Amid the joyous greetings meeting Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the last Prisoner of War from Afghanistan, Americans should question the real cost of his return. While some see Bergdahl as a national hero, men who served with him have called him a traitor.
How Bergdahl got into the hands of the Taliban is not exactly clear. Stories range from his being kidnapped from a latrine to walking off by choice. First-hand accounts from soldiers in his platoon are now leaking into the media for the first time since Bergdahl’s disappearance from his guard post on June 30, 2009.
“I was [upset] then….[and] even more…now with everything going on,” said former Sgt. Matt Vierkant, a soldier in Bergdahl’s platoon. “[He] deserted during [wartime], and…Americans lost their lives searching for him.”
While Bergdahl’s squad leader Greg Leatherman said he was “pleased to see him return safely,” he added that after Bergdahl regains his health, “an investigation should take place.” Though, some believe five years in Taliban captivity is punishment enough.
On a Facebook page condemning Bergdahl as a deserter, dissenting users voiced their responses. One comment read, “I challenge [anyone] who [labels] him a traitor to spend 5 years in captivity with the Taliban…Whatever his intent when he walked away or was captured, he has… paid for it.”
It seems impossible that Bergdahl could truly pay the cost of his return to America. A number of his fellow soldiers including seven individuals on his squad and the some in the larger 25th Infantry Division, signed nondisclosure papers agreeing to remain silent on Bergdahl’s disappearance and the missions used to locate him.
Many are now breaking that silence in defense of the men who lost their lives looking for someone they believe willfully walked away. Former Pfc. Jose Bagget, 27, of Illinois, said he was close friends with two men who died in the effort to find Bergdahl. He said, “[No one] knows if…he’s a traitor or he was kidnapped. What I…know is, he was there to protect us, and [he] instead…decided to defer from America and…do his own thing.”
To echo Bagget’s words, it does not matter whether Bergdahl intended to leave his post or not. What does count is the cost of both his disappearance and his return.
When Bergdahl went missing, the entire province of Paktika went under lock down looking for him, according to a soldier from the 509th regiment, a sister regiment to Bergdahl’s. On top of halting normal military activity, troops were forced to repeatedly move in dangerous areas.
A member of Bergdahl’s squad who goes only by “Cody” spoke about that vulnerability caused by repeat missions. “A huge thing in-country is [to] not [build] patterns,’ he said. “While searching for him, ambushes and IEDs [tremendously] picked up. [The] enemy knew we would be coming.”
August 18, 2009 Pfc. Morris Walker and Staff Sgt. Clayton Bowen, while looking for Bergdahl, were killed by an IED. Staff Sgt. Kurt Curtiss died on August 26. Pfc. Matthew Michael Martinek and 2nd Lt. Darryn Andrews were killed September 4 in an attack on the district of Yahya Khail. An IED killed Staff Sgt. Michael Murphrey September 5.
If Bergdahl did not desert but was kidnapped, a fact widely disputed, then the death of these six men cannot be his responsibility. However, his return could cost even more American lives. To recover Bergdahl from the terrorist group, the Obama administration traded five known Taliban members from the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp.
The five prisoners returned to Qatar Saturday were not selected by the United States but rather by the Taliban itself. The group includes former Taliban deputy minister of intelligence Abdul Haq Wasiq, who according to an internal GITMO memo, had “direct access to Taliban…leadership.” Wasiq has also been accused by Human Rights Watch of mass murders and torture.
Second on the list is Mullah Norullah Noori, described in a GITMO report as a military expert who participated in attacks “against the US…in [the] Zabul Province.” Among those also who stepped into freedom Saturday was former Taliban deputy defense minister Mullah Mohammad Fazi, who according to a GITMO report would “likely rejoin…and establish ties” with terrorist organizations.
The last two men released to ensure Bergdahl’s return were Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, a Taliban representative who worked with Iranian officials against US forces and Mohammad Nabi Omari, a senior Taliban member who secured the group’s borders.
Qatari officials have promised the United States that the men released will not engage in future terrorist acts, but CNN correspondent Richard Quest said officials have said “absolutely nothing” about how this promise will be kept.
Whether the soldier in question deserted his platoon no longer matters. The cost of Bowe Bergdahl’s disappearance in 2009 was six American lives, and the release of five high-profile Taliban leaders is what America paid and will be paying for his return.
Opinion by Erin P. Friar