Soldier, 79, asks, 'What can I do now''

By Tiffany Nabors, The BayonetApril 1, 2010

FORT BENNING, Ga. -- With four military retirements behind him, Col. William Bernhard said former President John F. Kennedy's plea to the nation nearly 50 years ago inspires him to keep going.

"JFK once said, 'Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country,'" Bernhard said. "And I've always tried to do that."

The 79-year-old physician, who is possibly one of the oldest Soldiers on active duty, reported to Fort Benning's CONUS Replacement Center March 20, prior to leaving for Hohenfels, Germany.

Although most people his age are slowing their pace, the experienced mountain climber said he keeps coming back for the troops.

"This is a voluntary retiree recall, and I do it for all the men and women out there (who are serving)," he said.

Bernhard is a flight surgeon and will be responsible for caring for Soldiers on flight status. He will conduct annual physicals and care for pilots and others when they are sick or injured.

Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Samuel Rhodes, a former 192nd Infantry Brigade sergeant major, met Bernhard in 2005 during a deployment to Iraq.

Rhodes said others should draw inspiration from Bernhard.

"He's ... still serving, and most of us are under 50 and out of the Army," Rhodes said. "I would say we still have a lot more to give, and we can use him as an example. He's a role model for all of us who have retired."

Rhodes said Bernhard came to him after losing power and heat in his tent during the deployment.

Bernhard said he had always wanted to join the military like his father.

"He joined the Army Air Corps (as a flight surgeon) during the second World War and actually fought against members of his own family, because we are German family," Bernhard said. "I always wanted to follow in his footsteps."

Bernhard entered the Marines in 1950 under the Platoon Leaders Course during his freshman year in college but was discharged because of an injury.

"I was disappointed, but my father said it was an opportunity to follow him into medicine and be the third doctor in the family," Bernhard said.

During medical school, he entered the Navy Reserve under the Berry Plan, which deferred his military training while in school. During his fellowship year at Dartmouth Medical School, Bernhard was activated to work in anesthesia for two years.

He later took advantage of an Army Reserve program, called the First Army Augmentation Detachment, that allowed him to become a flight surgeon.

He also completed air assault training, mountain warfare training and earned the expert field medical badge while in the Reserves.

As a civilian, he retired in 1998 from the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he directed anesthesia for 10 years.

In the military, he has retired four times - once from the National Guard in 1998 and then again after a 2005 deployment to Iraq, a 2006 deployment to Afghanistan and a 2007 rotation in Germany, which he extended four times.

Bernhard continues to work part time as a civilian flight surgeon for the Maryland Army National Guard and wasn't surprised when he received orders to report to Fort Benning last month. His orders are for 171 days.

"I knew they needed someone," he said. And although he will miss his wife, dog and hobbies while away, Bernhard said, "I'm excited about going because it's a job that needs to be done."

Bernhard, who left for Germany Friday, said this will be his last military tour and plans to retire for the fifth time in August or September.

Rhodes said Bernhard is an example for everyone.

"Some people are just trying ... to not get in any environment where they could get hurt," Rhodes said. "But (Bernhard) is going out there saying, 'What can I do now''"