Words by Bridget Foster.
A furor over the release of five Taliban soldiers in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has gone from questioning the swap itself to questioning whether Bergdahl should be tried as a deserter instead of being treated as a hero. Captured by the Taliban in 2009, Bergdahl was released to US Special Forces on Saturday in exchange for the release of the Taliban operatives that were being held at Guantanamo.
The initial controversy focused on accusations from law makers that the Obama administration had put American lives at jeopardy by negotiating with terrorists and had violated constitutional law for failing to provide Congress with 30 days’ notice of the impending release of prisoners. As news of the swap made its way through the headlines, stories began to emerge about the legitimacy of Bergdahl’s status as a captive or POW. If designated as such, Bergdahl could receive as much as $300,000 in back pay and special compensation.
Numerous news stories have reported that some of Bergdahl’s former unit members are alleging that he willingly deserted his combat unit in June of 2009 before he was captured by Taliban forces, and that at least six soldiers in his unit were killed while allegedly on missions to find him. This claim is described in detail in an article written for the Daily Beast by Nathan Bethea, who wrote that he served in the same unit with Bergdahl in 2009. Bethea writes that the morning Bergdahl failed to show for roll call, unit members found his gear, weapon and helmet in a neat stack inside his tent. A video released by the Taliban in 2009 shows Bergdahl making the statement [at 1:56 in video] that he was captured while “lagging behind on patrol”, a claim that Bethea disputes in his article, writing that his unit was not on patrol the night Bergdahl went missing. In fact, controversy swirled in 2009 with conflicting reports surrounding the circumstances of his capture.
Army Secretary John McHugh, along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, released a statement saying that the Army has yet to determine whether Bergdahl deserted his unit. On his Facebook page, Gen. Dempsey responded to critics of the swap and the allegations of desertion by stating that questions about his [Bergdahl’s] conduct is “separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity…our Army leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred.”
A celebration of his release planned by Bergdahl’s hometown of Hailey, Idaho, was cancelled after officials cited concerns with managing the number of people, both for and against Bergdahl, expected to attend. The small town has held annual celebrations in honor of the soldier every year since his capture. Hailey’s Chamber of Commerce President, Jane Drussell, said the organization has been swamped with hate mail and angry phone calls about Bergdahl.
Critics of Bergdahl have gone so far as to start a petition accusing him of desertion and being absent without leave, both violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Desertion might be hard to prove, since the UCMJ has very strict criteria that must be met. Military prosecutors would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Bergdahl “quit his unit with an intent to remain absent permanently.” An AWOL (Absent Without Leave) conviction requires proof that a soldier left his post without permission. That may be just as difficult to prove since prosecutors would have to interview members of Bergdahl’s unit about circumstances that took place five years ago.
In any event, President Obama said the United States has a “basic principle” that it doesn’t leave any soldier behind on the battlefield. “We saw an opportunity and we seized it and I make no apologies for that.”Where do you stand? Should Bergdahl receive a hero’s welcome or should he be prosecuted?