This should be a triumphant moment.
An American soldier, held captive for five years in Afghanistan, is making his way home. Six other soldiers have died in attempts trying to recover him. For five years, his parents waited, with scant updates, knowing their son was the only American prisoner of the Afghanistan war. And he’ll be coming home in the wake of the news that United States will withdraw completely from the region in 2016, signaling that this chapter of American history is coming to an end.
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured in 2009, is now in the care of the U.S. military in Germany, and is being evaluated and treated before returning home. This is the result of a prisoner swap — five Afghan Taliban detainees at Guantanamo will be released. According to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, there were reports Bergdahl was in bad health, which spurred the diplomatic efforts to get him home.
“As president, I know that I speak for all Americans when I say we cannot wait for the moment when you are reunited and your son, Bowe, is back in your arms,” President Obama said Saturday, flanked by Bergdahl’s parents, when he announced the deal.
But not everyone is sharing in the triumphant feeling.
Aside from congressional Republicans calling the prisoner swap foolish (including Sen. John McCain, who was a prisoner of war himself) for national security reasons, a vocal contingent of the military community is calling Bergdahl a traitor and a deserter. “I was pissed off then and I am even more so now with everything going on,” Sgt. Matt Vierkant, one of Bergdahl’s platoon mates, told CNN’s Jake Tapper recently, and that sentiment is echoed on the Facebook group “Bowe Bergdahl is NOT a Hero!”
So what happened?
In June 2009, Bergdahl is said to have walked off from his platoon while on guard duty, going absent without leave, or AWOL. Before he left, he asked a superior if it would cause problems if he left the base with his equipment (which, in retrospect, makes his intentions to leave seem clear). The Army sent out search teams for him in the following weeks, and in the course of those operations, six died (according to army personnel accounts; the pentagon disputes that claim). Nathan Bradley Bethea, a soldier involved in the operations to retrieve him, illustrates the disruption these rescue missions caused in The Daily Beast.
His disappearance translated into daily search missions across the entire Afghanistan theater of operations, particularly ours. The combat platoons in our battalion spent the next month on daily helicopter-insertion search missions (called “air assaults”) trying to scour villages for signs of him. Each operations would send multiple platoons and every enabler available in pursuit: radio intercept teams, military working dogs, professional anthropologists used as intelligence gathering teams, Afghan sources in disguise. They would be out for at least 24 hours. I know of some who were on mission for 10 days at a stretch. In July, the temperature was well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit each day.
A month after his disappearance, the Taliban released a video in which Bergdahl confirmed his capture.
According to emails written to his parents excerpted in a 2012 Rolling Stone feature on Bergdahl’s capture, Bergdahl was growing disillusioned with the U.S. military effort in the region.
“The future is too good to waste on lies,” Bowe wrote. “And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be american. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting.”
“I am sorry for everything here,” Bowe told his parents. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.”
The story lines here are conflicting and they are all emotional. If he actually did walk off base, Bergdahl made a mistake that would have been punished appropriately by the Army. But he’s suffered for five years in captivity (he’s said to have lost his command of English). The political side of the story is also dichotomous. Obama has made promises to both draw down the war in Afghanistan and slowly empty out the Guantanamo Bay prison, but it’s clear that releases like this one will not be politically easy. Does this signal to America’s enemies that there is a redeemable price for American soldiers? Or is it just the reality that detainees will have to be dealt with, sometimes for diplomatic gains?
The Rolling Stone profile suggests Bergdahl left due to the psychological pressures of war: “Bowe’s own tour of duty in Afghanistan mirrored the larger American experience in the war — marked by tragedy, confusion, misplaced idealism, deluded thinking and, perhaps, a moment of insanity.” Bergdahl is unlikely to face punishment for leaving his post in 2009. “Five years is enough,” an unnamed defense official told CNN.
We’ll have to hear his side of it, which seeing the media attention paid to his parents, will likely come. And we’ll hear more of the political repercussions as well: Republicans are calling for hearings on the Obama administration’s actions.