Army doctor, 75, deployed to Afghanistan

Army doctor, 75, deployed to Afghanistan

* Cecil County resident will be oldest U.S. soldier still serving overseas



Friday, June 9, 2006 9:10 AM EDT

By Katy Ciamaricone



Last year, while Col. William Bernhard was serving a six-month tour of duty in Iraq, an enemy mortar shell exploded near the gym where he worked out.


“This ear’s still ringing from it,†said Bernhard, sitting on the couch at the Carpenter’s Point home where he’s lived for eight years.


Ear aside, Bernhard is fit and sharp, and though the Army surgeon just returned from Iraq in December, he’s set to serve overseas again n this time in Afghanistan.


“My deployment papers just came in the mail yesterday,†Bernhard excitedly said Tuesday. “I’m already mostly packed.â€


Bernhard’s wife n who everybody calls “M.P.†n doesn’t mind much that William is leaving for another months-long tour.


People ask her, “Why are you letting him do this again?†She answers, “There are certain things in life you’re meant to do, and for him, it’s to serve his country.â€


Bernhard has been doing that for more than two-thirds of his life. At 75, he will be the oldest American still serving overseas. This time, he’ll go with an Oregon National Guard brigade and work mostly in the shock-trauma station giving wounded soldiers emergency care.


Bernhard knows that each mission could be his last, but these days he serves so younger men and women won’t have to. He even volunteered to come out of retirement for his last mission because he heard there was a shortage of physicians.


“I know what I’m doing because I’ve done it so many times before,†he said, “and I figure while I’m in good enough physical shape to go and support these young soldiers, I might as well. You can’t just send them over there without proper medical care. And me going over there allows some other younger soldier to stay home.â€


Though M.P. misses her husband while he’s on lengthy jaunts across the world, she understands his calling.


“I honestly believe he was meant to be a soldier first, a doctor second,†she said.


It’s the soldier uniform that drew her to William in the first place. She was a Navy nurse when she first spotted him wearing a flight suit.


M.P. explained: “It was my 20th birthday and I was feeling down and out, so I went to the movies by myself.â€


But a who friend wouldn’t let M.P. spend her birthday alone dragged her to a Baltimore bar.


“We were singing when I saw this guy in a flight suit. I said to my friend, ‘Gee, he looks awfully interesting,’†M.P. recalled.


She introduced herself to William and soon learned they had a lot in common. They were both divorced, each with two sons, and they shared a love for service to their country.


William Bernhard grew up in Connecticut and joined the Marine Corps in 1950, but he was given a medical discharge for a knee injury.


“It was my greatest disappointment in life,†he said.


He didn’t let it stop him. While attending medical school through the early 1960s, Bernhard trained in military hospitals and clinics. He served active duty stateside in the Navy during the Vietnam war, and meanwhile honed his medical skills, specializing in anesthesiology. He later joined the National Guard.


His civilian duties have included director of anesthesiology at New York University Hospital and at the R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. As a soldier, he served in Honduras, in the Middle East during Desert Storm and more recently in Hofra-el-Betin to provide medical care for Iraqi prisoners of war. During his latest tour of duty in Iraq the weather showed no mercy.


“You’re carrying 45 pounds of body armor over there and one day it got up to 144 (degrees),†he said. “I didn’t see a cloud for five months. But man, when it finally rained, that mud was awful.â€


Worse, 22 of his battalion mates died. Still, he’s not nervous about going back. This will be his second time serving in Afghanistan.


“Do I get scared? No. I get mad when my guys die,†he said. “When I’m talking to a guy in the morning and by the evening he’s been killed, it makes me mad.â€


He said he plans to carry a knife strapped to his ankle, a shotgun and a rifle for protection.


In the room M.P. calls his “Ego Room,†Bernhard shows off medical degrees, a “Welcome Home Heroes†sign, knives, war documentaries and pictures of himself standing in front of Saddam Hussein’s palace.


“I’m the oldest guy over there,†he said, “But I’ll tell you what, the 29th Division Chapter meets at the VFW in North East every Thursday, and I’m the youngest one there.â€


He’ll report for duty June 17, and says first, he’s got to squeeze in a lot of rock-fishing. Next to the door, he’s got his boots and a duffel bag full of camouflage garb n the only luggage he’ll take.


He’s ready to roll.


He shrugged his lean shoulders and said, “I’ll miss my wife; I’ll miss my dogs; but I’ll be back in time to go hunting this fall.â€

Marion J Chard
Proud Daughter of Walter (Monday) Poniedzialek
540th Engineer Combat Regiment, 2833rd Bn, H&S Co, 4th Platoon
There's "No Bridge Too Far"

Wow what a brave man.


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