As the White House praised the return of soldier Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban, some Afghan war veterans answered with anger over how the young soldier fell into enemy hands in the first place and the price the U.S. has paid to get him back.
Rarely had the circumstances of Bergdahl's vanishing in June 2009 been publicly discussed during his captivity, apparently for fear of jeopardizing his safety while in Taliban control. But years of simmering anger by some vets may finally be bursting into the open now that he’s safely heading back stateside – and now that the Taliban has celebrated the return of five middle- to senior-level figures that had been held for years in Guantanamo Bay.
“I went to extreme personal sacrifice to see some of the guys that are walking get justice,” one special operations forces commander who was involved in chasing down high-value targets in Afghanistan told ABC News. “Should I or others involved be looking over our shoulders now?”
Nathan Bethea, a former soldier who says he served in Bergdahl’s unit, recently wrote that he and his colleagues had been forced to stay quiet about the truth of Bergdahl’s case.
"And that the truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down," Bethea wrote in The Daily Beast Monday. “Bergdahl was relieved from guard duty, and instead of going to sleep, he fled the outpost on foot. He deserted. I’ve talked to members of Bergdahl’s platoon—including the last Americans to see him before his capture. I’ve reviewed the relevant documents. That’s what happened.”
By his own account in a Taliban-released video in July 2009, Bergdahl said he was caught after lagging behind during a patrol -- which would have been the only instance of such a capture in the 13-year war. Bethea wrote there was no such patrol that night. The Taliban said he was drunk and wandered off base. The U.S. intercepted radio traffic in the area that indicated Bergdahl had been captured while relieving himself, according to documents obtained and released by WikiLeaks.
“We were attacking the post, he was sitting taking expletive[.] He had no gun with him,” said a “traffic report” apparently capturing a conversation between two members of the Taliban.
A 2012 Rolling Stone article about the Bergdahl case by the late journalist Michael Hastings said the young soldier had become disillusioned while serving in an infantry platoon with low morale and bad leadership, and that he had emailed his father Bob to say, "The horror that is [A]merica is disgusting." His father urged him to obey his conscience. Hastings reported that Bergdahl “decided to walk away.”
At a private Army promotion ceremony in Washington in late 2012, a general discussed how he and a subordinate officer had helped lead search efforts in eastern Afghanistan with an infantry battalion at the time Bergdahl disappeared. "He left our organization and went over to the other side," the general told the small audience at the closed reception, which was attended by an ABC News reporter.
A Special Forces operator confirmed to ABC News the account of Bergdahl's walking away by Bethea, the general and other soldiers, including the substance of an emotional anonymous testimonial posted online in the comment section of the Rolling Stone article, purportedly written by another soldier who served with Bergdahl.
Bergdahl's status was changed from "missing/whereabouts unknown" to "missing/captured" within days of his disappearance, however.
Today a Defense Department spokesperson said the military has never stated that Bergdahl walked away from his post. The spokesperson said that preliminary investigations into the case were all missing Bergdahl’s side of the story.
At an emotional press conference this weekend, Bergdahl’s father Bob said he was “proud of how much [Bergdahl] wanted to help the Afghan people and what [he] was willing to do to go to that length.”
“I think you have succeeded,” the elder Bergdahl said.
Bob and his wife Jani declined to answer questions at the press conference and requested patience from the media. “I know Bowe is going to have a lot to say about this,” Bob said. “But that’s still a distant, future thing, and I won’t let things get in the way of Bowe’s recovery.”