Held by the Taliban since 2009, evidence suggests that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl might have willingly walked away.
But if he is released, will America’s only prisoner of the Afghan war be viewed as a hero or a deserter?
While tattered yellow ribbons still adorn utility poles in his native Hailey, Idaho, others are expressing conflicting thoughts about Bergdahl’s plight as the war winds down, with President Obama threatening to withdraw all U.S. troops by year’s end unless the Afghan government signs a crucial security agreement.
They are convinced that on June 30, 2009, just a few months after he arrived in Afghanistan, Bergdahl willingly walked away from his unit, which was deployed in Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan, adjacent to the border with Pakistan. While they do want Bergdahl home, they think he should have to answer allegations that he deserted his unit.
Bergdahl was last seen in a video the Taliban released in December.
In the past two years, billboards with Bergdahl’s face have popped up in major cities. One shows a smiling Bergdahl, in an Army uniform, with the message: “He fought for us. … Let’s fight for him!”
A transcript of radio intercepts, publicly released through WikiLeaks, indicates that Bergdahl, then 23, was captured while sitting in a makeshift latrine.
“We were attacking the post he was sitting,” according to a radio intercept of a conversation among insurgents. “He had no gun with him. … They have all [the] Americans, ANA [Afghan National Army], helicopters, the planes are looking for him. Can you guys make a video of him and announce it all over Afghanistan that we have one of the Americans?”
Loss of faith
Rolling Stone magazine quoted e-mails that Bergdahl is said to have sent to his parents that suggest he was disillusioned with America’s mission in Afghanistan, had lost faith in the U.S. Army’s mission there and was considering desertion.
Bergdahl told his parents he was “ashamed to even be American.” Bergdahl, who mailed home boxes containing his uniform and books, also wrote: “The future is too good to waste on lies. 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.”
The Associated Press could not independently authenticate the e-mails published by the magazine in 2012. Bergdahl’s family has not commented on the allegations of desertion, according to Col. Tim Marsano, a spokesman for the Idaho National Guard. Marsano is in regular contact with Bergdahl’s mother, Jani, and father, Bob, who has grown a long, thick beard and has worked to learn Pashto, the language spoken by his son’s captors.
A senior Defense Department official said that if Bergdahl is released, it could be determined that he has more than paid for leaving his unit — if that’s what really happened — “and there’s every indicator that he did.”
Still, it’s a conundrum for commanders under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the equal application of the law, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the Bergdahl case.
Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, said if there is evidence that Bergdahl left his unit without permission, he could be charged with being absent without leave (AWOL) or with desertion.
Desertion during a time of war can carry the death penalty. But Congress never passed a declaration of war with respect to Afghanistan, and neither President George W. Bush nor President Obama has determined that U.S. military operations in Afghanistan make this a “time of war” for the purposes of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Fidell said.