Protecting those in harm’s way

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WESTVILLE — More than a year after his son was shot and killed by a security guard in Afghanistan, Bruce Birchfield is hoping the same tragedy won’t befall another American family.

That is why he’s championing an amendment introduced by Congressman Joe Donnelly requiring U.S. funded defense contractors to license, properly identify and drug screen their security guards and other employees and have their efforts checked by American personnel.

The amendment is for the National Defense Authorization Act.

“The purpose of this amendment is to see that this doesn’t happen to another American soldier, whether in Afghanistan, Libya, wherever in the world,” he said, “because of a contractor funded by the U.S. government.”

Lance Cpl. Joshua H. Birchfield, 24, died Feb. 19, 2010, while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defense. He was shot by an Afghan security guard hired by a private subcontractor. The subcontractor was funded by the U.S. government.

The security guard found guilty of killing Birchfield was sentenced in an Afghan court to 15 years in prison.

The amendment recently passed through the House and is currently in the Senate.

Donnelly, who started work on the bill shortly after Joshua’s funeral, said this was an important step for U.S. servicemen and women.

“I believe we owe it to our men and women serving in harm’s way to ensure that those whom the U.S. government pays to provide security are subject to more rigorous oversight to ensure reliability, effectiveness, and safety,” he said in a press release.

The employer of the shooter, a subcontractor providing security, admitted that his employees were not properly licensed to use firearms and that he did not know where he was supposed to obtain those licenses.

If passed in the final bill, the amendment would do two things:

One, it would direct the Secretary of Defense to establish a Quality Assurance Surveillance Plan to set uniform standards for contract oversight in all private security contracts funded by the Department of Defense. It would also require sufficient personnel to exercise the oversight necessary to ensure contract performance and reliability.

Two, it would direct the Secretary of Defense to designate a single official in the country of operations with the responsibility of reviewing private security contracts to ensure compliance with the Quality Assurance Surveillance Plan.

The shooter was in a group of seven Afghan guards. They were allegedly found with five ounces of opium on them.

“These guys that were in this so to speak group with the man that shot my son,” Bruce said. “Most didn’t know how to load the weapons they had.”

He said some boys from Joshua’s unit stayed at his house for a couple of days last year. He heard from them about the ongoing issues they had with security contractors relying on Afghans.

“I wrote letters myself to the State Department, the Pentagon, and nobody ever answered me,” he said. “It was disheartening that no one would address these concerns.”

Eventually he approached Donnelly with Joshua’s mother, Shelley Hacker, about the issue. Donnelly agreed to work on it. Bruce said he was involved in the shaping of the bill too, along with the Hacker family.

Bruce also worked with Donnelly’s District Director Hodge Patel when the congressman was out of town.

“Joe [Donnelly], Hodge [Patel] and his whole crew did a hell of a job on this,” he said. “Joe is a man of his word who stands for the soldiers in this country.”

There are about 19,000 private security contractors in Afghanistan, according to the Congressional Research Service.

“If we are going to continue to rely on local security contractors in Afghanistan,” Donnelly said, “we must make oversight a top priority. I cannot say for certain that had there been better oversight by our government this tragedy would have been avoided, but we owe it to our servicemen and women in harm’s way to get this right.”

Originally in LaPorte Herald Argus
By: Matt Fritz, Staff Writer 

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