‘Bowe’ Bergdahl had a Complaint


Greg Laxer

On November 3, 2017, at his General Court-Martial at Fort Bragg, NC Army Sergeant Robert ‘Bowe’ Bergdahl was sentenced to reduction to lowest enlisted rank, forfeiture of $10,000 of the back pay he had previously been awarded, and a Dishonorable Discharge. He had opted for trial by a Military Judge (Colonel Jeffery Nance) alone, and earlier plead Guilty to Desertion and Misbehavior Before the Enemy without plea bargaining on a sentence.

Commander-in-Chief, Donald Trump, who as candidate had suggested Bergdahl should be executed by firing squad after he was recovered from five years of Taliban captivity in Afghanistan, wasted no time chiming in via Twitter. He called the judge’s leniency “a complete and total disgrace to our Country and our Military.” As a veteran myself, my sympathy for Bergdahl’s plight was instinctive. I read literally hundreds of pages of the trial-related documents made available on the Internet by the defense attorneys. It will be difficult to summarize this case in a brief space, but let’s try to get to the root of the mess ‘Bowe’ got himself into.

The following material is culled from Bergdahl’s own initial statement upon being returned to US soil. In a most extraordinary interview (“informal investigation”) conducted at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, by no less than a Major General (!) August 6 and 7, 2014, the young man spoke of his upbringing, how he came to be in the Army, how he fell prisoner to “the enemy” and what he experienced in captivity.

Bergdahl grew up socially isolated in rural Idaho, son of an emotionally cold father. He was home-schooled, inculcated with “Christian” values. He was outdoorsy, good at tracking animals, which planted the idea he could be a good “scout” some day. He actually went to France to try to enlist in the Foreign Legion (!) but had no skill with the language. Wanting to prove to his father that he could “make it” in the world, he enlisted in the US Coast Guard.  During a sea rescue drill in open water, he apparently suffered a panic attack. He received counseling, but was mustered out of the Coast Guard for mental health issues. But he says he was informed this need not bar him from serving in another branch of the military. And soon enough he found an Army recruiter who worked a little magic and got ‘Bowe’ in.

Bergdahl’s disillusionment with Army life started right away when he was cautioned to beware of barracks thieves during early training. What kind of organization had he gotten into? During advanced training, he contracted a nasty foot infection which held him back. He felt his unit didn’t care about his situation. He observed his trainers sitting in the shade playing video games on phones, instead of training troops to high proficiency standards. En route to Afghanistan via Kuwait, delayed by luggage problems, some of his unit’s enlisted men were left stranded at the airport, feeling vulnerable to possible terrorist attack.

At last, Afghanistan! Let’s go kill some “bad guys”! Not so fast! He was put on duty clearing mountain roads of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). His superiors were always trying to rush a job ‘Bowe’ felt needed to be approached with great caution, for safety’s sake. His fellow GIs were full of patriotic talk and their desire to “prove” themselves, and Bergdahl felt they were being treated shabbily, a little too expendable in the command’s eyes. The straws that broke the camel’s back, though, were run-ins with the Battalion Commander.

Bergdahl was part of a detail of six put on lookout on a hill overlooking a village considered hostile. No shade, and the sun was merciless. There was shelter, in case of incoming fire, for only two men. The soldiers got permission to enlarge the shelter. They were allowed to strip to the waist while digging. Just then, the Battalion Commander (BC) paid a visit, accompanied by elders from nearby villages. Before the GIs could get back in proper uniform, the BC was loudly in their faces, chewing them out.

Not long after this, Bergdahl was sent as part of a team to retrieve an IED-disabled vehicle from a mountain road. They had trouble with their own vehicle, then came under small arms fire. The mission turned into a six-day ordeal and when they got back to camp, the BC yelled his head off because the men were unshaven!

Bergdahl had learned enough about Army BS to understand that complaining about the BC in the local chain of command would be futile. So he hatched a plan to leave his duty post and travel on foot, disguised as a local (!), to a Forward Operations Base some miles distant and present his grievances personally to a high-ranking officer, preferably a general. ‘Bowe’ had only been in-country for five weeks when he attempted this mission. In short order, he was detected as an “alien” on the landscape and captured by Taliban fighters.

Major General Kenneth Dahl concluded his report by writing: “I have come to understand…[that] prior to your fantastic plan you were one of the best Soldiers, arguably the best Soldier in your platoon.” He also stated ‘Bowe’ seemed to have “unrealistically idealistic standards and expectations of other people.” So, what was ‘Bowe’ Bergdahl’s complaint? It appears that, in his own mind, Bergdahl was a Super Trooper and was simply grossly disappointed with, let down by, the reality of what we GIs call the “chickenshit” nature of the daily reality of military life.

In pre-sentencing hearings, the defense presented forensic psychiatrist Charles Morton. He advised that Bergdahl suffers numerous mental illnesses, including “schizotypal personality disorder,” plus PTSD from his years in Taliban captivity.

The CBS Evening News reported the sentence of November 3 with a statement that Bergdahl ​harbored “a Jason Bourne delusion.” This appears about right to this author. I applaud the Military Judge in this case for not yielding to pressure for a sentence of confinement from his Commander-in-Chief.

And I conclude by asking: Even if the US presence in Afghanistan was justified…is this any way to run a war?

The author is a lifelong peace activist who served time in US military prison for refusing to go to war against Vietnam.

15 thoughts on “‘Bowe’ Bergdahl had a Complaint

  1. My opinion at the time US troops were inserted into Afghanistan was that the only justification for a sizeable force (to capture bin Laden and his cadre), which was itself monumentally questionable, was if that amount of force was necessary to accomplish that specific mission.

    I agreed with those in opposition to this misadventure, who surmised that capturing/killing al Queada leadership (a quite unsure prospect, at best, at least in anything resembling a relatively swift and sure operation, or even achievable at all) was less important to the White House than quick gratification of revenge-lust while setting the stage for an Iraqi invasion long desired by Bush 43/41 & neocon cohort.

    News accounts of the Bergdahl verdict I have read state that his defense team intends to appeal the dishonorable to try to amend it to a general so as to secure some medical benefits to treat his mental/psyche afflictions. If this is possible (and I am quite ignorant about whether Bergdahl is eligible for any VA or other medical care benefits), I hope the team is successful.

    Confinement as part of the guilty verdict sentence in this case would have been an absolute travesty, I think, and I am glad the judge saw fit not to impose it.

    • I appreciate Greg’s article on Bergdahl and also agree that it’s great his sentence did not include time in military prison. But Berdahl has some severe health issues and now does not have the benefit of VA benefits. He’s quite likely to have these medical issues for the rest of his life and has no means of having them treated. I’d also like to remind people that the US went into Afghanistan in order to find and punish bin Laden for the attack on the World Trade Center. They initially drew a line in the sand to the Taliban government that threatened invasion if they didn’t turn bin Laden over themselves. When the Taliban refused the US invaded. Why is the US still in Afghanistan since bin Laden was found and executed long ago?

    • Space constraints prevented my pointing out that a Dishonorable Discharge indeed denies a veteran any future benefits. That is a cruel aspect of this sentence, even though Bergdahl was spared imprisonment. He clearly needs ongoing mental health counseling and probably more physical therapy. Also please note that the Commander-in-Chief, by his outrageous public criticism of the verdict–this guy truly does not know how a POTUS is “supposed to” behave–has now prejudiced Col. Nance’s chances for promotion in what I assume is to be an ongoing military career. (Long time readers here may now gasp that I’m sympathizing with a high-ranking officer!) Finally, this sentence is subject to review. Therefore, it’s still possible the punishment will be stiffened to include confinement, under private pressure from the White House. This happened in one of my own courts-martial: the reviewing authority reinstated a fine (above and beyond the forfeiture of pay I’d been subjected to) that the court originally had suspended.

      • Matt–I was “only” court-martialed twice. I was offered only an Article 15 for my first AWOL. I actually demanded a Summary CM so I could get my objections to the war “on the record” (I knew with utmost certainty I’d lose, of course). I also went to Federal Court, and lost there (legally, though I considered myself morally victorious) over issue of gaining Conscientious Objector status. After all that dust settled, the Army cut me a fresh set of orders. I went AWOL for a longer period of time and received a Special CM that time. Ultimately, the Army and I arrived at a standoff: they gave up on sending me to Vietnam but I had to make up every day of my “bad time,” so it took me 50 months to complete my 3-year enlistment. All this will be told in detail in my memoir, which is in final revision stage. Come the new year, I’ll be shopping for a literary agent. Say, you wouldn’t be chummy with anyone in that field, would you? :-)

  2. Afghanistan was a typical US fiasco and lie. Bin Laden was not the cause, but the excuse. The country was willing to negotiate turning over Bin Laden but the US refused because they had another agenda: GAS. If you recally UNICOL wanted to run a major gas line thru the country but was concerned about lack of security for that line. Thus, Bin Laden was the excuse especially since most Americans never read more than propaganda headlines and certainly not independent media.

    I am grateful for this summary article as I, admittedly haven’t done any reading on this man’s case and now know the gist of his reasons. So once again we see someone terribly antagonized by the inhuman treatment of soldiers by the institution that used propaganda/false promises to persuade people to sacrifice their lives for corporate interests. Interesting that adults are always trashed for holding onto the values and ideals they were taught. The message is that once you are conditioned to believe in the mythology it is expected that you live as if they are juvenile. But the damage is already done–the beliefs are set into the cellular makeup of our being we are expected to adjust to the contradictions of the world we live in. This man was not willing to comply with this insanity. Nor was he willing to see lives destroyed because of the callousness of the corporations and social institutions working in support of them.

      • Hey, Mike!!! The Left Coast is Hillary’s bastion as usual, but Our Revolution is truckin’ on up. I’m an independent now and eschew any party labels, looking only for those who admit the head of the snake is controlling both parties. Our state had a primary that Kenya woulda been proud of. What else? Sooooo good to hear from you! And the best to your family there; hope everyone is well, and enjoying the show.

      • Just a note in passing, Kate: our old friend Don Webb (retired an living in Canada) has published another of my poems Kicking the Memory Syndrome in Issue 737 of his web magazine Bewildering Stories. He says that he’ll publish another one, Thank Your for Your Servility, a month or so from now.

        As for enjoying the show from a safe distance here across the Pacific Pond, my wife will only allow me five minutes, maximum, of CNN International at any one time. She wants to keep me from throwing things at our nice flat screen TV monitor (no built-in camera). I call it my “bullshit ration” for the day, but sometimes I can only stand three minutes, if that. Mostly I read, compose a few lines of verse, or work on my gargoyle relief sculptures, when not posting comments here or on a few other blogs. On our trip to the U. S. last year, my wife bought a whole slew of used Film Noir dvds and so now I’ve promised to do gargoyles for her — if not full-up statues — of femme fatales like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, although, personally, I go for Eva Green, especially as she appeared in Frank Miller’s Sin City: a Dame to Kill For. What a knockout babe. If I don’t watch my lecherous old self, I might even break out my dvd copy of Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy (from 1968) and do an homage in paper clay to Jane Fonda, my all-time favorite dish from the “Vietnam” era.

        Speaking of Jane Fonda and the sixties in the context of this Bowe Bergdahl thing, I came across an article of some interest by the Vietnam veteran and curmudgeon ex-pat Fred Reed whose “work” I often see at The Unz Review. Like some other Vietnam veterans, he had some unkind things to say about Jane Fonda, although he didn’t have the testicular fortitude — i.e., “balls” — to come out and use her name directly. A very confused and misdirected man, this Fred Reed, but setting straight his warped perspective on Vietnam in the United States will take more time than I have available right now. I’ll try to put together an essay on this for future publication here at The Contrary Perspective, so stay tuned.

        — MM, Kaohsiung, Taiwan

  3. Thanks for highlighting the rest of the story. I was shocked , so happy Bowe wasn’t sent to Guantanamo or some real nasty stockade or federal prison. Back in my home district in Indiana , during the Vietnam war, a man named George Warstler did two tours and while on leave in Oz, snapped mentally upon receipt of news his old company had suffered horrible causalities, and he deserted. I am linking the first part of the story, and I must tell the ending as I know it, as I worked for 30 years in an Indiana factory with the deserter’s brother: He was brought under guard to Fort Knox, busted down to Pvt., told to remove his earring, and was brought to attention and discharged , forfeiting all back pay and any and all benefits. Due to his stellar conduct during his two tours, he did get a General Discharge with special designations, and he was presented the standard medals due him. He grew up just 8 miles from my home. https://www.deseretnews.com/article/413988/VIETNAM-VET-WANTS-TO-GO-HOME-AGAIN.html

  4. This may be quite a stretch and some may disagree on principle but it is on my mind because somehow it reminds me of the Bowie Bergdahl case. Supposedly Bowie was leaving his post to report the truth about command dysfunction. He spends five years in Taliban hands and then for leaving his post to tell the truth his government wants to send him to prison again.
    Now jump, as I did to Louis C.K., the comedian. He did some really bad things with women and the blowback is finally teaching men a lesson about treating women like “objects” (per the Great Lebowski). Unlike every other Weinstein, Roy Moore, Trump. et al. he has not denied it, nor offered a pallid excuse that it was ‘consensual.’ He bit the bullet, admitting that the women told the truth, and he honestly analyzed why he did it and said he is going to deal with it. No defense but taking full responsibility. So what does he get? The same treatment that those who denied responsibility, blamed the women for lying. etc. He is fired from all of his projects and sentenced to the Guantanamo of total corporate rejection.
    Somehow I feel that C.K. showed a brave path for men to follow by his clean admission and taking full responsibility not the weak, “I’m sorry for what I did.” Am wrong?
    b. traven

    • traven–I was never a big fan of Louis C.K. Black. I’ve enjoyed his work as an actor in other folks’ movies, but never sought out videos of his solo standup shows. Yes, his approach of admitting guilt publicly is refreshing (if only for its rarity!). It’s possible he can still salvage something of his career with the passage of enough time. Messieurs Weinstein and Spacey, by contrast, are pretty clearly “toast.” (But by declaring he will seek treatment, Spacey is closer to admitting guilt than Harvey. The gay context of Spacey’s alleged attempted predation, of course, brings extra hate sent his way in this society.) In his pre-sentencing court-martial sessions, ‘Bowe’ Bergdahl issued a tearful apology for the expenditure of resources and injured personnel entailed in the Army’s search for him after he seemingly vanished into thin air. (As if that amounted to the least gob of spit in an ocean estimated the other day at $5.6 TRILLION the US has spent on the “War On Terror” since the events of 9/11!!) Bergdahl’s display of remorse probably helped win him relative leniency–still subject to reversal, as I have pointed out in this discussion, by reviewing authority.

    • CK has issued the only statememt of all those of the publicly accused that I have read which does not include some form of weaselling deflection, and nothing in it sets any sort of bad example for how males should treat women, or any person should treat any other. To the contrary (no pun intended), the content of his remarks sets a quality example imo.

      Is it complete, and sufficient? Only those whom he victimized are qualified to make that assessment. Is the professional censure administered to this point fair and reasonable? I don’t know. It is, I think, too early to conclude that he will experience a total and permanent career “blackball”.

      If such does prove to be the case, I am not comfortable today judging that to be an extreme outcome. The victims of his exploitave actions endure permanent outcomes from his past actions. Does that justify permanent punishment to a reformed (if he is reformed) offender? I don’t agree with denying prisoners who serve their sentence the right to vote, as some states do, a situation which can be legislatively remedied.

      I also do not think that ex-convicts should be discriminated against in housing and employment, to name just two consequences members of this group face. But this sort of discrimination is virtually impossible to remedy with legislation. Denial of opportunity for CK to pursue his professional occupation falls, I think, into this category.

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