The release of the last American prisoner of war in Afghanistan has reopened the mystery of how he was captured -- and whether he’s a patriot or a deserter.
Even before Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl arrives home in the U.S. after almost five years in captivity, scores of soldiers, veterans and others have lit up social media with postings denouncing the former prisoner for allegedly abandoning his unit.
The U.S. Army has never described the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance from a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan or his capture by terrorists. An online petition drive that has more than 5,600 digital signatures calls on the Obama administration to punish Bergdahl for going AWOL, or absent without leave.
“He’s at best a deserter and at worst a traitor,” Josh Korder, who said he served with Bergdahl in Afghanistan, told CNN yesterday. “Any of us would have died for him. For him to just leave us like that, it was a very big betrayal.”
President Barack Obama said during a visit to Warsaw today that Bergdahl would have been returned home “regardless of the circumstances” of his capture.
“Whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period,” Obama told reporters during a news conference. “That’s what every mom and dad who sees a son or daughter sent over into war theater should expect not just from their commander in chief but from the United States of America.”
‘Not Look Away’
U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a statement today that “the questions about this particular soldier’s conduct are separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity. This was likely the last, best opportunity to free him.”
Dempsey said that “our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred” and that “we’ll learn the facts” when Bergdahl is able to provide them.
The Army previously produced a report on the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance, which remains classified, Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters today. Warren corrected his comment yesterday that only a preliminary investigation had been done.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel hasn’t seen the Army report or been briefed on it, according to Rear Admiral John Kirby, also a Pentagon spokesman.
Bergdahl, 28, an Idaho man who was captured in 2009 and released on May 31, is in stable condition at the Army medical center in Landstuhl, Germany, Warren said.
“He has nutrition issues,” Warren said, without elaborating. Hagel has said Bergdahl’s health was deteriorating in captivity, adding urgency to efforts to reach a deal for his freedom.
Questions about Bergdahl’s loyalty were raised two years ago, when Rolling Stone magazine obtained e-mail messages it said were sent by the soldier to his parents describing his disillusionment with the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.
“I am sorry for everything,” he wrote, according to the magazine. “The horror that is America is disgusting.”
While Obama and Pentagon officials have avoided portraying Bergdahl as a hero even as they welcomed his freedom, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, said over the weekend that “he served the United States with honor and distinction.”
Asked yesterday whether Bergdahl served with honor and distinction, White House press secretary Jay Carney referred the matter to the Defense Department.
Nathan Bradley Bethea, who served in Bergdahl’s battalion in Afghanistan, wrote on the Daily Beast website yesterday that “Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.”
Since Bergdahl’s release on May 31, Republican lawmakers have stepped up their attacks on the Obama administration, saying it negotiated with terrorists and failed to give Congress the legally required 30-day notification of the deal that freed the American soldier in return for the release of five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
“I fear President Obama’s decision will inevitably lead to more Americans being kidnapped and held hostage throughout the world,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said in a letter yesterday asking the Senate Armed Services Committee to hold a hearing on the prisoner swap. The panel scheduled a closed-door briefing for June 10.
The prisoner exchange, brokered by Qatar, requires the five men to remain in that country for a year. Rice said in the interview June 1 on ABC that the agreement places “restrictions on their movement and behavior” in Qatar, while she declined to discuss details.
Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House intelligence committee, said the freed Taliban prisoners are likely to return to Afghanistan before the final U.S. troops depart by the end of 2016.
“They’re going to get a nice healthy shot at American troops,” Rogers, a Michigan Republican, said yesterday at a Bloomberg Government breakfast. “They’re going to want to taste blood as bad as anybody.”
Similar agreements with other governments that have taken prisoners have “been an absolute disaster,” he said.
“We have lost people in these countries within weeks -- weeks -- of them getting back,” he said of other freed prisoners.
Hagel said June 1 on NBC that prisoner exchanges are a standard practice of warfare, and the Bergdahl deal won’t “somehow encourage terrorists to take our American servicemen prisoner or hostage.”
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