WASHINGTON — 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, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl may not receive a hero’s welcome from everyone when he returns to the United States after nearly five years in Taliban captivity.
Reports Monday from various news outlets quoted servicemen questioning the cost of bringing home the soldier whose circumstances surrounding capture remain elusive. In addition to the five Taliban members traded to earn his release, at least six soldiers may have lost their lives in attempts to locate Bergdahl, including a Murray, Utah man who was killed in 2009.
Staff Sergeant Kurt Curtiss, 27, of Murray, Utah, died Aug. 26 in Paktika Province, Afghanistan. He was part of the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division and was killed as he helped evacuate a hospital under fire.
Time.com named Curtiss and five others from the unit that may have lost their lives in the months following Bergdahl's disappearance. CNN.com also reported the names of servicemen, including Curtiss, who died in connection with the ongoing search, noting patterns of behavior involved in the search made servicemen vulnerable to attack.
Attempts to reach Curtiss's family Monday were unsuccessful.
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’ve been identified as being killed in circumstances related to the search for Bergdahl was furious over the opaque handling of the case, telling the 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 commenters 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 before an audience of U.S. service members who undoubtedly have seen the debate swirling around the case.
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.
“Hagel hopped up on stage saying, ‘Oh, it’s a great day. We got him back.’ Crickets. Crickets,” 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.
Wellman said his advice to defense officials would be to acknowledge the concerns of the enlisted ranks and veterans, to explain that there’s a plan to deal with the legal implications, and to stress that the most important focus now is restoring Bergdahl to health and reuniting him with his family in Idaho after nearly five years in the hands of a brutal enemy of the United States.
“They’re really underestimating the fury over this,” Wellman said. “It’s a tidal wave of anger.”
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. “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.”
O’Neill said she hasn’t had any cancellations from those slated to perform, including singer Carole King and Travis Hardy Band. Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, also are expected to attend.
“I think the event is growing, as opposed to diminishing, through all of this,” said O’Neill, a stay-at-home mother of two who estimates she’s done 70 interviews with local, national and international media over the past two days.
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.
“Men and women were diverted by the thousands,” he said. “Every soldier who was in the province where he was deployed was told to stop what they were doing and to look for him. It went on for at least weeks. We were receiving a lot of conflicting information about whether he was over the border or not.”
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 and damaging to the age-old ethos of never leaving a service member behind. Like him or not, the more muted camp said, Bergdahl was captured by the enemy, endured untold hardships, and must first be repatriated and rehabilitated before it’s appropriate to discuss punitive action.
Time.com noted the others that died in connection to the search: Staff Sergeant Clayton Bowen, 29, of San Antonio, Texas; 2nd Lieutenant Darryn Andrews, 34, of Dallas, Texas; Staff Sergeant Michael Murphrey, 25, of Snyder, Texas; Private 1st Class Matthew Martinek, 20, of DeKalb, Ill.; Staff Sergeant Michael Murphrey, 25, of Snyder, Texas,
(Contributing to this report were James Rosen and Lindsay Wise from Washington and Katy Moeller of the Idaho Statesman from Boise.)