Wed, Jun 04, 2014 - Page 7 News List

Hero or a deserter: Bowe Bergdahl debate rages in US

AFP, WASHINGTON

US political and military officials warmly welcomed Bowe Bergdahl’s release in Afghanistan, but questions about the circumstances of his kidnapping are becoming more insistent, with some soldiers accusing him of desertion.

From the White House to the Pentagon, officials have celebrated the recovery of the 28-year-old army sergeant from his Taliban captors, repeatedly citing the promise never to leave a soldier behind.

In his hometown of Hailey, Idaho, residents celebrated, with “Bowe’s free at last” signs posted alongside the traditional yellow ribbons tied in a show of support for US troops, but unease quickly set in in other quarters about just how Bergdahl was captured on June 30, 2009, in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Paktika, where he was deployed at a forward operating base.

Some fellow soldiers, including members of Bergdahl’s unit, have accused him of abandoning his post and perhaps even deserting in a bid to flee to India.

“Every member of my brigade combat team received an order that we were not allowed to discuss what happened to Bergdahl for fear of endangering him. He is safe and now it is time to speak the truth,” Nathan Bradley Bethea wrote on Web site the Daily Beast. “And that the truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.”

Six soldiers died during failed efforts in 2009 to recover Bergdahl, Bethea said.

Bergdahl — then 23 and a member of Blackfoot Company, in the 1st Battalion of the 501st Infantry Regiment — left the base on foot, leaving his helmet and rifle behind, but taking a compass, Bethea wrote.

“His fellow soldiers later mentioned his stated desire to walk from Afghanistan to India,” Bethea wrote. “I believe that Bergdahl also deserves sympathy.”

On Facebook, the group “Bowe Bergdahl is NOT a hero” — which had more than 1,500 likes on Monday — was circulating a petition asking the White House to punish Bergdahl for being absent without leave.

“He walked off,” former private Jose Baggett, another member of Blackfoot Company, told CNN. “He was there to protect us and instead he decided to... go and do his own thing.”

Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said Bergdahl had not been classified as a deserter.

“He’s been promoted twice since his capture. He was due another promotion in June to staff sergeant,” Warren said. “We got him home. Our creed is that we’ll never leave a fallen comrade behind and we have fulfilled our creed in this case. There’s time in the future to handle all the other matters.”

Beyond the praise and celebration, US officials have nevertheless acknowledged that the questions will eventually need answers.

“We still don’t have a complete picture of what caused him to leave his base that night,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said.

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