Nation & World

‘Tidal wave of anger’ erupts over POW: Was he a deserter?

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, in an Army photograph taken before his five-year captivity by the Taliban, which ended in a prisoner swap over the weekend.
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, in an Army photograph taken before his five-year captivity by the Taliban, which ended in a prisoner swap over the weekend. Associated Press

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 have 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.

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.

“They’re really underestimating the fury over this. It’s a tidal wave of anger,” 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.

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. Bergdahl remained Monday at a U.S. military hospital in Germany in stable condition.

“For now, we’re going to keep the politics out of Hailey and focus on the news that Bowe was found, and he his safe,” said Stefanie O’Neill, a co-organizer of the group “Bring Bowe Back,” now renamed “Bowe is Back.”

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.

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.

“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.

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.

“There’s a dramatic set of pushes and pulls in this, such as whether lives were lost in this,” said Eugene R. Fidell, an expert on the Uniform Code of Military Justice who teaches at Yale Law School. “If it turns out to be not ‘Saving Private Ryan’ but ‘Saving Private Ryan who was a deserter,’ that’s a little different.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.