Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was a deserter, not a hero, and "soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down," a former fellow infantry officer who served in Bergdahl's battalion in Afghanistan says, adding that Bergdahl should be held responsible for the pain and suffering he caused.
"He has much to answer for, some of which is far more damning than simply having walked off. Many have suffered because of his actions: his fellow soldiers, their families, his family, the Afghan military, the unaffiliated Afghan civilians in Paktika, and none of this suffering was inevitable," former infantry officer Nathan Bradley Bethea wrote in a first-person piece for The Daily Beast.
"None of it had to happen."
On June 25, 2009, the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, had suffered its first fatality with the loss of 1st Lt. Brian Bradshaw, Bethea recalled. Five days later, he learned a soldier from the unit was missing.
The night before, Bergdahl had pulled guard duty at OP Mest, an outpost south of Sharana, Bethea wrote. The base was like a circle of armed vehicles, and the guard tower sat on a hill above it. Soldiers slept in tents or in the vehicles.
"The next morning, Bergdahl failed to show for the morning roll call," Bethea said. "The soldiers in 2nd Platoon, Blackfoot Company, discovered his rifle, helmet, body armor, and web gear in a neat stack. He had, however, taken his compass. His fellow soldiers later mentioned his stated desire to walk from Afghanistan to India."
While it was later written that Bergdahl may have been lagging behind on a patrol, Bethea said there was no patrol that night.
Throughout the remainder of that summer, Bethea joined other members of their unit and others in the search for Bergdahl. Daily search missions were conducted across the entire Afghan theater of operations, Bethea said.
"The combat platoons in our battalion spent the next month on daily helicopter-insertion search missions (called 'air assaults') trying to scour villages for signs of him," he wrote. "Each operation would send multiple platoons and every enabler available in pursuit: radio intercept teams, military working dogs, professional anthropologists used as intelligence-gathering teams, Afghan sources in disguise."
The units would be out for at least 24 hours, with some on the mission for 10 days at a stretch in July temperatures soaring over 100 degrees.
"These cobbled-together units' task was to search villages one after another," Bethea recalled. "It was hot, dirty, and dangerous work" that enraged civilians and derailed other operations.
"At every juncture, I remember the soldiers involved asking why we were burning so much gasoline trying to find a guy who had abandoned his unit in the first place," Bethea said.
On July 4, 2009, the joint U.S.-Afghan outpost at Zerok, the domain of Bethea's unit's sister infantry battalion, was attacked, with two Americans killed: Pfc. Aaron Fairbairn and Pfc. Justin Casillas.
"One of my close friends was the company executive officer for the unit at Zerok," said Bethea. "He is a mild-mannered and generous guy, not the kind of person prone to fits of pique or rage. But, in his opinion, the attack would not have happened had his company received its normal complement of intelligence aircraft: drones, planes, and the like. Instead, every intelligence aircraft available in theater had received new instructions: find Bergdahl. My friend blames Bergdahl for his soldiers' deaths."
On Aug. 18, an IED killed Pfc. Morris Walker and Staff Sgt. Clayton Bowen during a reconnaissance mission, Bethea writes, and on Aug. 26, conducting a search for a Taliban shadow sub-governor believed affiliated with Bergdahl’s captors, Staff Sgt. Kurt Curtiss was shot in the face and killed.
On Sept. 4, during a patrol to a village near the area in which Bergdahl vanished, an insurgent ambush killed 2nd Lt. Darryn Andrews and wounded Pfc. Matthew Martinek, who died a week later. And on Sept. 5, while nearing a village thought affiliated with Bergdahl's captors, Staff Sgt. Michael Mumphrey stepped on a land mine and died the next day.
Another soldier who walked away from his unit, Charles Robert Jenkins, who defected to North Korea in 1965, was brought home after 40 years of internment. He was still court-martialed, writes Bethea, a fate he would like to see happen to Bergdahl.
"His desertion barely warranted a comment, but he was not hailed as a hero," Bethea said of Jenkins. "He was met with sympathy and humanity, and he was allowed to live his life, but he had to answer for what he did."
Bethea worries that reprimanding Bergdahl may result in bad press for the Army, and he does not expect the soldier to be punished. He also says Bergdahl is lucky to have survived his captors.
"No human being deserves that treatment, or to face the threat of that treatment every day for nearly five years," said Bethea. "But that certainly doesn't make Bergdahl a hero, and that doesn't mean that the soldiers he left behind have an obligation to forgive him."
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