Retired Reserve Doc Deploys Third Time
By Paul X. Rutz
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 16, 2006 Most military members end their careers by the time they are half his age, but one Army doctor says he would rather come out of retirement to help the troops than watch from the sidelines.
Col. William Bernhard, an Army surgeon, stands in front of a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter on Forward Operating Base Lima, Iraq, Oct. 15, 2005. Bernhard, 75, is about to deploy to Kabul, Afghanistan, reportedly as the oldest deployed member of America's armed forces. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image)
Tomorrow, retired Army Reserve Col. William Bernhard, a 75-year-old surgeon, will start a journey to Afghanistan, his third deployment in the war on terror.
"It's a great opportunity for me to serve the young men and women who, as we all know, have medical and surgical problems," said Bernhard. "We need trained, experienced physicians to take care of them, and I feel honored that I've been selected to go over there and provide medical care for these troops."
Bernhard, who lives in Cecil County, Md., has over 40 years' medical experience, directing anesthesia at the University of Maryland's shock trauma center for 10 of those years. He said he has trained countless military medics in the emergency room, and he remains one of the Army's most experienced flight surgeons, keeping his skills up part time at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.
"It doesn't take any training for me to go to war," he said. "All I have to do is get new uniforms ... and qualify again with the 9-millimeter (pistol)."
Bernhard said every February he calls the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va., headquarters for the Army and Air Guard, and talks to the people in charge of a program called "BOG," for "Boots on the Ground," which puts doctors in field hospitals for 90-day rotations.
Over the past three years, the National Guard has been operating with fewer doctors than it would like, Bernhard said. "Unfortunately we used to have 850 Guard physicians," he said. "Now there are under 450 -- and less than 400, I'm told, are deployable." So he takes his turn, helping fulfill the Defense Department's commitments overseas.
Bernhard said he knows three other physicians who have also come out of the retired reserve to serve actively again.
Going back to active duty is always a funny process, he said. "I go in to get an ID card, and they punch in my numbers, and they say, 'You're retired. You can't have an ID card.'" The same thing happens as he stands in line to change insurance policies, get new uniforms and all the rest.
Having joined the Marine Corps in 1950, Bernhard was soon discharged due to a knee injury, which he said was a major disappointment. He joined the Navy as an anesthesiologist and served 10 years on active and reserve duty, then switched to the Army Reserve for 22 more years.
When Bernhard leaves his home tomorrow, he will spend about five days at Fort Benning, Ga., before traveling to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. From there he'll fly to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, then convoy into Kabul, where he will connect with the Oregon Army National Guard's 141st Support Battalion.
"I don't sign up when I go overseas for anesthesia because I've done all that," he said. "I'd much rather sign up to be a field surgeon, which means that I can work at a battalion aide station and at a trauma station, and I sign up to work also as a flight surgeon, and that gets me flying a lot of missions and taking care of aviators."
Last year, he deployed to Iraq with the Mississippi Army National Guard's 155th Brigade Combat Team. He took charge of medical facilities at five forward operating bases west and south of Baghdad.
"Any time I went outside the wire -- and I was out a lot flying all over and doing missions outside the wire -- I usually carried a 9mm and a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun because you're close in to them there, and you're in villages," he said.
On Nov. 23, 2005, Bernhard and his unit found themselves guarding a bombed-out building on the Euphrates River 85 miles west of Baghdad. "I was the one with the shotgun, so I had to cover the little alley coming down behind us," he said. "We got in a firefight for about 10 hours that night. A patrol coming down got within a quarter of a mile of us, and (the insurgents) ambushed them, and they killed one of my medics that night."
Experiences like that make him want to continue to do all he can to help his fellow servicemembers, he said. Being semi-retired offers him the time to work on research projects while he's stateside. And thanks to his military background, he can pursue new technologies to help in combat situations.
In Iraq he tested a new stethoscope, which he had been working on for years at the Army's research lab at Fort Rucker, Ala. "This stethoscope worked magnificently," he said. "It could work in a Black Hawk (transport helicopter). It worked in a noisy trauma center. It was just great." This year, a dozen of the new stethoscopes are being sent overseas with Army doctors.
"Here's an idea that I had that we've built, and now it's starting to be used by the active duty military," he said. "It feels good."