Families outraged over engagement restrictions
By Dan Lamothe - Marine Corps Times Staff Writer
Posted : Monday Nov 2, 2009 9:38:12 EST
Enough is enough. Retired 1st Sgt. John Bernard has had it with the war in Afghanistan.
Enough of "shameful" and "suicidal" rules of engagement that leave U.S. troops vulnerable to ambushes. Enough of worrying more about harming Afghan civilians than American forces. Enough of politics.
Bernard was a scout sniper and platoon sergeant during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, so he's familiar with the warrior's creed. But as the father of Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard, he has reached his limit.
The younger Bernard was killed Aug. 14 by a rocket-propelled grenade, an attack that became a national story after The Associated Press distributed a photograph of Bernard’s son's last living moments in Dahaneh, Afghanistan. The father wrote his representatives in Congress several times during the weeks leading up to Joshua's death, each time expressing apprehension about the more-restrictive guidelines put in place by the new commander of U.S. forces there, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
It wasn't until he was thrust into the spotlight by the AP photo and the controversy that surrounded it that anyone paid him any mind.
After that, things changed.
Bernard, of New Portland, Maine, was mentioned by name Sept. 15 during the Senate confirmation hearing of Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told Mullen that she had received a letter from Bernard before his son's death that "expressed serious concerns about the rules of engagement" in Afghanistan. Those rules were altered in July by McChrystal in response to mounting civilian casualties.
The new guidelines call on U.S. forces to limit the use of heavy fire power — close-air support and long-range artillery — when ordinary Afghans may be at risk. A week before Mullen's hearing, three Marines and a Navy corpsman were killed in an ambush after commanders allegedly refused their requests for fire support for fear it would kill women and children.
"I'm going to send you the letter so that you can read it," Collins told Mullen, according to a congressional transcript. "I promised Mr. Bernard at [his] son's funeral that I would do so. And I hope you and General McChrystal will look seriously at the concerns he raises ... about the rules of engagement."
It wasn't much, but it was a start, Bernard says now.
A fiery, blunt speaker, Bernard is just one among a growing group of vocal family members whose children were killed in fighting overseas. They support the cause and the troops still in harm's way, these family members say, but they also believe U.S. forces are handcuffed by rules and tactics and vulnerable as a result, leaving them with little help when such ambushes occur. Some also question whether the U.S. should have launched a counter-insurgency strategy so quickly, rather than employing search-and-destroy missions that proved successful in Afghanistan during the early part of the decade.
"The rules of engagement are so convoluted, so open-ended, that it puts the people on the ground at risk no matter what they do," said Bernard, who retired from the Corps in 2003. "It's insane. You don't let your guys languish there when these things happen. You err on the side of your guys, not the civilians."
These are not anti-war families. They want the military to succeed in Afghanistan. They're deeply proud of their fallen sons' sacrifices.
The Ganjgal ambush
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