, Afghanistan. […]

  4. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » AfPak Violence Intensifies Says:

    […] Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard […]

  5. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » September 4, 2010 Says:

    […] Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard […]

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