- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 18, 2006

EDGEWOOD, Md. — Dr. William Bernhard was disheartened when a knee injury kept him out of the Marines as a young man, so he found another way to spend his life in the military. He became a surgeon instead and has spent decades serving Army Reserve and National Guard units.

The silver-haired doctor, now 75, deployed yesterday for 120 days to Afghanistan, and he hopes it’s not his final mission.

“As long as I can help, I’m gonna help,” he said.

It’s hard to believe a man his age is pumped for a trip to a combat zone, but it’s just as hard to believe Dr. Bernhard is really that old. He looks two decades younger than he is and celebrated his most recent birthday in Iraq. He keeps flight suits and duffel bags ready in his northeastern Maryland home for deployment.

He has served with the Maryland Army National Guard and is a Department of Defense medical contractor, and he periodically calls to see if the agency needs retired military physicians. When the answer is yes, off he goes.

“I’ve always had a love for the military,” said Dr. Bernhard, a spry and chatty man who lifts weights three days a week and works out on a stair machine.

He said he may be the oldest person who has served in Iraq with the U.S. military, though that’s difficult to determine for contract members of the National Guard like him.

His wife, M.P. Bernhard, said he’ll keep soldiering as long as he’s able.

“Most people would say he’s crazy,” said Mrs. Bernhard, a former military nurse who served in Vietnam. “However, I understand where he’s coming from. I think he was born a soldier and then became a doctor.”

The story of how Dr. Bernhard served so long in the military takes a while to tell, so he squeezes it in between the physicals he performs.

It all started, he said, when he tagged along with his flight surgeon father, also named William Bernhard, during World War II.

Born in 1930, the son was wowed by “going out as a little kid and seeing those big guns and the bombers and the aviators.”

So after starting college in Connecticut, he enlisted in the Marines in 1950.

Disheartened when a knee injury from skiing led to a medical discharge, he decided that if soldiering wasn’t available, he’d find another way into the military — anything was better than not serving at all.

He started his military career in earnest in 1961, when he served two years as a Navy doctor at military hospitals in Massachusetts and New York. Then, he went back to private practice in Vermont and raised two sons.

By 1979, he wanted to serve again, so he joined the Army Reserve, deploying twice to Central America in the 1980s. In 1991, he joined the Army National Guard in Maryland and deployed to Kuwait for several months to tend to prisoners of war during Operation Desert Storm.

When not serving in the military, Dr. Bernhard worked in hospitals at home, including the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

Then in 1998, Dr. Bernhard reached his 68th birthday and mandatory retirement age at Shock Trauma and as a military surgeon.

Two years ago, he learned from a friend that there weren’t enough trauma surgeons for soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dr. Bernhard suggested the military consider using retired surgeons like him, then passed a flight duty medical exam and deployed to Iraq for five months, from June to October.

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