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Hero or deserter? Debate rages over former captive U.S. soldier

AFP-JIJI

U.S. political and military officials warmly welcomed Bowe Bergdahl’s release in Afghanistan, but questions about the circumstances surrounding his kidnapping are growing, 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 U.S. troops.

But in other quarters, unease quickly set in about just how Bergdahl was captured on June 30, 2009, in Afghanistan’s eastern Paktika province, 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 in the Daily Beast.

“And that the truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.”

Bethea alleged that six soldiers died during failed efforts in 2009 to recover Bergdahl.

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, he wrote.

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

On Facebook, the group “Bowe Bergdahl is NOT a hero” — which had more than 1,500 “likes” Monday — was circulating a petition asking the White House to punish Bergdahl for going AWOL (absent without leave). The petition had 5,200 signatures as of Monday.

“He walked off,” former Pvt. 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 Col. Steve Warren said Bergdahl had not been classified as a deserter or with AWOL status.

“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,” the spokesman added.

“There’s time in the future to handle all the other matters.”

Beyond the praise and celebration, U.S. 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,” said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby.

Bergdahl was transported Sunday from Bagram Air Field north of Kabul to the Landstuhl military medical center in southern Germany for further treatment and evaluation.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday the Pentagon would take the lead in looking into “all of the circumstances surrounding his initial detention and his captivity.”

Desertion during wartime, at least in theory, is punishable by death in the United States. On social media, many argued that after nearly five years in captivity, Bergdahl had perhaps suffered enough.

In 2004, Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins, who deserted his post at the border between North and South Korea in 1965 and spent nearly 40 years in the North, was sentenced to 30 days in confinement and received a dishonorable discharge.

After serving his sentence, Jenkins and his family moved to Sado Island, Niigata prefecture, where they currently live.