Did Bowe Bergdahl go AWOL in Afghanistan?

After five years as a POW, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is headed home. But the circumstances of his capture by the Taliban in Afghanistan remain unclear, indicating he may have walked away from his base.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Jani and Bob Bergdahl speak during a news conference at the White House Saturday about the release of their son, U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held prisoner by the Taliban since 2009. He was handed over to U.S. special forces by the Taliban in exchange for the release of five Afghan detainees held by the United States.

For now, the story for US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is one of physical and mental recovery and reunion with his family.

But very soon it will involve debriefings about the nearly five years of his captivity by Taliban fighters, who apparently held him in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, where his infantry unit had been engaged in combat.

Military and intelligence experts will want to know how he was treated, anything he can tell them about his captors, and what he learned about insurgent capabilities.

But for the young soldier – 23 when he became a prisoner of war, now 28 – those debriefings also will include difficult questions about how and why he happened to be in a position where he fell into the hands of Taliban fighters.

There have been no reports that he was captured during direct combat, that the “fog of war” had put him involuntarily in a vulnerable location.

At this point in the developing narrative, Sgt. Bergdahl seems to have grown disillusioned with the mission, bitter about the Army and especially higher ranking enlisted men and officers, and simply walked off – gone “outside the wire” or protective base limits – and disappeared.

That could indicate that he had gone AWOL (Absence Without Leave), also referred to as “Unauthorized Absence” (UA), which could bring charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

This scenario – it’s important to note that it has not been confirmed – is based on detailed reporting in 2012 by Rolling Stone magazine, which included interviews with Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers as well as apparently lengthy conversations with his parents in Idaho, who shared e-mails they had exchanged with him up until his disappearance.

“The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at,” he wrote from Afghanistan. “It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same."

"I am sorry for everything here," Bergdahl wrote at another point "These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live."

In his final message, Bergdahl refers to having mailed home boxes with his uniforms and books.

“Feel free to open them, and use them,” he wrote.

Later that night, Bowe Bergdahl’s father Bob Bergdahl, a UPS truck driver, sent his son an email from their home in Hailey, Idaho, with the subject line: OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE!

"Dear Bowe," he wrote. "In matters of life and death, and especially at war, it is never safe to ignore ones' conscience. Ethics demands obedience to our conscience. It is best to also have a systematic oral defense of what our conscience demands. Stand with like minded men when possible. dad."

“Ordinary soldiers, especially raw recruits facing combat for the first time, respond to the horror of war in all sorts of ways,” Rolling Stone observed. Bowe Bergdahl “decided to walk away.”

“In the early-morning hours of June 30th, according to soldiers in the unit, Bowe approached his team leader not long after he got off guard duty and asked his superior a simple question: If I were to leave the base, would it cause problems if I took my sensitive equipment?

“Yes, his team leader responded – if you took your rifle and night-vision goggles, that would cause problems.

“Bowe returned to his barracks, a roughly built bunker of plywood and sandbags. He gathered up water, a knife, his digital camera and his diary. Then he slipped off the outpost.”

When his absence was discovered, Bergdahl was listed as “DUSTWUN” – Duty Status: Whereabouts Unknown.

Search parties were sent out. The search included drone aircraft as well as F-18 and F-15 fighter jets.

Reports from Afghan intelligence sources indicated that Bergdahl had been captured by the Taliban, later confirmed by intercepted radio conversations and the first videos of him being held.

Speaking at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan Sunday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the US had to move quickly to rescue Bergdahl as part of a prisoner transfer involving five mid- to high- level Taliban being sent to Qatar from the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Bergdahl's "safety and health were both in jeopardy, and in particular his health was deteriorating,” Secretary Hagel said.

"Our first priority is assuring his well-being and his health and getting him reunited with his family," Hagel said. "Other circumstances that may develop and questions — those will be dealt with later."

Those “other circumstances” and “questions” involve how the young and apparently disillusioned soldier came to be taken a prisoner of war.

Not surprisingly, the issue has stirred considerable discussion and debate.

“Though Americans may be celebrating the release of the only American soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan by the Taliban, the reaction of the military community has been mixed at best,” Army Times reports.

“Within an hour of the announcement that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. special forces by the Taliban Saturday evening, Army Times’ Facebook page lit up with hundreds of comments reacting to the news,” the publication reported. “Most centered on the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl's capture, which remain something of a mystery. There has been some speculation that he willingly walked away from his unit, raising the question of whether he could be charged with being absent without leave (AWOL) or desertion.”

“I'm happy for the Bergdahl family and friends to have their loved one home, but I am angered deeply at Bowe…. It disgusts me greatly that a man that turned his back on his brothers, unit, and country is going to be hailed as a hero/saint,” wrote one Army Times Facebook visitor.

But another post summed up the situation this way:

“This guy may have made a tremendously bad decision, but I'm willing to bet that what he's endured since then has been far worse than anything the US or military judicial system would have imposed. Have some heart.”

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