By: Peter Sessum
Five years ago this month Army Private First Class (PFC) Bowe Bergdahl walked off his firebase in Afghanistan and was promptly captured by the Taliban. Last week his release was secured by trading five high ranking Taliban members from Guantanamo. The only Afghanistan Prisoner of War (POW) is on his way home but is it is a good thing and what should happen next?
Like the Jessica Lynch story, the government and the military want a positive spin on the story in the media, but military members and veterans, myself included, are questioning his status as a returning hero or Taliban victim. The issue is clouded because of the idea of “No soldier left behind” is shared by everyone in the military, but because he was captured after leaving his post it feels like this is a unique case and that there should be some punishment.
From all reports, Bergdahl was a substandard solider to begin with. He was one of those people that was too Hooah for their own good and had dreams of doing grand heroic things with his life. There was no way this young man was going to be happy in the military and the signs were all there.
He apparently tried to join the French Foreign Legion (FFL) when he was about 20. He studied French and was prepared to sign up and start some sort of mercenary fantasy when he was rejected. That is a red flag. The FFL takes pretty much everyone, even criminals. They also take people from crappy Third World countries who sign up for an extremely difficult six years in exchange for French citizenship and a better life. For them to reject Bergdahl says a lot about the kind of person he is.
He later decided to join the U.S. Army and wanted to go to Afghanistan to help with the reconstruction and fight the enemy with the Counter Insurgency (COIN) tactic of winning the hearts and minds. He studied Pashto and Dari in his free time leading up to the deployment.
This is where young Bergdahl screwed up. With that information right there he would have been a better fit to be Civil Affairs (CA) not Infantry. Had he joined a CA unit he would have deployed and been given thousands of dollars a month to spend on rebuilding school, digging wells and other reconstruction projects. His talent for learning languages would have been an asset and if he could pass the test, he could be earning language pay. But of course he wanted to be hardcore and joined the Infantry. Speaking as a former Infantryman I can tell you that Infantry are not known for helping the local populace. There are exceptions, but generally they are selected for what they are trained for and that is combat operations. If you want to feed the hungry you work at a soup kitchen not the SWAT team.
Right out the gate Bergdahl set himself up for failure. He tried to say that he was tricked by his recruiter into thinking that he would have a greater role in reconstruction. That is his own fault for believing what his recruiter told him. If you believe what a military recruiter says that isn’t in writing you deserve what you get. Recruiters are like strippers, some are just trying to work through their shift there but most will tell you what they think you want to hear to get what they want out of you.
From all reports he was assigned to a substandard unit with some poor leaders and when he arrived in Afghanistan the duty sucked. All of those things are not unique to any one soldier. Deployments suck, and they suck for everyone. It is much worse when the leadership sucks or the firebase is bad but everyone has to find their own way of dealing with it.
Bergdahl, however, already had a bad attitude and a plan to leave long before he deployed. During the train up prior to the deployment he told a fellow soldier, “If this deployment is lame I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan.”Because he didn’t want to get in trouble, which is silly since he was leaving in the middle of a deployment anyway, he left his weapon and night vision behind and left the firebase early one morning with a plan to walk to Pakistan and join up with some group and fight a real war.
A gringo, unarmed, in uniform, wandering around Afghanistan with only a plan to get to another country and not much after that. It was really only a matter of time before someone scooped him up and put him in an orange jumpsuit. Even if he had made it to Pakistan it is more likely than not that someone would have grabbed him and turned him over to the Taliban.
He claims that he fell behind in a patrol and was captured. This is being categorically disputed by sources online that say they knew him as well as by a WikiLeaks document of reports surrounding the area and timeline of his capture.
I very much doubt that Bergdahl was a traitor when he joined the Army. He might have become a disillusioned young man while in, but I wouldn’t believe that he had any intention of betraying his country. He was a young man with a romanticized view of war and what the military is like. He had some bad luck with units which unfortunately happens and he wanted to go off on his grand adventure.
After that long in captivity, he most likely has Stockholm Syndrome and he has a long recovery ahead of him. There is a very good chance that there will be problems with him in the future and his mental state can’t be trusted. While he might not be a traitor as some people claim he is not a hero either. He willingly and purposefully planned to leave the Army during a combat deployment and that can’t be forgotten.
The good news about his return is that he can no longer be used as a propaganda tool for the Taliban. For them they could afford to lose on a tactical level because they could always say that the greatest military in the world couldn’t stop them from taking one guy. For almost five years they held him and the U.S. never had an idea where.
The bad news is that they now have five of their leaders back. There is no way that those men did not have discussion with other prisoners in Gitmo and they will get the hero’s welcome in addition to knowing of other terrorist networks. It would be very disappointing if a drone didn’t follow the new releases and call in an airstrike while the Western media is focused on the release of the American.
There could not be a worst time to release high ranking Taliban into Afghanistan. We are talking about pulling out and the Taliban are getting ready for when the Coalition moves out so they can move in unchallenged. Young Bergdahl wanted to help Afghanistan but his actions directly contributed to making it worse.
His return also sends the message that the U.S. doesn’t negotiate with terrorists unless the terrorists have something we really, really want. Insurgents in Iraq must be kicking themselves right now for shooting downed pilots or cutting off heads of those they captured and posting in on the Internet. They might have secured the release of some of their comrades had they been patient enough.
Bergdahl might not be a traitor but he is not a hero either. Because of the no man left behind ideal we should have brought him home. But we can’t let that cloud the issue that he deserted on his own. He made the decision of his own free will and soldiers died while looking for him. To label him a hero and forgetting about the people that upheld their oath and lost their lives to find him diminishes their sacrifice and the loss for their families.
No one has addressed how he continued to get promoted while he was missing. A promotion from PFC to Specialist is considered automatic but it still has to be approved by his command. Who made that decision? And how did he get promoted to Sergeant without attending a promotion board or putting in a packet? It is clear that someone has been manipulating this situation for some time possibly in preparation for his release and that should not be overlooked in the media.
The punishment for being a deserter in wartime is a firing squad but in this case that might be a little excessive. If he checks out mentally his time, in captivity should be considered as time served and he should be discharged from the military. The truth in his case is an embarrassment to the military that they don’t have a vested interest in prosecuting him harshly. The administration will try to find a way to get a win out of it so we can expect a lot of “Leave no man behind” in speeches and no mention of the word “deserter.”
That is what he is. A deserter. He doesn’t deserve the positive attention he is getting. More and more military voices are speaking out against him including a Facebook group trying calling for legal action against him. One day the truth, the whole truth will come out but the question is does he have the courage and integrity to own up to it.