When President Obama held a Rose Garden ceremony announcing the trade that released five Gitmo terrorists for the return of Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl, I was disgusted. Like most military vets, I had no sympathy for a man who deserted his fellow soldiers. And I hated the idea of sending five of the worst terrorist animals back into the wild.
The ceremony itself was a little bizarre. Bergdahl’s father seemed exceptionally strange. He sported a scraggly Muslim-style beard, and delivered a message in Pashtu, following an Arabic religious greeting. Had Bergdahl grown up in a dysfunctional environment?
I didn’t blame the president for the odd ceremony. It was the kind of faux pas that that may have been arranged by an inexperienced staffer. Obama has exceptional skills as “chief host and greeter,” and probably ad-libbed the ceremony after a two-minute briefing. Perhaps, however, the responsible staffer found himself or herself immediately reassigned to bureaucratic purgatory.
Once the initial media storm settled down, the story simmered at low heat on cable news for a few months. Bergdahl’s former squad members appeared on a few talk shows. maintaining that Bergdahl was simply a deserter and deserved jail time. This was easy for most Americans to accept.
Now and then, we saw short news stories on the Army’s investigation, on the pretrial process toward an expected court martial. Like most vets, I wanted to see him punished to the fullest extent of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
But more recently there were mitigating statements from investigators, and a recommendation for leniency, based on his five years of hell as a Taliban POW. And Bergdahl himself recently issued a podcast in which we heard his version of events, in his own voice.
The podcast was a disjointed statement that made little sense. Bergdahl claimed the he left his post because of poor leadership in his Army company. He said he was heading for the next level of command—perhaps at battalion level—to report his immediate superiors for being rude.
Huh? A rude Army sergeant or lieutenant? How unusual!
His narrative brought my mind back to an incident at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii in the early ‘70s. One of my fellow draftees, a man I knew well, went “off the rails” one day. His Army job was to be a lifeguard and instructor at the pool and beach, providing swimming lessons to children of resident NCO’s and officers. He spent most of his days in the sun, wearing Army bathing trunks. Although that sounds like a great job–certainly more pleasant than Vietnam jungle combat–he grew tired of it after a year or so. The job provided automatic promotions and raises, and he was exempt from the typical Army drudgery tasks. Such perks, however, were not strong enough to keep him happy.
I met my lifeguard friend now and then and found him more and more depressed each time. He hated Hawaii, hated the sunshine, and hated teaching swimming. One day, he was especially angry and said he was deserting. He said he would swim back home to California. We all laughed. But the next day he said goodbye to a few people, walked into the ocean and began swimming northeastwardly. Though he was a strong swimmer, no one can swim 2,500 miles while surviving shark-infested waters.
At first, everyone thought the incident was a big joke. But he didn’t return after several hours, and his Army boss reported the situation to the provost-martial, who dispatched two boats and a helicopter to search for him. Following a multi-hour grid search, rescuers found him unharmed, still swimming, and forced him to board one of the boats.
When he returned, he was confined to quarters, to await legal proceedings. His commanding officer charged him under Article 15, a non-judicial punishment that cost him a month’s pay. In a later hearing, he was discharged from the Army under something called Section Eight, an action designating him as “mentally unfit for service.” Most of us thought our friend had received fair, appropriate treatment.
Bowe Bergdahl’s circumstances were different in several ways. His desertion occurred in a dangerous no man’s land, with enemy forces present.
Nevertheless, hearing Bergdahl make his case via podcast, I saw him as being much like our friend who tried to swim to California. Both men were deserters. And neither one was entirely sane. Neither of them was especially intelligent, and neither one would ever be a trusted asset. Both needed to leave the Army.
Recent information has surfaced showing that Bergdahl previously spent a month or two in the US Coast Guard, which quickly discharged him, apparently for mental health issues. Army recruiters should have vetted him more effectively. That organization must bear some responsibility for accepting him.
Despite the understandable anger of his fellow soldiers, Bergdahl should be quietly separated from the Army. Perhaps he should surrender at least part of his accumulated Army pay for the five years he spent as a Taliban POW.
Unfortunately, the White House handling of his release from Taliban captivity, the laughable trade for five hardened enemy leaders, and the ongoing media events may be vaulting a mental patient into a General Court Martial, and a potential prison sentence. That’s unfair and unnecessary.
Were his motives any more sinister than an attempt to swim 2,500 miles?
My book “The Victory that Wasn’t” offers a fictional alternate history with a different kind of Military, and better outcomes for all Americans. It’s available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/1GUL8oX