Signs of support with images of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl are displayed outside Zaney's coffee shop in Hailey, Idaho, May 31, 2014.
Patrick Sweeney/Reuters

Bowe Bergdahl: ‘Deserter’ or hero?

Updated

Following the headline-grabbing release of the only known American prisoner of war in Afghanistan, questions surrounding the circumstances under which Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl disappeared are being raised, with some of his former fellow soldiers declaring he was a deserter.

Over the weekend, the Obama Administration and Berghdahl’s family celebrated the 28-year-old’s release after being held captive by what’s believed to be the Haqqani terrorism network since June 30, 2009. His freedom was secured in exchange for the U.S. trading five Taliban militants from the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.

And while several who knew Berghdahl when he served say that they are happy he is safe, they want answers. 

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Nathan Bradley Bethea, who served in the same unit as Bergdahl, wrote in a piece for The Daily Beast on Monday that said his former squad member was a “deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.” Bethea shot down earlier reports that Berghdahl’s capture was the result of him lagging behind on a patrol the night he went missing in 2009.

“Make no mistake…There was no patrol that night. Bergdahl was relieved from guard duty, and instead of going to sleep, he fled the outpost on foot. He deserted,” said Bethea.

Matt Vierkant, a member of Bergdahl’s platoon, echoed that sentiment, even going as far to argue the former soldier should face a military trial for desertion. “I was pissed off then and I am even more so now with everything going on,” said the former sergeant told CNN. “Bowe Bergdahl deserted during a time of war and his fellow Americans lost their lives searching for him.”

There’s a growing demand for answers across the country, too.

A petition created on the White House’s website declaring Bergdahl went AWOL and that he should be punished and not rewarded has garnered more than 2,000 signatures. Facebook pages claiming to be set up by Bergdahl’s former “battle buddies” also say he must be held accountable.

When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was asked over the weekend if Bergdhal was a deserter – and if he could face punishment – Hagel did not answer one way or another. “Our first priority is assuring his well-being and his health and getting him reunited with his family.” Other questions and circumstances that develop “will be dealt with later,” added Hagel.

There is evidence that Bergdahl may have become disillusioned with the military life. His father, Robert Bergdahl, said two years ago his son initially joined the armed services to help people across the globe. According to an e-mail from Bergdahl to his parents – who spoke to Rolling Stone in June 2012 – Bergdahl wrote to them three days before his capture: “I am sorry for everything.”

He added: “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.” He went into detail about seeing an Afghan child pummeled by an American military vehicle and wrote “The horror that is America is disgusting.” He then noted that a few boxes containing his uniform and books were being sent to their house. Rolling Stone, which said the e-mail “might be read as a suicide note,” also quoted Bergdahl telling his parents regarding the packages: “Feel free to open them, and use them.”

Meanwhile, Republicans are criticizing the prisoner swap that freed Bergdahl, insisting it runs contrary to the U.S policy against negotiating with terrorists and sets up a dangerous precedent.

On the Sunday news shows, Senator Ted Cruz called the swap “very disturbing” on ABC’s This Week, asking “What does this tell the terrorists? That if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists.” Sen. John McCain of Arizona – a former prisoner of war during the Vietnam War – made similar remarks on CBS’s Face the Nation, saying it was worrisome that the five freed Taliban members now “have the ability to re-enter the fight.”

Failed vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin took to Facebook on Monday to write: “You blew it again, Barack Obama, by negotiating away any leverage against the bad guys.” Palin went further, accusing Bergdahl of having “horrid anti-American beliefs” and abandoning his unit.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called on the Senate Armed Services Committee to hold an immediate hearing on the prisoner exchange, arguing the decision has “serious implications for our future national security.” 

Hagel defended the move on Sunday’s Meet The Press, saying he doesn’t believe that the move will encourage terrorists to kidnap more hostages and that the deal was made because the sergeant’s health was failing. “This was essentially an operation to save the life of Sgt. Bergdahl,” said Hagel. Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, told CNN on Sunday that getting Bergdahl home was a “sacred obligation” that required making a deal with a non-state actor.

On Monday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said the Obama Administration had been consulting with Congress “for years” over the potential transfer of detainees in Guantanamo is exchange for Bergdahl and that the swap should “not have been a surprise to any members of Congress.” 

The Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where Bergdahl is currently recovering, released a statement saying the sergeant was in stable condition and “receiving treatment for conditions requiring hospitalization.” That treatment process includes attention to dietary and nutrition needs following five years in captivity. Additional specifics about his medical condition were not made public, but Bergdahl is expected to be moved to a military hospital in San Antonio, where he’ll reunite with his family, later this week. His parents said on Sunday that they have not yet spoken to their son because they don’t want to expose him to too many shocking experiences all at once.

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A senior U.S. official recounted Bergdahl’s release in eastern Afghanistan to NBC News , characterizing the exchange in which 18 Taliban members were present, as peaceful. After a dazed Bergdahl climbed on board a U.S. helicopter, he wrote on a paper plate “SF?” meaning “Special Forces?” An operator then confirmed, saying “Yes, we’ve been looking for you for a long time.” Bergdahl then broken down in tears.

Last week, Obama announced that all U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016. The U.S. is expected to reduce the force from 32,000 American personnel to 9,800 and end the U.S. combat mission by the end of this year.

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Bowe Bergdahl: 'Deserter' or hero?

Updated