By Jay Kirell
If you’ve never been in the Army, you might be surprised that Bowe Bergdahl’s harshest critics are those who served with him.
Soldiers are supposed to have each other’s backs. They’re a band of brothers, after all. Turning so harshly on one of their own, especially one held captive by the Tailban for half a decade, seems – at the very least – unusual for those not familiar with infantry culture.
For those who are familiar with infantry culture, it’s a wonder this is a debate at all.
You’d have to be an infantryman to fully understand why. Luckily, I happened to be one. So I’ll do my best to use the experience I had as an infantryman on the front lines of Afghanistan to get inside the minds of those in Bowe Bergdahl’s platoon and try to explain why they’re so pissed off.
Here are eight of the biggest reasons:
8. The “served with honor and distinction” comments from Susan Rice.
Those comments pissed off those who served with Bergdhal because they are literally the exact opposite of what he served with. Of all the questions surrounding the Bergdhal disappearance, the question of whether he was taken by force or left the outpost on his own volition is pretty much settled – he walked away. That makes him a deserter and thus, not someone who served with “honor and distinction.” It may seem like a minor point to some, but to those in the infantry, “honor and distinction” is a term usually associated with heroic deeds on the battlefield that either caused death, prevented death or involved it in some way. At the bare minimum “honor and distinction” is just showing up every day and doing what you’re told, whether you feel like it or not.
7. The planned celebration for his homecoming.
The town of Hailey, Idaho announced they were planning a homecoming party for Bowe Bergdahl set for June 28th. Today word came down that the celebration was cancelled. Way back when this story first broke (ie, 36 hours ago), the town wasn’t expecting a backlash against Bergdhal, certainly not from those who served with him. Soldiers from his unit were probably fuming that someone who left them in the middle of the night was being given a hero’s welcome. So many soldiers quietly go about their jobs every day without recognition, let alone honors, and when they see another being given a celebration greater than anything they’ve ever received – for something that shouldn’t be tolerated, let alone celebrated, it’s a slap in the face to all those who did their jobs and saw them through to the end.
6. Bergdahl’s personality.
From all accounts Bowe Bergdahl wasn’t the typical infantryman. He didn’t hang out and go drinking with the guys right before his deployment. He wasn’t the type to make a bunch of friends within his platoon and build bonds beyond what you’d see on the battlefield. He liked to stay in his room and read books and seemed to have a fascination with Afghan people and culture. Every unit has one or two guys who don’t seem to fit in like the rest do, and under normal circumstances, it doesn’t matter much because as long as they show up to work on time, don’t cause trouble for anyone else and do their job, you can deal with the strangeness. But you take a strange guy and then find out he did something wrong, something really wrong, and he gets no benefit of the doubt. If a loveable, friendly, outgoing member of Bergdahl’s platoon had gone missing, those who served with him might view the disappearance differently. But a outsider with few friends who everyone thought was strange before deployment? The conspiracies are apt to run wild since nobody knew him well enough to defend him.
5. Bergdahl’s actions.
Again, from the accounts I’ve read, Bergdahl wrote home to his parents telling him how upset he was and may or may not have packed up his personal belongings and had them sent back to the States prior to his disappearance. Evidence points to him leaving a note on his bunk, along with his body armor and weapon. What happened next is in dispute, but almost everyone who was on that outpost seems to believe Bergdahl just walked away one night. Had a note not been left and his weapon and Kevlar untouched, perhaps those in his unit would feel differently about him. But everything they saw that night and everything they’ve said since seems to indicate he turned his back on them. For what reason is unclear, though I’m not sure that even matters to those who were left behind.
4. The immediate fallout from Bergdahl’s disappearance.
I wasn’t there, but based on my experience of seeing what happened when a valuable piece of equipment went missing in Afghanistan, I can only imagine what it was like in the chaotic hours and days immediately following the disappearance. I can’t imagine there was a man on that outpost who slept at all in the days immediately afterwards. I can’t imagine there was a man on that outpost who didn’t march his feet bloody looking for him. Not to mention the adjusted guard shifts and fire team lineups that had to be taken into account now that the platoon was a man short. Soldiers from Bergdahl’s unit who spoke to the media have said the 90 days following his disappearance were the toughest they had the whole deployment. I don’t doubt it. Not only were they out looking for the guy, they had to make up for his loss, something that effected every man on his outpost. And remember, all this happened during the summer fighting season in 2009.
3. The Army’s response to the Bergdahl story.
According to those in Bergdahl’s unit, the Army issued a brigade-wide gag order prohibiting soldiers from speaking publically about the disappearance. This unintentionally accomplished two things: it allowed the muzzled soldiers to start rumors and speculation about what Bergdahl’s motivations were; and it pissed off those who felt the Army had something to hide and were covering up the truth of the Bergdahl situation. Both fed into one another and once that gag order was lifted with the release, soldiers started rushing to tell their side of the story, or at least what they believe it is.
2. The belief that his disappearance led to deaths.
There are those in Bergdahl’s unit who claim that in response to him deserting, many dangerous missions were undertaken to hunt him down. If there was a tip on his whereabouts, units already on missions were diverted to the location. Those soldiers claim these diversions and hunts led to the deaths of at least six individuals. Now, proving this is different than making the accusation – as the New York Times learned when they investigated the allegations and found the claims basically impossible to prove definitively. If it’s the summer fighting season and Taliban soldiers are out in full force, and at the same time so are American forces – it’s entirely plausible that the deaths were just the natural result of fighting season in Afghanistan. But to the soldiers in Bergdahl’s unit, I doubt they’d see things the same way. If they were sent to a specific location to look for Bergdahl and were attacked and some were killed at that location, it would be difficult for anyone to convince them those deaths did not result from Bergdahl’s desertion.
1. The belief that Bergdahl was aiding the Taliban.
A soldier on CNN this morning claimed that after Bergdahl went missing, radio chatter that occasionally picks up Taliban communications picked up talk of an American in a nearby town “looking for someone who spoke English to talk to the Taliban.” Another stated Bergdahl took unusual (for his rank) interest in tactics used by American forces. After he went missing others state attacks on US forces became more focused and more precise – as if the Taliban had help. Since I wasn’t there, I can’t say for sure this is a plausible theory or not – again, it was the summer fighting season. All I can say is that I noticed when I was there the Taliban would change up their tactics throughout the summer in response to what we were doing, and nobody in our platoon went missing.
For all these reasons, (and probably a few more we don’t know about) Bowe Bergdahl is persona non grata when it comes to those he served with. It’s been a story those who were there have apparently wanted to tell for a long time and now many are finally getting the chance.
It’s important to remember that while the beliefs and opinions of Bergdahl’s fellow service-members should be treated with respect, those beliefs and opinions are not facts, nor should they be used to pre-judge Bowe Bergdahl before he’s capable of telling his side of the story.
Bergdahl could eventually confirm the suspicions those who served with him hold, or he could dispute them outright. Either way, those who were there and those who lived through those miserable summer fighting days when one of their own went missing won’t forget what he did.
And it’s clear they won’t forgive either.