June 3, 2014 in Nation/World

Bergdahl story stirs anger, accusations

Hannah Allam And Jonathan S. Landay McClatchy-Tribune
 
Associated Press photo

Jani and Bob Bergdahl speak to the media during a news conference at Gowen Field in Boise on Sunday. Their son, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, is back in American hands, freed for five Guantanamo terrorism detainees.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

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, 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 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.

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 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. 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 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.

Other veterans 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.

“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.

Eugene Fidell, an expert on the Uniform Code of Military Justice who teaches at Yale Law School, said it’s important to remember that it’s “completely discretionary” as to whether commanders decide to prosecute a violation.

An initial report, Fidell said, would be followed by a series of steps that determine how a case will proceed, such as whether it’s handled administratively without involving courts or is sent all the way to a general court-martial. Fidell notes that Bergdahl almost certainly “has something to trade” – five years of up-close observation of the Taliban, one of the world’s most persistent militant groups. And a hypothetical defense team would be sure to argue that Bergdahl already has suffered enough after five years as an apparent hostage.

“There’s a dramatic set of pushes and pulls in this, such as whether lives were lost in this,” Fidell said. “If it turns out to be not ‘Saving Private Ryan’ but ‘Saving Private Ryan who was a deserter,’ that’s a little different.”

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