Army sergeant: Deserter or traitor?

By Garth Kant

U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

WASHINGTON – The hot question of the day had been whether the captured soldier traded for five top members of the Taliban was a war-time deserter.

But, suddenly, there’s reason to wonder whether U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was actually something much worse: a traitor who helped the Taliban kill Americans.

The prisoner exchange made over the weekend put a dramatic new twist on a story published almost four years ago in a British paper that claimed Bergdahl was not only collaborating with the Taliban, he was helping the jihadis kill Americans.

On Aug. 22, 2010, the Sunday Times of London reported the Taliban claimed Bergdahl had converted to Islam and taught jihadi fighters how to make bombs and ambush convoys.

Bergdahl, a private at the time, disappeared from an American military base in southeastern Afghanistan in June 2009. (He was promoted to sergeant during his captivity.)

A Taliban commander calling himself Haji Nadeem told the paper, “When I saw him for the second time, he had totally changed. He had a beard and he treated all of us very respectfully. He seemed very relaxed in our company. He was no longer scared.”

Nadeem told the Times that Bergdahl taught him basic ambush techniques and how to turn a cell phone into a remote control for a roadside bomb.

At the time, Afghan intelligence officials also believed Bergdahl was “cooperating with the Taliban” and advising fighters at a base in Pakistan.

Now some are wondering whether it wasn’t a setup – whether Bergdahl defected and then agreed to the prisoner exchange to free the five top Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.

A flood of recent revelations have many questioning the soldiers loyalty and whether he was really captured, or whether he deserted.

A soldier who served with Bergdahl claimed not only was he a deserter, but the entire Afghanistan mission was derailed and soldiers died while looking for him.

And the administration is suddenly facing tough questions about the prisoner swap it claimed was too urgent to consult with Congress, as is required by law, and whether the administration may have traded a deserter, possibly a traitor, for what Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., once called “the five biggest murderers in world history.”

President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, tried to deflect those concerns during an ABC News interview, saying the soldier “served the United States with honor and distinction.”

Taliban fighters

She did appear to acknowledge a major problem may be looming, adding, “And we’ll have the opportunity eventually to learn what has transpired in the past years, but what’s most important now is his health and well being, that he have the opportunity to recover in peace and security and be reunited with his family.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also sidestepped the topic of the soldier’s loyalty, saying, “Our first priority is assuring his well-being and his health and getting him reunited with his family.” Hagel added, “Other circumstances that may develop and questions, those will be dealt with later.”

Allegations against Bergdahl include:

  • He sneaked off the post – he did not lag behind in a patrol.
  • He planned his desertion and gave warnings he would leave.
  • He said, “If this deployment is lame, I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan.”
  • Soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.
  • Soldiers blame Bergdahl for deaths of other soldiers who tried to rescue him.
  • The search for Bergdahl put many soldiers in greater danger, and they came under more attacks.
  • Daily search missions were held for weeks across the entire Afghanistan theater of operations.
  • Villages were scoured with every resource the military could muster.
  • The searches enraged the locals and derailed counterinsurgency operations.
  • U.S. troops were infuriated by “hard, dirty and dangerous” searches for what they considered a deserter.
  • Bergdahl blamed America for his problems.
  • He called America “the most conceited country in the world.”
  • Bergdahl said, “I am ashamed to be an American.”
  • He said, “The horror that is America is disgusting.”
  • Bergdahl complained about fellow soldiers and called his battalion commander a “conceited old fool.”
  • Bergdahl taught his captors how to play badminton and invited them to celebrate Easter and Christmas with him.
  • He is speaking Pashto, and it is not clear if he can still speak English.

According to a story in the Daily Beast written by Nathan Bradley Bethea, one of his fellow soldiers, “Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.”

Bethea wrote that one morning, Bergdahl simply failed to show for the morning roll call.

“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.”

The soldier wrote that Bergdahl did not “‘lag behind on a patrol,’ as was cited in news reports at the time. There was no patrol that night.”

Rather, Bethea said, Bergdahl was “relieved from guard duty, and instead of going to sleep, he fled the outpost on foot. He deserted.”

The soldiers said his comrade’s disappearance translated into daily search missions across the entire Afghanistan theater of operations, “particularly ours.”

“It was hard, dirty and dangerous work. The searches enraged the local civilian population and derailed the counterinsurgency operations taking place at the time.”

Bethea said his friends blamed Bergdahl for the deaths of five solders killed while looking for him.

Comments on the Facebook page for Bergdahl’s brigade in Fort Richardson, Alaska, were not welcoming.

  • “I say we welcome him home with a firing squad.”
  • “He’s a piece of trash and everyone from [Fort Richardson] knows it. The only person less American than that man is the president for giving up 5 HVTs [High-Value Targets].
  • “Now he can stand trial for deserting his post.”
  • “Do you know how many families never saw their loved ones because of him?”
  • “I feel worse for the kids who have to grow up fatherless cause their daddies died looking for this punk.”

Interviews with Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers in a Rolling Stone story in 2012 indicated the soldier planned to desert his unit, the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment.

501st Parachute Infantry Regimen insignia

The solider reportedly approached his team leader not long after he was relieved from guard duty and asked: “If I were to leave the base, would it cause problems if I took my sensitive equipment?”

The team leader said if he took his rifle and night-vision goggles, that would cause problems.

Bergdahl then “returned to his barracks, a roughly built bunker of plywood and sandbags. He gathered up water, a knife, his digital camera and his diary. Then he slipped off the outpost.”

The article also paints the soldier as extremely demoralized, emailing his father:

  • “I am ashamed to be an American. And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools.”
  • “I am sorry for everything. The horror that is America is disgusting.”
  • “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid.”
  • “If this deployment is lame, I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan.”

His father replied: “OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE!”

Bergdahl also complained about fellow soldiers, calling the battalion commander a “conceited old fool.”

A Pakistani militant commander told Western reporters that Bergdahl taught his captors how to play badminton and inviting them to celebrate Easter and Christmas with them.

The soldier is reportedly having a tough time remembering how to speak English. His father, Bob Bergdahl, spoke the Afghan language of Pashto to his son before television cameras at the White House.

Bergdahl was the only prisoner of war in the Afghan theater of operations. He spent five years in Taliban custody.

Taliban leader Mullah Omar declared the release of the top five Taliban commanders from Guantanamo a “great victory” for the mujahideen of Afghanistan.

All five are said to be still revered in jihadist circles and had been deemed “high” risks to the U.S. and its allies by the Joint Task Force-Guantanamo.

Two of the five had been wanted by the United Nations for war crimes.

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