CORVALLIS, Ore. – Mike Duncan rolled up his pant leg to reveal the scars on his left leg – scars where bullets had entered his thigh and knee while he was serving in Afghanistan in 2009.
Duncan was at the end of his nine-month tour and set to fly home when his Special Forces team learned of an American soldier who had walked off his post and was missing. Instead of returning to the United States as planned, the men were sent to a remote town south of Kabul to gather intelligence on the soldier’s whereabouts.
While patrolling the town, the team was ambushed by Taliban fighters. Duncan took two bullets to his leg and one to his hip, which shattered his communications radio and sprayed battery acid across his stomach. He would later receive a Purple Heart for his injuries.
Duncan had been searching for Bowe Bergdahl, a young Army sergeant who had deserted his base. But although he was shot during the search, Duncan said he doesn’t hate Bergdahl.
“I forgive him now,” the 33-year-old said while sitting on a couch in his Corvallis home earlier this month. “But it was really irritating that I could have been home. I could have been with my new wife at the time. I could have been doing stuff. But no, I was dealing with this crap because of him and his stupid mistake.”
That mistake cost Bergdahl five years in Taliban custody. In 2014, President Barack Obama traded five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo for Bergdahl, bringing him back to the United States. On Nov. 3, a military judge ordered Bergdahl be demoted and dishonorably discharged from the military. He imposed no jail time. Bergdahl had pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
“I’m sure he paid a significant price for his mistake,” Duncan said. “And that’s why I don’t hold it against him.”
‘People at risk’
Duncan grew up an Army brat. He was born at Fort Rucker in Alabama and lived wherever his father’s service took the family. His dad was a pilot with the Army’s Special Operations Aviation Command. He served in Panama and Germany, among other places, Duncan said.
When he was 19, Duncan decided he wanted to join Special Operations as well. He chose nursing and began several years of training before settling at Fort Bragg in North Carolina with his team.
Duncan left for his first Afghanistan deployment in 2007. His team of Green Berets worked primarily in the Kandahar province to help train indigenous soldiers in the Afghan National Army Commando Corps, an elite force of the nation’s Army. Duncan received his first Purple Heart during that deployment after the armored vehicle he was riding in drove over a bomb, which blew up the vehicle. Duncan suffered a traumatic brain injury in the explosion, he said.
A year later, Duncan returned to Afghanistan for his second deployment. His team worked in Kabul to establish a school for the Afghan commandos. On July 1, 2009, Duncan and his team were ready to fly home. They had already packed their bags, which had been inspected and banded by customs. But then they got word about Bergdahl, who had gone missing the day before from an outpost in the Paktika province south of where Duncan’s team was.
Duncan’s superiors decided to send his team to an outpost for Bergdahl’s unit, the 25th Infantry Division, to help in the search for the missing soldier.
“There were no instructions,” Duncan said. “We did not know what we were getting ourselves into.”
While at the outpost, he and his 12 team members asked around, trying to find out more about Bergdahl.
“There was a lot of vague ambiguity about what happened to him,” Duncan said.
After a few days there, a Chinook helicopter dropped off Duncan’s team and a platoon of commandos in a rural area of Ghazni. They were tasked with knocking on doors, talking with the local police and visiting the local school. They were seeking out anyone who might have information on Bergdahl.
Under the assumption that Bergdahl had been captured, the soldiers were trying to put pressure on those who had taken him to start talking on their radios, Duncan said. This communication could then be used to track down Bergdahl or the people who took him, he said.
Duncan said his commanders “were putting people there to stir stuff up.”
“I think that’s a pretty logical way of doing it,” he said. “But it put a lot of people at risk, obviously.”
For several nights, Duncan and his team slept in a defunct girls’ school.
After a few days patrolling the area, Duncan and his team visited the bordering towns. They were returning back to the school when they were ambushed in the middle of a field, Duncan said. He took one shot to the leg before dashing behind a building. There had been three commandos with him and two had not followed him, so he stepped from behind the building to wave them over. That’s when he was shot at again.
“The battery acid went all over my stomach and I thought I was on fire,” Duncan said. “I didn’t know what it was. I thought I got shot in the stomach.”
He said he fell to the ground and stayed there, feeling the ammunition from a machine gun fly over his head. Duncan made sure his stomach wasn’t bleeding and wrapped his knee with a bandage. One of the Afghan commandos he was with had started crying. Duncan put his arm around his shoulders and the man helped him walk away from the gunfire. They returned to the team and called for a medevac, which flew Duncan to the Ghazni hospital.
He underwent surgery and then flew to Kabul, where he spent a day before departing for Germany. While on the medevac flight to Germany, Duncan said he met a Navy SEAL, who told him his own legs had been seriously injured by gunfire while searching for Bergdahl.
Duncan flew into Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where he met his parents. Since Duncan is a medical practitioner, he was able to do much of his wound care himself. After spending some time with his parents, he returned to Fort Bragg, where he underwent physical therapy for about a year.
‘A dangerous place’
Though he’s now forgiven Bergdahl, Duncan said he was very angry at first.
“We were held longer than we were supposed to be in country,” Duncan said. “He caused that. That’s where it’s very different. If I’m just walking around a casual outpost and I get shot, yeah, well, that’s expected. Because it’s Afghanistan, it’s a dangerous place. But would we have been there? No. Should we have been there? No. It was all because of Bergdahl specifically doing that.”
The exact circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance are unclear. Duncan said it was the consensus among the command of the 25th Infantry Division that he had left on his own volition. Some alleged he was drunk. Bergdahl has publicly said he intended to leave his remote post and walk to a larger base in order to inform commanders of what he saw as problems with his unit.
To an extent, Duncan chalks up Bergdahl’s mistake to his youth. Bergdahl was 23 years old when he deserted his outpost.
“We all make mistakes in life when we’re young,” he said. “We think we’re going to be invincible and we get some stupid ideas sometimes.”
But Bergdahl went too far, Duncan said. If this was any other time in military history, Bergdahl probably would have been shot for what happened, he said.
“Luckily, that’s not the case and we can all be understanding and grown up about that,” Duncan said.
He doesn’t think politicians should be using the Bergdahl case to advance their platforms. During his campaign for president, Donald Trump repeatedly called Bergdahl a “traitor” who deserved to be shot. Prior to sentencing, Bergdahl’s defense team argued that comments made by Trump, who is now commander in chief, had tainted the case.
“I really don’t like people using this as some kind of political fodder for themselves,” Duncan said. “. They weren’t there. They didn’t take a bullet for Bergdahl. They don’t give a s—t about people like me . They just want to use us for their political agenda.”
Following Bergdahl’s sentencing, Trump posted on Twitter, “The decision on Sergeant Bergdahl is a complete and total disgrace to our Country and to our Military.”
Duncan said it was the right thing for the government to bring Bergdahl home.
“Because he’s an American citizen,” he said. “That’s what we should do.”
Bergdahl could have been sentenced to life in prison for the charge of misbehavior before the enemy, which was levied against him for endangering his comrades by leaving. However, an Army judge at Fort Bragg imposed no time behind bars, considering the leniency factors of Bergdahl’s five years of captivity by the Taliban, as well as Trump’s remarks.
At the start of the sentencing hearing, Bergdahl apologized to the military personnel who were wounded while searching for him.
“I would like everyone who searched for me to know it was never my intention for anyone to be hurt, and I never expected that to happen,” he said. “My words alone can’t take away their pain.”
Retired Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer James Hatch testified at the sentencing hearing. He said he’s undergone 18 surgeries after being injured while searching for Bergdahl. The wife of National Guard Master Sgt. Mark Allen, who was wounded on a mission to gather information about Bergdahl, also testified. Allen suffered a traumatic brain injury and now uses a wheelchair, is unable to speak and needs help with everyday tasks, his wife testified.
Many other soldiers described the exhaustive search for Bergdahl in the weeks following his disappearance. Duncan said he was not asked to testify at the sentencing.
“The soldiers who were hurt, who hate him, they’re right to be mad,” Duncan said. “They have every right because they gave up something for him, so that’s completely reasonable. But anybody else, they had no stock in it.”
Duncan said he’s not upset about the lenient sentence Bergdahl received. He just wants Bergdahl to own up to the mistake he made and be grateful he’s alive. But Duncan said, he hopes Bergdahl isn’t considered a victim or some kind of war hero.
About a year after returning from his second tour in Afghanistan, Duncan was honorably discharged from active duty. He got a job at a medical device firm making tourniquets for the Army, but he didn’t find the work fulfilling and he wanted to return to Afghanistan.
“I love it there,” he said. “I missed my friends, my Afghan friends.”
He returned to Afghanistan as a private contractor with Fluor Corp. doing work with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But he didn’t like that job very well either. Through a friend of a friend, he heard about the Pony Express, a group of contractors who truck the mail through Afghanistan to United States bases. He joined them for nine months, living on a compound near Kabul and delivering mail to Jalalabad, Shank, Ghazni and other areas.
But he had a wife and young daughter at home, so eventually it was time to return to the United States. He had previously completed the nursing program at Fort Lewis in Washington State and liked the Northwest. So he moved to Oregon to complete a masters in physician assistant studies at Pacific University. He graduated in October 2016 and works as a physician assistant with Samaritan Health Services.
Duncan said he continued to serve with the Army National Guard Special Forces until 2016.
He said returning to Afghanistan in a separate capacity than the military helped dissolve his anger for Bergdahl.
“My thought process on the entire war changed, and I think that’s why I could forgive him,” Duncan said. “Because I realized that the war had good intentions.”
“We believed – well, I believed – in Afghanistan,” he added. “I believe in the people. That’s why I was there. I wanted to make a better country for them.”