Remembering Lance Cpl. Josh Birchfield, a face in Afghanistan's security contractor problem

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Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Birchfield

The defense community and national news outlets are buzzing this morning about a Senate report that says U.S. security contractors have hired local warlords and thugs to private security, putting the lives of U.S. service members in danger.

For perspective’s sake, here’s colleague Rick Maze’s coverage of the report. The Associated Press story is also circulating widely.

It’s hard when you’re reading the reports to not immediately think of Lance Cpl. Joshua Birchfield, who died in Farah province, Afghanistan, on Feb. 19.

While the Senate’s report covers incidents that occurred in 2007 and 2008, Birchfield would appear to be a 2010 poster boy of a Marine who was a casualty to the poor hiring of Afghan contractors.

Marine officials confirmed in March that an investigation into Birchfield’s death found that he was fatally shot when an Afghan security contractor fired at a group of Marines. The incident was first reported in February, after a TV station in Chicago was apparently contacted by a service member who witnessed Birchfield’s death.

The investigation report, obtained by Marine Corps Times through a Freedom of Information Act request, says Birchfield, of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms, Calif., was mortally wounded in the head when a security guard working for a local company opened fire on a squad of Marines.

They had stopped in a dry riverbed during a combat foot patrol in Farah province, where 3/4 had operated for months.

The contractor was turned over to Afghan prosecutors for “future criminal proceedings,” Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, then the top Marine in Afghanistan, wrote in a letter accompanying the investigation report.

“This tragic event reminds us of the dangers and uncertainties of conducting counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan,” Nicholson wrote. Birchfield’s “fellow Marines and the squad’s corpsman did everything possible to save his life, but his wound was too severe.”

Birchfield, a rifleman, was wearing body armor and a Kevlar helmet when the incident occurred, the report said. Although portions of the 17-page report were redacted, it describes the events leading up to Birchfield’s death.

The squad was about an hour into a foot patrol when it arrived at the riverbed to establish an observation post, the report said. Shortly before sunrise, the Marines noticed a security checkpoint manned by Afghan contractors nearby. The exact distance is redacted in the report.

The first shots rang out about 80 minutes later, the report says. Moments earlier, one of the Afghan contractors had “appeared to observe” the Marines’ position before climbing down from the checkpoint’s roof and vanishing behind the building. As bullets landed around them, the Marines quickly fired off flares to let the Afghans know they were friendly.

Local Afghan companies hired and paid the contractors to safeguard their employees and equipment, according to a fact sheet prepared by the Marine Corps.

Citing an e-mail from a service member at the scene of Birchfield’s death, Chicago TV station WLS-TV reported March 2 that the Afghan guards were using opium, and the shooter was found with “copious amounts of wet opium on him shortly after the shooting.” No drug use is mentioned in the Corps’ report.

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About Author

I’m a senior writer with Marine Corps Times, covering ground warfare, manpower, weapons acquisition and other beats. I embedded in Afghanistan in spring 2010, and plan to return at least once in 2011.

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