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The story behind Rolling Stone's 'Last American POW' article

Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone feature this month about 26-year-old Bowe Bergdahl who was captured by the Taliban when he walked off his Army base in

Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone feature this month about 26-year-old Bowe Bergdahl who was captured by the Taliban when he walked off his Army base in Afghanistan three years ago disillusioned with the war tackles a difficult subject where a twentysomething solider is caught up in a painful tug-of-war.

Hastings deposits in "The Last American Prisoner of War" that Bergdahl’s imprisonment by the Taliban is complicated by internal debate among U.S. officials, including Sen. John McCain, as to whether the country should agree to trade five Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl. Further hurting Bergdahl's case is the fact that some see him as a deserter. Hastings explains how the Pentagon and the White House have worked to eliminate discussion of Bergdahl in the media for a variety of reasons, including threats to negotiations over his return.

“I think as Americans, whatever the reasons he left, a solider who signed up, who made this sacrifice, it would be a great thing for the country to put efforts behind trying to get this kid home,” Hastings said during msnbc’s NOW with Alex Wagner Friday.

Hastings, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone and BuzzFeed reporter, said one of the reasons he got the story was due to Bergdahl’s parents’ desperation to free their son after three long years.

“Bowe Berghdal’s mother and father, Jani and Bob Berghdal, have spent the last three years in silence,” he told Alex Wagner. “They have been praying every day to bring their kid home, and they were at a point of such desperation because he was still in captivity, that’s why they went to the press, that’s why they talked to me – to try to bring as much attention to their son’s cause as possible.”


Hastings also credits leaks with giving him the insight into a “top-secret, classified briefing” that outlines the internal debate happening among U.S. officials.

The tensions came to a boil in January, when administration officials went to Capitol Hill to brief a handful of senators on the possibility of a prisoner exchange. The meeting, which excluded staffers, took place in a new secure conference room in the Capitol visitor center. According to sources in the briefing, the discussion sparked a sharp exchange between Senators John McCain and John Kerry, both of whom were decorated for their service in Vietnam. McCain, who endured almost six years of captivity as a prisoner of war, threw a fit at the prospect of releasing five Taliban detainees.

Whether the publicity will help Berghdal or not, is a “risk that Bowe’s parents weighed,” Hastings said.

Either way, the emails that Berghdal sent to his parents prior to his capture are heartbreaking and indeed show a soldier who believes he was misled and blames his superior officers for incompentence and callousness.

In his final email before his capture:

"The future is too good to waste on lies," Bowe wrote. "And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be american. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting… The horror that is america is disgusting."

Berghdal’s rejection of his role in Afghanistan no doubt is unique to who he is as a person, his expectations, his beliefs—perhaps his thrifty upbringing in Idaho by devout Calvinists where his father taught him to always follow his conscience.

Still, Berghdal’s reasoning, however personal, merits examination in a week where we learn that suicides in the military are averaging nearly one a day since the start of the year—not including those no longer part of active duty.  

The exact causes are unknown, but Pentagon data supplied to the Associated Press suggests soldiers participating in multiple combat tours are more likely to commit suicide.

Suicides outpaced combat deaths of American soldiers in Afghanistan this year so far, as well as for the full years of 2008 and 2009, the AP reported.

These alarming statistics arrive six months after the last of U.S. troops left Iraq, following an eight-year war there, and just five weeks following the president’s declaration that the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan will last through 2014 while the country will support Afghans through 2024.

“When you have young men in these extremely stressful situations, they have different responses,” Hastings said on NOW. “These suicide numbers are horrifying and are just a symptom of repeated deployments.”