When Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who is recovering at a U.S. military hospital in Germany, finally arrives back in the United States, he shouldn’t expect a hero’s welcome.
His family in his hometown of Hailey, Idaho, who have prayed for his safe return for the past 5 years, will embrace their only son. The nation will express gratitude that an American prisoner of war was brought home. And the military will be proud that it completed its solemn mission to never leave a comrade behind.
But it’s clear that Bergdahl, who was released Saturday in exchange for five Taliban prisoners who have been held at Guantanamo prison for years, has some explaining to do. Just days after his release, there is growing outrage over the circumstances that led to Bergdahl’s capture. There is mounting evidence that Bergdahl deserted his base in southeastern Afghanistan because he was disillusioned with the U.S. mission there. Fellow soldiers from his unit have expressed anger over the deaths of six soldiers killed while looking for him.
A Facebook page called “Bowe Bergdahl is NOT a hero” has been set up to denounce him as a deserter; more than 9,000 people have joined. And a White House petition was created calling on President Barack Obama to court martial Bergdahl on charged of desertion. “Bowe Bergdahl broke several Articles under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and needs to be punished not rewarded,” the petition says.
In 2010, the Pentagon conducted an investigation into Bergdahl’s disappearance on June 30, 2009, and according to the Associated Press, found that it was “incontrovertible” that he deserted his post and called him “delusional.” Bergdahl’s former squad leader, Greg Leatherman, told CNN: “I believe that an investigation should take place as soon as health care professionals deem him fit to endure one.”
In Afghanistan this weekend, when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a hangar full of troops at Bagram Air Base that Bergdahl was free, he was met with silence, according to AP.
Senior defense officials have indicated that they feel Bergdahl has suffered enough. But there are questions that only he can answer: Did he willingly leave his post that night and why? Bergdahl’s father said his son sent him emails in the days up to his disappearance saying he was not supportive of the war. “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,” Bergdahl wrote in an email to his dad.
Nathan Bradley Bethea, who served in Bergdahl’s unit, said flatly that “Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.” In a story on The Daily Beast, Bethea said Bergdahl failed to show for roll call that morning. “The soldiers in 2nd Platoon, Blackfoot Company discovered his rifle, helmet, body armor and web gear in a neat stack. He had, however, taken his compass. His fellow soldiers later mentioned his stated desire to walk from Afghanistan to India,” he said.
Officially, Obama and other top leaders are calling Bergdahl’s return a victory, a promise kept that the United States never leaves a prisoner of war behind. ”We’re committed to winding down the war in Afghanistan, and we are committed to closing Gitmo. But we also made an ironclad commitment to bring our prisoners of war home. That’s who we are as Americans. It’s a profound obligation within our military, and today, at least in this instance, it’s a promise we’ve been able to keep,” Obama said. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “Today, we are heartened that Sergeant Bergdahl will soon by reunited with his family and friends, from whom he has been apart for far too long.” And Hagel called it a “very happy day.”
The one word missing from all their remarks? Hero.