Dahaneh, Afghanistan » The pomegranate grove looked ominous.
The U.S. patrol had a tip that Taliban fighters were lying in ambush, and a Marine had his weapon trained on the trees 70 yards away. "If you see anything move from there, light it up," Cpl. Braxton Russell said.
Thirty seconds later, a salvo of gunfire and RPGs - rocket-propelled grenades - poured out of the grove. "Casualty! We've got a casualty!" someone shouted. A grenade had hit Lance Cpl. Joshua "Bernie" Bernard in the legs.
A Marine and son of a Marine, a devout Christian, Iraq war veteran and avid hiker, home-schooled in rural Maine, Bernard was about to become the next fatality in the deadliest month of the deadliest year since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
The troops of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines had been fighting for three days to wrest this town in southern Afghanistan from the Taliban who had ruled it for four years. As dusk approached on Friday, Aug. 14, things had quieted down. The Taliban seemed to have gone.
Then, as the Marines were enjoying some downtime, reports of mortar, machine-gun and sniper fire sent them scrambling again. The 11 Americans and 10 Afghan soldiers, accompanied by an Associated Press news crew, edged their way into the town's abandoned bazaar, past Taliban posters on the walls exhorting the populace to fight the Americans. Bernard, his face daubed in gray and brown camouflage paint, was the point man.
The Marines got word of the ambush being readied nearby. Two Cobra helicopters circling overhead fired Hellfire missiles at a mortar position. The Marines weren't sure this had settled the matter with the Taliban. They pushed on.
Then they reached the pomegranate grove.
At first, Jake Godby thought Bernard had stepped on an explosive device. Godby, a 24-year-old 2nd lieutenant from Fredericksburg, Va., quickly regrouped his men and directed the returning fire.
The squad found itself stuck under sustained and heavy fire with a wounded man on a narrow crossroad -- buildings behind them, insurgents hidden in the orchard in front of them, and a large puddle from a broken water pump in the middle.
Bernard lay on the ground, two Marines standing over him exposed, trying to help. A first tourniquet on Bernard's leg broke. A medic applied another.
"I can't breathe, I can't breathe," Bernard said. Troops crawling under the bullets dragged him to the MRAP, the mine-resistant armored vehicle that accompanied the patrol.
Bernard was driven back to base about 500 yards away, receiving first aid along the way. Minutes later, a helicopter evacuated him to Camp Leatherneck, the main Marine compound in southern Afghanistan. His vital signs were stable when he left.
At the ambush site, the fighting continued uninterrupted for 10 to 15 minutes. The men could see the grenades coming in at them, and even some of the machine gunners. They estimated they were facing six to eight fighters.
The battle ebbed with nightfall. Godby and some of the Marines equipped with night vision glasses pushed deeper into the orchard, but the insurgents were gone, reportedly leaving behind three dead bodies.
That night, officers assembled the platoon in a darkened room of the run-down house where the Marines had camped after taking Dahaneh two days earlier. There, the officers delivered the news: Bernard had died of a blood clot in his heart on the operating table. He was Golf Company's third fatality since arriving in Afghanistan in May.
Bernard was the 19th American to die in Afghanistan in August. Fifty-one Marines, soldiers and seamen lost their lives that month. Of the 739 Americans killed in and around Afghanistan since 2001, 151 died last year and 180 so far this year.
Back home, grieving for the son
Down a rural dirt road in New Portland, western Maine, John and Sharon Bernard sat on their porch and talked about their son.
Joshua, they said, loved literature and showed early interest in the Bible and Christianity. "He had a very strong faith right from the beginning," his mother said.
His father described him as "humble, shy, unassuming -- the very first to offer help." He didn't smoke or drink, and always opened the door for others. His main friends were his church group, whom he would visit when on leave, and his sister, Katy, 20.
Bernard's father is a retired Marine first sergeant. Three weeks before the Aug. 14 ambush that killed his son, he had written to his congressman, Rep. Michael Michaud, expressing frustration at what he described as a change in the Afghanistan rules of engagement to one of "spare the civilians at all cost." He called this "disgraceful, immoral and fatal" to U.S. forces in combat.
Joshua loved video games and snowboarding, and hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail with his father. He hoped to become a U.S. marshal.
"Service and personal honor," is how his father summarized his son.
'You just carry on'
Three days after Bernard's death, as his belongings were being packed for shipment to his family, Cpl. Joshua Jackson, his squad leader, was still referring to him in the present tense.
"He definitely doesn't hesitate," said Jackson, 23, from Copley, Ohio. "He's very good, he definitely has the nerves to do what he's needed to do."
He called Bernard "a true-heartedly very good guy ... probably one of the best guys I've known in my entire life."
The hardest part is "just wondering if there's something that I could have done different, or maybe prevented him from dying," Jackson said. "But that's something we've all got to deal with."
"I think it's got to do with being a Marine; you just carry on," said Godby. That night he got two hours of sleep. Before dawn, his platoon took part in a raid on a suspected Taliban stronghold.
Bernard was determined, his comrades said. That's why he was chosen as the squad's point man and navigator, moving at the front of his unit.
For one Marine, the battle's over
It had all gone very quickly. It was late afternoon when the Taliban fired their first RPGs. It was dusk when the Marine was driven away in the armored vehicle. And it was night when the patrol returning to base saw the dark silhouette of the helicopter that flew him away.
Lance Cpl. Joshua "Bernie" Bernard was 21 years old.
Cory Jenkins » Killed Aug. 24 alongside three other soldiers in a roadside bomb attack in southern Afghanistan. He was the first Brigham Young University student known to have been killed in the eight-year-old conflict. Jenkins joined the Army after his graduation from BYU, where he studied conservation biology, and from the physician assistant program at A.T. Still University, near his home in Mesa, Ariz. Most recently, Jenkins had lived with his family near Ft. Lewis, Wash., where he was stationed with the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. The Army captain had recently become the father of a baby girl.
Kurt Curtiss » Killed Aug. 25 in a separate attack in Paktika province. When Curtiss was a child, his family welcomed scores of foster children to their home in Arizona. He later moved to Salt Lake City as a teen, and he was an 18-year-old Salt Lake Community College student when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 occurred.
The following day, he walked into an Army recruiter's office and signed up, his family said. He left behind a wife, a 9-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter in Alaska.