Tag Archives: September 11th

“A Grieving Father’s Plea For Our Troops” By John Bernard

Last week, I told you about the tragic combat death in Afghanistan of  Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard, and the abuse this remarkable Marine’s family has endured. Over the Bernard family’s pleas and objections, the Associated Press distributed a gory battlefield photo depicting Joshua, mortally wounded, just after a Taliban RPG had blown his leg off. Joshua’s father is John Bernard, 1st Sgt. USMC (ret.), and I’ve asked him to share from his heart. He wrote the following thoughts on Sunday, upon returning from the service that awarded his son’s posthumous Purple Heart medal. Please read and carefully consider what he has written. — Jim Bennett, The B.H.   

JBernardThe last few weeks since our son’s death have found me embroiled in a battle for the soul of the country and the lives of our Warriors. Both are inextricably linked because both are in the hands of some of the most immoral men and women in our history. I can say this with certainty because no one with a functional conscience would place a fellow American in a place where they knew they would be attacked, only to deny them the tools – or opportunity — to defend themselves.  Sadly, this is exactly what has happened, and both the political machine and the majority of the population seem to be unconcerned.I am alluding to the current Rules of Engagement (ROE) that have been in place since the end of June in Afghanistan. These rules govern the who, when and how our Warriors can engage in combat. The current rules force our Warriors to ‘break engagement’ with the enemy if there are civilians present; they also deny them the ability to prosecute a battle with the enemy if there is a possibility of civilians in the area; they further deny them the ability to chase the enemy or to seek to engage them if they cannot be absolutely sure there are no civilians in the area. The impetus for these rules is a philosophy fostered by the current administration. It essentially says that we, as Americans, are primarily to blame for the poor relations we are experiencing with the Muslim world community. Further, this philosophy insists that repairing those relations is paramount – even at the expense of the security of this nation and certainly the lives of our Warriors. I DO NOT SHARE THAT VIEW. Nothing should be more sacred to the elected officials of this country than the security of Americans. Anything less is sedition. We have a historical and biblical precedent for exporting violence to defend these shores. We are in violation of conscience and our many sworn oaths if we don’t.

The fruit of this philosophy and its ROE can be measured in body bags filled with the lifeless forms of our honorable Warriors, of whom my son was one. Another side ‘benefit’ of this philosophy is the forced integration of Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan Police among the ranks of our Marines and Soldiers. There have already been two well documented ambushes in the past four weeks, in which it has been suggested that either/both ANA and Afghan Police have either initiated ambushes or informed Taliban forces of impending plans. In both cases Marines were killed.

This save-the-civilians-at-all-cost policy is short-sighted and self-destructive. The point is that we are there, according to this current administration, to safeguard the civilian population from the Taliban, but we can’t fire at the Taliban if there are civilians in the area. Predictably, Taliban forces have exploited this weakness in our strategy and they now choose to engage us exclusively from civilian population areas where, of course, we are forbidden from engaging them. We are forced to patrol these areas to keep out the Taliban, but we can’t kill them when we find them. We are regularly denied the air and artillery support we need to protect the civilian population (which, again, we can no longer protect because we can no longer chase and kill the enemy, get it?)  The result is Marines and Soldiers being forced into killing zones without so much as the ability to defend themselves.

Your elected officials are to blame for this. They are to blame because they are kneeling at the altar of the White House in obedience, either with blind, reckless disregard for the lives that are being lost needlessly, or because they remain willingly ignorant. Add to this that only 20 of the sitting members of Congress have ever worn a uniform and what you have is a political institution making moral decisions about things they are not invested in or, even worse, they are complicit in, for personal gain, in spite of the cost to our Warriors.

Our Warriors are the best in our society. They always have been. They do the unthinkable, under the worst possible conditions, for the worst possible political motivations, simply because they have sworn an oath to do so. In the end, they are four years behind their peers and often come back into society with physical disabilities directly attributable to their service. Even more often they suffer mental maladies from the horrors they have witnessed. Add to this that now they are being led into killing fields laid by the Afghan forces they are ordered to work with (and who have been given carte blanche by our own politicians).

It’s time to get off the couch and hold these people accountable. I don’t want any more parents to take the trip to Dover Air Force Base that my wife, daughter and I had to take four weeks ago to receive our Joshua’s remains.  May God have mercy on us all.  

 

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“I’d agree, but then we’d BOTH be wrong: An Answer to my Critics” By Jim Bennett

Last week, I condemned the Associated Press’ decision to release a grisly photograph of Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard. The photograph depicts, in ghastly detail, the mortally wounded Marine just after his leg had been blown off in a Taliban ambush. The AP distributed the photo despite the repeated protests of Bernard’s family. I characterized the release of the picture as an unthinkably cruel assault on the Bernards, and I excoriated the AP for ignoring the most fundamental conventions of human decency. I stand by those convictions, but many readers wrote me with opposing viewpoints, and I feel I should address them.

A reader I’ll call “Bill” insisted that the First Amendment gave the AP the right to publish the photo, and he is unquestionably correct. The AP has every right to distribute the image, but having the right to do something doesn’t necessarily obligate one to do it. I am a firm believer in the adage, “The best way to preserve our rights is to exercise them.” But I also believe that the best way to exercise them is to do so judiciously, guided always by the Golden Rule.  

I also heard from “Stephen” who insisted my statements were tantamount to a call for censorship. While I do find the sight of it personally disagreeable, my objection to the picture’s distribution was not provoked by its subject matter. If the Associated Press had an identical photograph of a mortally wounded serviceman, and if his family gave their blessing to its publication, I certainly wouldn’t have grounds to object. But the Bernards pleaded with the AP not to release the image. My suggestion is for Associated Press leadership to grow a conscience and then use it to police themselves, conducting their business responsibly and with decorum. A grieving family’s wishes should trump the AP’s dubious and self-interested defense of “the public’s right to know.”  

Finally, “Gina” sent me an emotional e-mail, championing the AP for “recognizing that, by publishing the tragic picture, they may help end the fighting by engendering American opposition to the war.” I reject this notion on its premise, because journalists aren’t supposed to influence, they are supposed to inform. Real journalists must be dispassionate, and agendas should have no place in what they do.

But the main error in Gina’s argument is her assertion that undermining American support for the war would expedite an end to the hostilities. The eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11th attacks was just last week; have we forgotten who attacked whom? Even in the unlikely event that such photographs could hasten the withdrawal of American forces, this would serve merely to restrain our own troops. Because the initial attack on us was unprovoked, it seems unlikely that a “unilateral armistice” would pacify our enemies.

But here, in my view, is all one really needs to know: Jihadists are already using the image in question to fan the flames of anti-American hatred and violence. For example, I visited an Islamic extremist Web site last week, where the photograph had been posted. The headline gleefully declared: “Death of Coward Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard.” The caption reads, “In this photo taken Friday, Aug. 14, 2009, coward Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard is tended to by fellow coward U.S. Marines after being hit by a rocket propelled grenade during a firefight against the Taliban in the U.S.-occupied village of Dahaneh in the U.S. occupied Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Bernard was transported by helicopter to Camp Leatherneck where he later died of his wounds and stupidity. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)”

The Web site’s owner, Yousef al-Khattab, is a resident of New York City. He is a devotee of Sheik Abdullah Faisal and he uses the Web site to promote the Sheik’s teachings. Faisal is the Muslim hate preacher who was convicted seven years ago of inciting the murders of Americans, Jews, and Hindus in London. British authorities say Faisal exerted extraordinary influence over Germaine Lindsey, one of four terrorists responsible for the July 7, 2005 bombings in London. Fifty-six people were killed, 700 were injured.

Now that the photograph in question is serving as a propaganda tool and morale booster for domestic jihadists, can anyone still defend the actions of the Associated Press as somehow serving the public interest?

AP CEO Thomas A. Curley can. He’s still clinging to his absurd rationalization that the “news value” of the picture somehow outweighs both the anguish its release caused the Bernard family and the aid and comfort its distribution has given to anti-American jihadists.

Keep telling yourself that, Mr. Curley. Whatever gets you through the night, right?

Aid and Comfort? AP Photo of Dying Marine Now Being Used as a Propaganda Tool/Morale Booster for Jihadists

Just as the discussion over the publication of a dying Marine’s photo was beginning to wane, new revelations have arisen that are re-igniting the debate:  It seems Islamic jihadists have co-opted the image for use as a morale booster and propaganda tool.

The Associated Press published the grim photo despite the repeated and emphatic protests of the late Marine’s family and the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, and touched off a firestorm of debate.   The publication of the bloody, disturbing image of Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard, killed by RPG fire in Afghanistan in mid-August, has prompted some to question the propriety of embedding photojournalists and reporters with US combat troops; others, however, hail the picture and its printing as a example of journalistic integrity. 

But with the news that Muslim extremists have hijacked the image to ridicule and celebrate the death of LCPL Bernard, a new concern has arisen:  At what point do incidents like this one serve only to demoralize American troops and encourage the enemies of the United States?  

This screen shot was taken directly from a notorious jihadist website, www.revolutionmuslim.comMuslimScreenThe headline reads “Death of Coward Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard.”  The caption beneath reads, “In this photo taken Friday, Aug. 14, 2009, coward Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard is tended to by fellow coward U.S. Marines after being hit by a rocket propelled grenade during a firefight against the Taliban in the U.S.occupied village of Dahaneh in the U.S. occupied Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Bernard was transported by helicopter to Camp Leatherneck where he later died of his wounds & stupidty[sic]. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)”

Leadership at the Associated Press and those who have spoken out in support of the AP’s decision cite the perceived “news value” of the picture, and many insist that the publication of such stark battlefield images will hasten the end of the hostilities by fomenting opposition to the War on Terror. 

Those who oppose the move by the Associated Press have pointed to the anguish that the photo’s release has caused LCPL Bernard’s already-grieving family, and have speculated that the press organization is merely motivated by sensationalism and greed.  Questions of journalistic ethics and simple human decency have been raised against the Associated Press, but now that the photograph is being exploited as a means of exciting jihadist sentiment and violence, some are asking, “Has the Associated Press unwittingly played into the hands of Islamic Terrorists by providing them with a new icon for propaganda, or even recruitment?”

This sort of thing is nothing new for the web site and its owner.  Both originate from, of all places, New York City.  Revolutionmuslim.com and the man behind it, Yousef al-Khattab, have already drawn sharp criticism for mocking other American military deaths in the War on Terror and for posting crude anti-semitic images and commentary.  al-Khattab, whose birth name was “Joseph Cohen,” describes himself as an American-born Jew who  converted to Islam after attending Orthodox rabbinical school. 

Yousef al-Khattab’s website often serves as a platform for his devotion to Sheik Abdullah Faisal, the Muslim hate preacher who was deported from the United Kingdom in 2007.  Faisal was convicted in 2003 for calling for the murder of Americans, Jews, and Hindus, and for engendering racial hatred with his rhetoric.  He served four years of a nine-year sentence and was deported.  It is widely believed that his teachings influenced Germaine Lindsey, one of four terrorists responsible for the bombing of London underground trains and a bus on July 7, 2005.  56 people, including Lindsey himself, were killed in the attack.  Another 700 people were injured.

There is no small irony in the fact that a news agency has unwittingly provided al-Khattab with his latest propaganda tool; he had already been widely condemned for posting video and commentary celebrating and ridiculing the murder of Daniel Pearl by al Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan.  Pearl was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and was abducted, tortured, and beheaded in 2002.

My Full Length Interview with Lance Corporal Bernard’s Dad, John Bernard:

This week, my Monmouth Review-Atlas column, published every Tuesday, addresses Lance Corporal Bernard’s Story…

“A Marine, His Family, and One Gruesome Photograph”

By Jim Bennett

On Aug. 14, as his patrol was readying for a rumored Taliban ambush in Dahaneh, Afghanistan, Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard, just 21, was on point. The ambush erupted and a rocket-propelled grenade blew one of Joshua’s legs off, leaving the other leg severely injured. His comrades struggled with tourniquets and battlefield first aid while still under heavy enemy fire, but sadly, for this young, mortally wounded Marine, this attack would mean the end of his life a short time later.

For his comrades, this attack was a moment of sheer desperation as they tried to drag Bernard to safety. And for his parents, John and Sharon Bernard, back home in New Portland, Maine, this attack would come to mean the loss of their only son.

But for embedded photojournalist Julie Jacobson and her bosses at the Associated Press, this attack was a Kodak Moment. Jacobson captured a vivid and dramatic photograph of the scene: Bernard’s gruesome wound is shown in all its bloody detail, and his young face, sickly pale and blank with shock, is haunting. The article that Jacobson and AP reporter Alfred de Montesquiou filed stated that, as that young man was exsanguinating, the photographer “wrestled” with a “question”: Should she try to help save Joshua, or should she keep taking pictures?

Is this really what we have become? Have our hearts really hardened to the point that circumstances like I just described actually cause one to “wrestle” with such a “question”?       

Soon Jacobson’s bosses here in the states were “wrestling” with a “question” that should have been just as axiomatic. This Marine’s parents and sister have already been crushed by his death, just days ago. Do we take their profound grief to new depths by publishing the gory photo around the world, or do we summon that remnant of human decency that lies dormant in our icy souls and at least spare these tormented people that added trial? Just like Julie Jacobson’s “question,” the only thing more shocking than the way they answered the question was the fact that they even needed to ask it at all. And just like Julie Jacobson, they made a disgusting choice.

Joshua’s father, John Bernard, is a career Marine who retired at the rank of 1st Sergeant. He was mid-way through that career when I did my three-year stint in the Corps, and we both served in Desert Shield/Desert Storm, though we never met. I was so moved by his son’s story and so outraged by the actions of Julie Jacobson and the AP that I got in touch with John and his wife Sharon. He spoke glowingly of a son who loved Jesus, loved the Marine Corps and loved his family.

John and Sharon homeschooled Joshua and his sister Katie, and when he started talking to his Dad about enlisting, John wanted one assurance: “I needed to know that, when he did this, he was doing it for the right reasons … not just a ‘following in dad’s footsteps’ kind of thing. He was absolutely adamant that this is what he was called to do. And this was with an understanding that his testimony as a Christian would have a bearing in that environment.”

Joshua’s devotion to Jesus Christ was soon producing spiritual fruit among his brothers in arms. John told me that his son “actually was holding Bible studies…they were ongoing, he was encouraging guys, and they were wanting to learn, and they were listening.”

After his death, his unit held a memorial service for him in Afghanistan. Joshua’s remarkable impact was evident there. “The Battalion Commander called me,” John said, “and told me that during their field service, he was almost speechless. He had never witnessed anything like that, where so many Marines – and some of these guys are battle-hardened and have seen things nobody should see – they were all in tears and, to a man, they were all completely heartbroken over having lost this particular Marine. He said that they recognized in him something that was much closer to God than they had ever seen before. And so the suggestion is that God will use that.”

A few days after the funeral, an AP reporter approached John to discuss the photograph. John asked to see it and was shown what he described as fuzzy, black-and-white prints, which bore little resemblance to the bloody, clear color photo now splashed across newspapers worldwide.

“I handed them back to him and said, ‘Look: Neither my wife nor daughter needs to see this. Nobody needs to see this. So if you’re asking me for my permission, you don’t have it. You need to go back and tell them that absolutely no one needs to see this. It doesn’t honor him, it doesn’t honor the Corps, it doesn’t honor God, it doesn’t honor this country, and it doesn’t do them, as a news agency, any service whatsoever.”

Four days later, John Bernard followed up with a phone call to Associated Press leadership, emphatically reiterating his plea that they spare his family this additional, and wholly unnecessary, trauma. Not long after, the Secretary of Defense himself, Robert Gates, intervened, strongly encouraging the Associated Press not to subject the Bernard family to this torment.

They ran the picture anyway.

“I have very little use for the people who took the picture and even less for those who ran it. They had plenty of time to reflect on it, and they did it anyway,” John said.

And like many who read the story Julie Jacobson filed, John Bernard was stunned that she had to “wrestle” with a choice between helping save Joshua and continuing to ghoulishly snap away with her camera. “The fact that that would even be a dilemma for anybody … I don’t even know how to ascribe a thought to that. But the fact that she failed and went the wrong way says much, you know?

“All I can say is it comes back to Romans 1 where it says God will turn them over to a reprobate mind,” John offered. “This person [Julie Jacobson] reflects that.”

I asked John what he thought motivated the Associated Press in their compassionless assault on his grieving family, and he attributed it to greed. “There was exactly one purpose for this, and that was the bottom line, that was selling rags,” he told me. “It’s voyeurism at its worst.”

I share John Bernard’s assessment of all the principle players in this tragedy. And Jesus warned us of a day when, “because iniquity shall abound, the love of many will wax cold.”

That day, dear reader, seems quite near right now. And May God help us all.

Josh Bernard

7/4 and 9/11: Interview with Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell

Many stories of courage came out of the 9/11 attacks, and the experience of Lt. Col Brian Birdwell and his wife, Mel, is one of the most dramatic and inspiring.  Devout followers of Jesus Christ, the Birdwells recall his sustaining grace on that day and those that followed.

Birdwell

BH: Colonel, I know you’ve told this story many times, but take us through what you recall about the attack on the Pentagon.

Lt. Col. Birdwell: The day had started off as any other, up until about 9 a.m. That’s when one of the ladies in the office got a phone call from her daughter up in New York saying that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. When she got off the phone, it was like, “Huh?” so we turned on the television in my boss’ office  – both my immediate boss and my big boss were out of the office that day. You could see this huge, huge hole in the World Trade Center. So it was Cheryl, Sandy and myself, but as we were watching what was going on, it just didn’t smell right: that large of a plane, weather that clear … and as we were watching what was going on in New York, the second plane hit the second tower. Of course, that confirmed for us that the first one was certainly no accident. And you already knew that whoever was on those planes had already met with a horrible death.

At about 9:30 or so, I stepped out of the office to use the men’s restroom, telling Cheryl and Sandy that I’d be back in a moment. And those would be the last words I’d say to them.

In going to the restroom, if you recall the visual picture of the part of the Pentagon that collapsed, I had actually walked through that portion. My office window was just to the left of where the collapse occurred. Where I was located at the time the plane crashed into the building was just to the right of where the collapse occurred. Another 20 or 30 seconds, and I actually would have been in the path of the plane. So I had taken maybe six or seven steps out of the men’s restroom doorway when I heard something quite loud. I just had a nanosecond to think, “Bomb!” It was just instantaneous. One second, everything is normal. Then, a second later, everything is just black. Instantaneous. Then I’m burning, the building around me is burning. It’s pitch black other than the ambient glow of all the fire. It was just a pretty ghastly experience to go through.

In those moments that I was struggling to survive, it became readily apparent that, even if I had stopped, dropped and rolled, it wouldn’t have served a purpose. Imagine not only being on fire, but even if I could put the fire out around me, I’d have been unable to navigate through all that black smoke. I had no sense of bearing. I’d walked those corridors hundreds of times. But one minute I was totally oriented to where I was going, and then the next second I had no idea where I was in the building. At that point, I transitioned into accepting my death. I realized that I’m no longer struggling to live; it’s just a matter now of when I will die.

In that moment, I cried out in a very loud voice, “Jesus, I’m coming to see you!” It was not a meek voice, it was very much a loud, unashamed voice. But it wasn’t a cry for mercy, in the sense of, “Lord, save me from this.” It was more, “OK, I got it. I’m dying. I’m soon to be at the throne of my Creator.” So, after having said what I thought were my last words on Earth, I thought about Mel and our son Matt, how I’d said goodbye to them that morning. Then I just began waiting for whatever that feeling is of the soul departing the body, of the transition from earthly life to eternal life.

It was just peaceful. There aren’t enough words in the English language to describe that kind of peace. It was just silent, though I know there wasn’t silence really, but everything around me, it just wasn’t there. I was concentrating on waiting for death to arrive, and it never did. The Lord had a different purpose for me that day.

BH: Mel, what was happening with you and your son during this time?

Mrs. Birdwell: We were homeschooling at the time, and Matt and I were doing history, and a friend called and asked if we’d seen what had happened to the World Trade Center. We didn’t have the TV on, so we turned it on and watched it for a few minutes, then turned it off, which is very strange for us. I know it was just the Holy Spirit guiding us, because living in D.C. you pretty much become a news junkie; you get sucked into the politics of it all. We very strangely just turned it off. And normally, I would have called Brian and talked to him about it, but I really just felt, “No, leave him alone.” That was very strange, and I know it was the Holy Spirit again, because had I called I could have delayed his trip to the restroom, and he could have been in his office on the phone with me when the plane hit.

So we turned off the TV and went back to doing school when one of my neighbors called, and asked, “Are you OK?” I told her we were fine, and she said, “The Pentagon has been hit!” We raced to the TV and turned it on, and the first thing we see is the air traffic control tower and the helipad. I knew that was right outside Brian’s window because I had helped him unpack boxes in his office a few weeks before that, and I’d sat at his desk and watched it rain on that very helipad. As soon as I saw the flames coming out of the office window behind the helipad, I knew we were in trouble.

Matt tried to reassure me, saying, “That’s not Dad’s office. His office is on the other side of the building.” And I said, “Honey, I hope you’re right, but let’s just pray about it anyway.” We sat down and prayed for Brian and for the rescuers, praying that they’d be safe. Then I called a friend of mine to ask her to come and be with me and to call the pastors at our church to let them know that that was the side of the building that Brian was on and he was likely affected by this. And we just sat and watched TV and prayed and tried to call family to let them know that we didn’t know anything, but that we were pretty sure that it was Brian’s side of the building.

Then I remember watching the building collapse and just crying out, “God, no!” I knew he could still very well be in there.

About two hours after the attack, I got a call from the husband of a lady who, in the process of evacuating the Pentagon, had grabbed her Bible on the way out. As she was on her way out of the building, a way she had never been before, she saw Brian on the floor being triaged. She had told her husband that she just felt led to go and pray with him. So she knelt down next to him and they said the Lord’s Prayer together and they said the 23rd Psalm together, and she read him the 91st Psalm. The entire time, Brian is telling everyone, “Call my wife!” She wrote our phone number down in her Bible, and she was eventually able to reach her husband, and he called me to tell me that Brian was alive and would be at Georgetown University Hospital.

BH: Colonel, how much of what happened after the explosion can you remember? Were you in a medicated haze through most of this?

Lt. Col. Birdwell: One of the miracles that morning was that throughout this process – up until I got to Dr. Williams at Georgetown where I was finally sedated – up until that moment, I was conscious through this whole process. I remember everything from when I was carried out of Corridor Four in the Pentagon to the triage center outside, where the woman Mel mentioned, Natalie, was praying with me. I remember being taken out in a little golf cart – we have little golf cart ambulances in the Pentagon because the building is so large and you’ve got all those floors – and there was not a prolonged wait for medical care. After a gentleman carried me to the triage site, I was very blessed in that a great Air Force doctor, Dr. Baxter, had come downstairs to evacuate the building carrying his medical “go bag,” I guess you could call it. He gave me my first pain medication, cut what was left of my clothes off of me and took my shoes off. My feet were where he applied the medical treatments to me because they were the only spot on me that he could tell wasn’t damaged by burns. So he gave me a morphine injection in my right foot and an I.V. in my left foot.

I knew I was still very badly hurt, and even though I knew that the Lord had already carried me through the traumatic events of the explosion, the fire and all that stuff, I realized that I could still very much be at death’s door, that He could call me home at any moment. I was really concentrating more on Natalie and the prayers that we were saying together, but I knew I was in very bad shape because I was the first to be evacuated. There were five or six other people around me, and when I was the first one taken, I was like, “OK, I know what that means.”

I got out of the building on the little golf-cart ambulance and was taken to the north parking area. I’m not sure how long I was there until I was eventually loaded up in a privately owned vehicle, but I remember there were sirens, there were people yelling. Flight 93, the fourth plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was still in the air at the time and was on a flight path toward D.C. The building was being evacuated. I could hear policemen yelling, “Fourth plane’s coming, get away from the building!” Eventually, a medical technician, Shirley Baldwin, commandeered a young Army captain’s Ford Expedition. This captain off-loaded all his bags, golf clubs and stuff out of the back, and I was on a body board, and they loaded me up into the Ford. One of the Air Force medics, Jill Heissen, got in the vehicle with me, holding my I.V. bag. One of my work buddies, Maj. John Collison, did not recognize me. I mean, that’s how badly burned I was. He only figured out who I was when he read the tag Dr. Baxter had attached to my toe, listing my name and the medications I’d been given. He was stunned.

John hopped into the Expedition with me and that’s – I wouldn’t want to compare what was happening to Christ’s crucifixion, but in many ways, the same way that John was with Christ at the crucifixion, that is what John Collison was doing for me. I had someone there that I knew personally, a great officer, and in the back of my mind, I knew that whatever we do and whatever I tell John is going to get back to Mel. He allowed me the comfort of knowing I could indirectly communicate with her should I not survive this.

The medic, Jill, made the decision that we were going to Georgetown. And we had a very harrowing drive, and not just because of the traffic. I mean, we were going over curbs. … I’m sure there were tire tracks left in some senator’s yard in Georgetown somewhere. Breathing was difficult. Talking was difficult. It seemed like we got there pretty quickly. I’m confident that the Lord put Jill there for a very specific purpose; her decision to take me to Georgetown was a miracle in itself. Here’s why: When I got to Georgetown, Dr. Williams was the attending physician in the emergency room. We found out later that Dr. Williams had spent two years over at the Washington Hospital Center Burn Unit. So from the perspective of emergency room treatment, I had the best doctor with the best training at the right hospital at the right time.

Mrs. Birdwell: It’s amazing to know that outside of going to the Washington Hospital Center’s burn unit immediately, he was in incredible hands at Georgetown. Not only did Dr. Williams have specialized training, but one of the nurses who was in the critical I.C.U. in Georgetown previously had worked in the burn center at Washington Hospital. Miraculously, another nurse who was at that time still on staff at the burn center just happened to be visiting her sister at Georgetown, and she helped get everything set up for Brian. It was just phenomenal, the people that the Lord put exactly where they needed to be to make sure that Brian was alive.

BH: And while your husband was on his harrowing drive, you were on one of your own, weren’t you?

Mrs. Birdwell: After the call from Natalie’s husband, I had a neighbor drive me to Georgetown, and what normally is a half-hour trip took two hours because the traffic was so bad. And when we got to the bridge that connects Virginia and D.C., it was closed to traffic. So I just decided to get out and run the rest of the way. Eventually I was able to flag down a D.C. police officer who drove me to the hospital and the doctor met me at the door to prepare me for what I was going to see. Then we went up and saw Brian, and it was horrendous. He was horribly, horribly burned. His face was just the whitest white I could possibly imagine, because they had already taken off much of the dead, burned skin. And he had a tube down his throat and he was sedated, so he didn’t know I was there. He was just tremendously swollen. It was incredibly difficult to go in and see him that way. But he was alive, and I was very thankful for that.

BH: And eventually, you both received a visit that has since become one of the most moving stories to come out of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Mrs. Birdwell: We received a call from the Secret Service asking if the president could come and visit Brian, and we said definitely he could. This was the first clue as to what an absolutely godly man we were dealing with, because I had the option of saying no. And there were families that did say no. But Mrs. Bush came in first and visited, and Brian was still intubated, so I had to read his lips for her.

She said, “Well, Col. Birdwell, you’re a hero and a great American and we’re very proud of you.” She asked where he was from, and he said, “Ft. Worth, Texas,” and she said, “Well, I’m from Midland, Texas.” And they did this little “Texas happy dance” that Texans do when they meet one another. After asking about our family, she said, “Well, colonel, I brought someone to see you.”

The president comes into Brian’s room, and he walks to the foot of Brian’s bed, and simply says, “Col. Birdwell.” And Brian’s eyes are huge; it’s like he’s not even blinking as he’s taking all this in. Then he salutes Brian! Brian’s arms are wrapped in sterile towels at this point, because he’s about to go into surgery. But the president sees that Brian is actually trying to return his salute! So Brian is lifting his arm – and it’s kind of like he’s in slow motion at this point because bending his arm is just hideously painful – and all the president can see is just muscles. All the flesh is gone. Brian gets his arm about three-quarters of the way up, and the president just stands there holding his salute the entire time, with tears in his eyes, while Brian finishes his own salute. The president honored Brian, because it’s the junior guy who salutes first and holds it, not the senior guy.

Then he said, “Col. Birdwell, you are a hero, and we are going to get the guys who did this. This is not going to go unanswered.” And he’s been very true to his word in that. He’s a godly man, and I think our country is incredibly blessed to have him as our president.

BH: Colonel, 60 percent of your body was consumed by burns, with almost half of them being third degree. You have endured more than 30 operations since then. Looking back now that some time has passed, what are your thoughts as the anniversary date is upon us?

Lt. Col. Birdwell: I guess a good summation would be that we are very blessed to be alive together. The things you take for granted, whether it’s just simply life, or physical abilities … We are very blessed to have the rest of our lives together… The Lord has been very gracious.

But another thing that I would add is the fact that September 11th really wasn’t about buildings, it was about people. A day doesn’t go by without, in some way, me thinking about Sandy and Cheryl. And I know that the same goes for everyone who lost someone in the World Trade Center, Flight 93 or the Pentagon. Mel is blessed in that every morning she wakes up and I’m beside her. But there are families out there – one of which we know pretty well, for example, with two young boys. And those boys are going to grow up without their father.

Mrs. Birdwell: Second Corinthians talks about the God of all comfort and that we should comfort one another. That’s one of the things we’re trying to do through the ministry we started called “Face The Fire.” We want to help other burn survivors and their families understand that the road that lies ahead of them is neither pretty nor easy, but we need to strive to help one another along. That’s really what it’s all about – just loving one another, the way Christ commanded us to do.

Lt. Col. Birdwell: Pastor Elwood, one of our pastors, once said to me, “Brian, God doesn’t waste our pain.” And what we’ve been through is a great family story, a great soldier’s story, but most importantly, it’s a great faith story. And that’s why we share it.

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