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.