For all the yellow ribbons strewn across his hometown in Idaho and the gratitude expressed by his parents in an emotional visit to the White House on Saturday, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will receive a hero’s welcome when he returns to the United States after nearly five years in Taliban captivity.
From military forums across the country, a groundswell of anger is rising over the Obama administration’s silence on perhaps the most controversial question surrounding the deal that freed Bergdahl in exchange for five senior Taliban members: Was he a deserter?
So far, the U.S. government has shied away from the long-nagging question, which raged anew Monday with growing clamor on the Internet about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance from his unit’s small forward position in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009.
Military-related blogs, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages were filled with screeds from commenters accusing Bergdahl of being a “traitor” or a Taliban “collaborator.” The online publication The Daily Beast published a nearly 2,000-word first-person account by a former Army infantry officer who said he was privy to details of Bergdahl’s disappearance and who stated flatly that “he was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.”
The mother of one of six soldiers who’ve been identified as being killed in circumstances related to the search for Bergdahl was furious over the opaque handling of the case, telling Army Times that the Pentagon “really owes the parents of these fallen soldiers the truth.”
But instead of addressing the desertion issue head-on, complained many military analysts and war veterans, the Obama administration is allowing the debate to fester, only deepening the skepticism of current and former service members who demand to know how Bergdahl left his unit, how many U.S. forces were killed in the search effort, and whether there are plans to conduct a legal review of his case and, if necessary, prosecute him.
Michael Waltz, who as an Army major commanded U.S. Special Forces in eastern Afghanistan at the time Bergdahl disappeared, said the sergeant deserted and shouldn’t have been accorded POW status.
“He just walked off after guard duty and wandered into the nearby village,” Waltz told McClatchy in an interview Monday. “This guy needs to be held accountable when the time is right, of course. Every American deserves to come home. I’m happy for his family. But he needs to be held accountable.”
Angry commentators took special aim at National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s televised remarks Sunday that Bergdahl “served the United States with honor and distinction.” They also bristled at Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s surprise visit Sunday to Afghanistan, where he praised the operation that freed Bergdahl but never mentioned the desertion issue before an audience of U.S. service members who undoubtedly have seen the debate swirling around the case.
Even military voices warning against trying Bergdahl in the court of public opinion say the Obama administration owes its enlisted men and women more transparency.
“Hagel hopped up on stage saying, ‘Oh, it’s a great day. We got him back.’ Crickets. Crickets,” said Fred Wellman, a retired lieutenant colonel who as spokesman for Army Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq handled the communications on many crises that reflected poorly on the U.S. military.
Wellman said his advice to defense officials would be to acknowledge the concerns of the enlisted ranks and veterans, to explain that there’s a plan to deal with the legal implications, and to stress that the most important focus now is restoring Bergdahl to health and reuniting him with his family in Idaho after nearly five years in the hands of a brutal enemy of the United States.
“They’re really underestimating the fury over this,” Wellman said. “It’s a tidal wave of anger.”
At White House, State Department and Pentagon briefings, reporters asked directly whether Bergdahl was a deserter. Officials all offered variations of the same talking point: “We would characterize him as a member of the military who was detained while in combat,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday.
The questions also didn’t dampen enthusiasm for Bergdahl’s return in his hometown of Hailey, Idaho, where planning for a welcome event at the end of the month were proceeding. “For now, we’re going to keep the politics out of Hailey and focus on the news that Bowe was found, and he is safe,” said Stefanie O’Neill, a co-organizer of the group “Bring Bowe Back,” now renamed “Bowe is Back.”
O’Neill said she hasn’t had any cancellations from those slated to perform, including singer Carole King and Travis Hardy Band. Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, also are expected to attend.
“I think the event is growing, as opposed to diminishing, through all of this,” said O’Neill, a stay-at-home mother of two who estimates she’s done 70 interviews with local, national and international media over the past two days.
When asked about the questions swirling around Bergdahl’s capture at a news conference at Boise’s National Guard facility Sunday, Ralph Kramer, the director of the Boise Valley POW MIA support organization, had a simple response: “We’re happy he’s home.”
Waltz, the former Special Forces commander, said the enthusiasm for Bergdahl’s return should be tempered by knowledge of his actions, which Waltz said jeopardized the lives of thousands of U.S. troops who were redeployed to prevent the Taliban from taking him across the border into Pakistan’s tribal area, where they, al Qaida and other Islamic extremist groups have bases.
“Men and women were diverted by the thousands,” he said. “Every soldier who was in the province where he was deployed was told to stop what they were doing and to look for him. It went on for at least weeks. We were receiving a lot of conflicting information about whether he was over the border or not.”
Regular U.S. troops set up checkpoints along the border, and Waltz said his Special Forces units swept towns and villages looking for Bergdahl. He said they were lured into ambushes and booby-trapped homes because the Taliban knew about the manhunt and were able to mobilize.
“The soldiers he was with, the soldiers who were in that country and the soldiers who didn’t get to come home are owed an explanation,” Waltz said. “I don’t personally believe that he should be in the same category as the Americans who were in the Bataan Death March (during World War II) and the aviators who were shot down over Vietnam. He needs to be held to account.”
Other veterans of U.S. wars warned, however, that the high-pitched tenor of the desertion debate is harmful to the military’s reputation and damaging to the age-old ethos of never leaving a service member behind. Like him or not, the more muted camp said, Bergdahl was captured by the enemy, endured untold hardships, and must first be repatriated and rehabilitated before it’s appropriate to discuss punitive action.
“He doesn’t even know how to speak English again yet and we’re already talking about trials and what he could face. Now is not the time,” said Alex Horton, 28, a former Army infantryman from Dallas who was deployed to Iraq. Horton said he doesn’t consider Bergdahl a hero, but also opposes the piling on when Bergdahl has been free for only a couple of days.
“This guy was a POW for five years _ not a German POW eating wiener schnitzel and drinking brandy _ he was most likely brainwashed and tortured,” Horton said. “Without a doubt this guy has been through some awful hardships and you have to think: how much further can this guy be punished?”
Analysts say the legal side of Bergdahl’s homecoming could have far-reaching implications for trust in the fairness of the military’s justice system, which already is under attack for its handling of sexual abuse cases. And, of course, a legal review could affect Bergdahl personally, determining his eventual discharge status, eligibility for health benefits, whether he gets to keep the pay he accumulated over nearly five years, and whether he should face any punitive measures in the case of a desertion determination.
Eugene R. Fidell, an expert on the Uniform Code of Military Justice who teaches at Yale Law School, said it’s important to remember that it’s “completely discretionary” as to whether commanders decide to prosecute any reported violation. He said there must be an official preliminary report of an offense even though, in Bergdahl’s case, “there’s certainly enough already known to suggest that an act of desertion was committed.”
An initial report, Fidell said, would be followed by a series of steps that determine how a case will proceed, such as whether it’s handled administratively without involving courts or is sent all the way to a general court martial. Fidell notes that Bergdahl almost certainly “has something to trade” – five years of up-close observation of the Taliban, one of the world’s most persistent militant groups. Any hypothetical defense team would be sure to argue that Bergdahl already has suffered enough as an apparent hostage.
“There’s a dramatic set of pushes and pulls in this, such as whether lives were lost in this,” Fidell said. “If it turns out to be not ‘Saving Private Ryan’ but ‘Saving Private Ryan who was a deserter,’ that’s a little different.”
Contributing to this report were James Rosen and Lindsay Wise from Washington and Katy Moeller of the Idaho Statesman from Boise.