We won’t criticize this week’s prisoner trade (or transfer as the Obama Administration refers to it). We’re glad Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is headed home. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was going to waste away or die in Taliban hands, and sometime during the next year or so nearly all of the detainees at Guantanamo are probably going to be released anyway. If we haven’t found a crime with which to charge these high-ranking Taliban by now, there is a limit to how long we could hold them after hostilities have ended. We’re not terribly exercised at this time that Congress wasn’t consulted either. We’ll assume there was good cause for extreme secrecy, and, besides, Capitol Hill has never been the ideal place to play “I’ve Got a Secret.”
Sergeant Bergdahl belongs here in the United States to face the challenges of civilian life, or to face the challenges of a Court-Martial for desertion, of which some have charged he is guilty. The Pentagon has, thus far, shown little interest in pursuing the circumstances of his disappearance on June 30, 2009 from his outpost at Mest-Malak Afghanistan near the town of Yahya Kheyl in Paktika Province. He is reportedly very frail and the army medical personnel in whose care he has been placed are doing exactly what they should be doing — restoring him to health.
We have no quarrel with our government’s effort to get him back. We’ll let others debate whether we paid too high a price with the release of five pretty ruthless Taliban who served in various Al Qaeda-linked military and intelligence capacities. All five had been classified as “high risk” to the United States and two of this bunch have been accused by the United Nations of war crimes for the deaths of thousands of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan. Suffice to say; we gave up five very bad actors to get one of our own back, and under the right circumstances we would agree that one of ours is worth five of theirs any day.
We do, however, take strong exception to President Obama’s decision to hold a Rose Garden media extravaganza to announce the prisoner exchange (sorry, make that prisoner transfer), and to send (yet again) National Security Advisor Susan Rice to the Sunday Morning TV circuit to extol the virtues of the exchange and of Bergdahl, who she said served with honor and distinction. Really! — Says who (besides Susan Rice)? One would think the Administration would find someone else—anyone else – to spin yet another White House yarn. Rice subsequently has now redefined honor and distinction to mean enlisting during a time of war. Huh? Really, you can’t make this sort of stuff up.
We assume Bowe Bergdahl enlisted in the army with all good intentions, and that he sincerely wanted to serve the United States and to help the Afghan people. We would make that same assumption about virtually all of the men and women who have volunteered to serve during this longest of conflicts. But that is irrelevant in assessing the Rose Garden farce that the White House orchestrated to announce the trade of five Taliban for Sergeant Bergdahl, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s punctuating the event by declaring that Bergdahl served with honor and distinction.
We could find no military source, either among the brass in Washington, or among Bergdahl’s comrades who served with him in Afghanistan, who speak of Bergdahl as someone who served with honor and distinction. Quite the contrary.
A 2010 Pentagon investigation concluded that there was “incontrovertible” evidence that Bergdahl walked away from his unit. The New York Times, citing military sources, reported that he left a note behind which said he was leaving to start a new life and that he wanted to renounce his citizenship. Closer to the scene, those who served with him are scathing in their assessment of his disappearance and of the cost in life and limb to those who set out to find him.
Sergeant Bergdahl claimed in a Taliban distributed video that he was captured when he fell behind during a routine patrol. The problem with that story is that there were no patrols the night he disappeared according to army personnel who served with him. While the Pentagon says that it’s impossible to confirm from statistical data whether anybody’s death was directly linked to the search for Bergdahl, several of those who served in his unit adamantly dispute that assertion. They insist that at least six of his comrades may have been killed directly searching for him. CNN is broadcasting (as we write this essay) interviews with two of his fellow soldiers, one of whom, Evan Buetow, who was Bergdahl’s team leader, says Bergdahl did not serve with “honor or dignity.” Buetow says he directly heard a radio transmission from a nearby village that Bergdahl was looking for a translator who spoke English to see if he could put him in touch with the Taliban. Jose E. Baggett, another comrade who served with Bergdahl, said it was a certainty that he deserted. “The truth is he deserted and that he sought out the Taliban,” insisted Buetow. Comrades who went on a search patrol say they were told by Afghan boys that they saw someone “crawling in the weeds” away from the base the night bergdahl went missing. It’s not a pretty picture.
The sense of pride expressed by officials of the Obama administration over the prisoner trade (transfer) is certainly not shared by many of those who served with Bergdahl. Simply stated, they see him as a deserter whose “selfish act” ended up costing the lives of their comrades. They kept silent while he was “in captivity” because their superiors ordered them to. But now that Bergdahl has been released they feel free to talk and talking they are.
“I was pissed off then, and I am even more so now with everything going on,” said former Sgt. Matt Vierkant, a member of Bergdahl’s platoon when he went missing on June 30, 2009. “Bowie Bergdahl deserted during a time of war, and his fellow Americans lost their lives searching for him,” Vierkant told CNN. Vierkant said Bergdahl needs to not only acknowledge his actions publicly but face a military trial for desertion under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
According to other first hand accounts from soldiers in his platoon, Bergdahl, while on guard duty, shed his weapons and walked off the observation post with nothing more than a compass, a knife, water, a digital camera and a diary. At least six soldiers were killed in subsequent searches for him, according to soldiers involved in the operations to find him.
Many of those who were there when Bergdahl disappeared are bitter over the Administration’s spin. “Any of us would have died for him while he was with us, and then for him to just leave us like that, it was a very big betrayal,” former U.S. Army Sgt. Josh Korder told CNN. Sergeant Korder has the names of three soldiers who died while searching for Bergdahl tattooed on his back.
Many of Bergdahl’s fellow troops — from the seven or so who knew him best in his squad to the larger group that made up the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division — told CNN that they signed nondisclosure agreements agreeing to never share any information about Bergdahl’s disappearance and the efforts to recapture him. Some were willing to dismiss that document in hopes that the truth would come out about a soldier who they now fear is being hailed as a hero, while the men who lost their lives looking for him are ignored.
“I don’t think I could have continued to go on without being able to share with you and the people the true things that happened in this situation,” Korder told CNN last Monday. “Because if you guys aren’t made aware of it, it will just go on, and he’ll be a hero, and nobody will be able to know the truth.”
Cody Full, a member of Bergdahl’s platoon, said “He knowingly deserted and put thousands of people in danger because he did. We swore to an oath and we upheld ours. He did not.” Full said that Bergdahl had mailed his computer and other possessions home prior to his disappearance, which he believes is further proof of Bergdahl’s intention to desert.
The disparity between how Bergdahl’s former comrades feel and how the Washington brass seem to feel is curious. One senior Defense official said Bergdahl will not likely face any punishment. “Five years is enough,” he told CNN on condition of anonymity. This, it seems to us, establishes a new and troubling enforcement guideline if, in fact, Bergdahl was a deserter.
We agree that getting Bergdahl back was important, just as a full understanding of the circumstances of his disappearance is important. Watching and listening, however, to the Rose Garden celebration and National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s conference of honor and distinction upon Sergeant Bergdahl in juxtaposition to the statements of those US servicemen who served with Bergdahl in Afghanistan at the time of his disappearance suggests the White House spinmeisters were spinning on speed…selling the sizzle. A simple announcement by a press-office staffer during a routine press briefing would have sufficed. Let’s reserve White House hero welcomes to servicemen whose comrades also consider them to be heroes.