Friday, March 05, 2010

Marine's death came at hands of U.S.-paid security forces

By Chuck Goudie
Daily Herald Columnist

Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Birchfield, 24, left, was killed while on patrol in Afghanistan on Feb. 19. Navy HM3 Christopher "Doc" Marsh, right, said "Josh was truly one of a kind. He was the glue that held his squad together."

No American soldier should die the way Josh Birchfield did.

There was much more to his "supporting combat operations" death than what the military put out.

It was the standard Pentagon release.

A soldier is killed. A clerk types in their name. "____________ died while supporting combat operations."

There is no Pentagon form titled "What Really Happened."

If there was, in the case of the metro Chicago Marine, this is how it would read:

"Lance Cpl. Joshua H. Birchfield, 24, of Westville, Ind., died Feb. 19 after being shot in the head by a doped-up private security contractor hired by the U.S. government. We're sorry we hired the guy, obviously didn't check him out very well and we are devastated that we didn't do a better job protecting our own."

This disturbing information came to me after last week's column, in which I reported how Lance Cpl. Birchfield deserved more attention in dying for his country than Tiger Woods, who at the same hour had commandeered the nation's airwaves to apologize for cheating on his wife.

"Although I respect the fact that you wrote about Josh to let the world know that he died a hero, and he did, your facts are not even close to the truth," wrote one of Lance Cpl. Birchfield's friends and fellow Marines in an e-mail from Afghanistan.

Because the military hadn't yet reported the death, I surmised that Birchfield was in the Marjan province, where Marines had been in regular firefights with the Taliban.

Actually, he was on a routine patrol in the Helmand province.

"He was killed by American Hired Local National Contractors that were high on opium the morning of the 19th."

The author of the e-mail was part of a Marine quick-response team that tried "to bring him back from the fatal gunshot to the head. There has never been a more charismatic and honorable man I have ever met than Joshua Birchfield."

Birchfield was on his first combat tour for the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Twentynine Palms, Calif.

His wake last week in La Porte County, Ind., drew several thousand people. To accommodate the mourners, his funeral on Saturday was held in the high school where he had graduated just few years ago.

But none of them knew the real story of what happened.

He was on a security patrol about a half-mile from a Marine forward operating base. About 7 a.m., as day broke, shots were fired at Birchfield's patrol team, according to members of his unit. The ambush was by U.S.-hired security guards who were supposed to be protecting a highway paving project from Taliban-installed roadside bombs.

"The contractors were able to have such proximity to a U.S. patrol because we pay them to work on our FOB (forward operating base), pave the 515 (highway), and provide security from Taliban IED (roadside bomb) implacers in the area," I was told.

Because the U.S.-backed contractors "are ordinary Afghanis, they are subject to corruption and play both sides of the fence between the U.S. military and the local Taliban," reported one of Birchfield's fellow Marines. "These men are armed to the teeth and supposedly here for our protection."

He said the shooter and six other guards were arrested after the killing and are in the custody of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

"They are also drug abusers. The shooter was found to have copious amounts of wet opium on him shortly after the shooting ... we found a bag of wet opium in the compound that the contractors were using to get high."

The Pentagon had no comment on the incident on Sunday.

But the Marine said that Josh Birchfield died for two reasons. "A mix of drugs and gray areas of loyalty between U.S. forces and Taliban seems to be the motivation behind the shooting."

Although Birchfield was the first U.S. service member he recalls being killed by a U.S.-paid Afghan guard, "we have been shot at by the contractors on several cases before this incident. We have been told to refrain from returning fire and attempt to identify ourselves as Marines so they stop shooting."

His fellow Marines held a small memorial service for him last Friday in Afghanistan. They huddled around the boots and helmet he once wore. And the gun he never had a chance to fire at an enemy bought and paid for by his own government.

• Chuck Goudie, whose column appears each Monday, is the chief investigative reporter at ABC 7 News in Chicago. The views in this column are his own and not those of WLS-TV. He can be reached by e-mail at and followed at

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