Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who pleaded guilty to charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, will soon face sentencing, bringing him and the Army one step closer to legally resolving the chain of events that started when Sergeant Bergdahl walked away from his unit in Afghanistan in 2009. He was captured and held as a hostage for five years; six soldiers died looking for him, according to some accounts.
Sergeant Bergdahl’s case has faced politicization from both sides of the aisle. Those speaking the loudest publicly about it have overlooked the consequences that his actions had on the unit he abandoned.
Sergeant Bergdahl was assigned to the storied 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, which traces its history to the liberation of France during World War II. Soldiers in this unit are proud to be part of the “1-Geronimo” battalion.
I began my career as a military officer at Fort Meade and served as the public affairs officer for Sergeant Bergdahl’s unit before returning to Maryland to attend graduate school this year. I worked and spoke candidly for six years with soldiers who were deployed with the unit when Sergeant Bergdahl disappeared, and I have read the initial investigation.
The most basic tenet of my job as the unit spokesman was to be knowledgeable on all critical facts pertaining to the brigade. The Bergdahl story was the biggest annual recurring news event reflecting one of our soldiers. Yet, it took months for me to convince a leader to brief me on the facts associated with it. In the days following Sergeant Bergdahl’s desertion, soldiers with knowledge of the facts were forced to sign nondisclosure agreements. The truth about Sergeant Bergdahl was suppressed at the cost of their peace of mind.
Though it was common knowledge inside the unit that Sergeant Bergdahl had deserted, the Army allowed the myth to perpetuate that he might have fallen behind on a patrol. Soldiers who knew the truth were afraid to speak up, out of fear that they would be punished.
When the brigade returned to Afghanistan in late 2011, Sergeant Bergdahl still cast a shadow over the unit. At least one news story openly questioned if part of our mission was to rescue the captive soldier. On that deployment, my office on Forward Operating Base Salerno had its own Bergdahl ghost. Another officer shared how he had kept a bag of party favors in that very room during his previous deployment there, longing to open it for the rescue celebration that the leadership hoped for in 2009.
In late 2014, the Obama administration was reeling from growing national outrage over proof that veterans were dying because of mismanagement at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Word of the Bergdahl rescue conveniently changed the news cycle’s focus. Sergeant Bergdahl was rescued under the pretense that his health was deteriorating to a critical level. He made the trip back to the U.S. on his own feet, and no serious health issues have since been reported.
Sergeant Bergdahl’s return to the U.S. resembled a well-orchestrated public relations campaign, complete with presidential Rose Garden ceremony and National Security Advisor Susan Rice telling ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on June 2, 2014, that Sergeant Bergdahl “served the United States with honor and distinction.” This prompted fury among those who knew the truth.
On the other side of the aisle, a chorus of senior leaders including Sen. John McCain and then presidential candidate Donald Trump denounced the decision to trade five high-level Taliban leaders for one low-ranking deserter. Some critics of Mr. Trump have since expressed concern over his campaign statements that called for Sergeant Bergdahl to be held accountable for those who lost their lives trying to find him. Those critics’ concerns ring political to many who remain affected personally or professionally by Sergeant Bergdahl’s actions.
Those of us who know the truth have been waiting three years now to see what the Army and defense would present at trial. The original investigation into Mr. Bergdahl’s disappearance remains classified. The pending court martial presented an opportunity for the nation to finally hear all the facts, on the record.
Soldiers enforce political policy through the force of arms, yet under rules that limit our participation in the political process. One of the benefits is that the military services avoid much of the political fray in this increasingly polarized nation. Unfortunately, senior decision-makers in both parties politicized the Bergdahl situation from the start.
The power of final disposition lies with a military judge. Regardless of what the military court decides, the Department of Defense owes it to the public, the families of soldiers who lost their lives trying to rescue Sergeant Bergdahl, and those soldiers who have carried his burden since 2009, a full report on his actions in Afghanistan’s Paktika Province on June 30, 2009.
Chase Spears (Cs1718@georgetown.edu) is a U.S. Army captain, currently studying as an Army Advanced Civil Schooling Fellow at Georgetown University. His opinions are his own and do not reflect any official policy or position of the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.