It’s not what you don’t know that gets you in trouble, it’s what you know for certain that just isn’t so.
Nine years ago, in 2008, a 23-year-old young man with a history of mental illness enlisted in the Army on a waiver which exempted him from military recruitment standards which, rightfully, protect individuals with disqualifying medical conditions from being placed in the kinds of extreme physical and mental conditions that military service entails. The Army’s “Standards of Medical Fitness” is one such policy. Under a section titled “Personality, Conduct, and Behavior Disorders,” it reads:
“The causes for rejection for appointment, enlistment, and induction are… personality, conduct, or behavior disorders where it is evident by history… that the degree of immaturity, instability, personality inadequacy, impulsiveness, or dependency will seriously interfere with adjustment in the Army.”
I am a veteran. As such, I have experienced the military culture’s rumor mill, which traditionally blasts white-hot fury at individuals who break the rules. The nails that stick up get hammered down. In the courtroom of public opinion among troops and veterans, there is no room for exculpatory factors or context. There is no fog of war, nothing that is so complicated that it can’t be reduced to the question of whether a given individual should be dragged out and shot.
Such a culture makes it easier for military and political leadership to keep the troops in line, psychologically speaking. If the troops are programmed with a knee-jerk response of “They oughta hang him for treason!” and other casual, ignorant brutalities, the troops won’t pause to think about why a person like Bowe Bergdahl wrote home about his disgust with rank-and-file talk of casually murdering innocent Afghani children with Humvees, or think about his patriotic idealism being shattered when confronted with the realities of the machinistic reaping of human lives. Such thoughts entering troops’ heads would be bad for business. What if they began to question whether military recruitment policy was embedding individuals among them who were not qualified to watch their backs? What if the rank-and-file began to question whether their leaders truly have their best interests at heart? Worst of all, what if they started to question what we were still doing in Afghanistan eight years after 9/11?
The political attack against Obama for “dishonoring the soldiers who died searching for Bergdahl” was built on the central thesis that any soldiers died searching for Bergdahl at all.
Such questions have no place in a barracks. They are extremely dangerous to morale. In the barracks, there is only a machismo-fueled rumor mill of increasingly embellished assertions which get repeated ad nauseum until they are unquestioningly accepted as fact. The rumors are often propagated by the chain of command, and those ambitious souls seeking advancement within it.
In the case of Bowe Bergdahl, those fact-free embellishments include the accusation that 6 soldiers in his battalion, Clayton Bowen, Morris Walker, Kurt Curtiss, Darryn Andrews, Michael Murphrey, and Matthew Martinek, died in the ensuing search for him after he walked off his remote post in a Taliban-controlled region of Afghanistan.
This meme percolated within military culture throughout the five years Bergdahl spent missing and in chains in Taliban captivity, and exploded onto the national stage in 2014 when the Republican Party and its largest propaganda outlet, FOX News, took up the issue of Bergdahl’s prisoner exchange in return for 5 prisoners out of Guantanamo Bay as a national-level political attack against President Obama. It conveniently fit the narrative of other Republican attacks against President Obama over the years; the Iran Nuclear Treaty, the Paris Climate Accords, and the Russian Reset were all “bad deals” as well, according to his Republican critics. The political attack against Obama for “dishonoring the soldiers who died searching for Bergdahl” was built on the central thesis that any soldiers died searching for Bergdahl at all.
There’s just one problem. It isn’t true.
The immediate response to Bowe Bergdahl’s sentencing on November 3rd, 2017, was a near-universal backlash from the military culture. It included notable progressives as well, such as Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who tweeted the following:
After seeing this, I replied with a more empathetic and forgiving view of Bergdahl’s sentence to reduction in rank, fines against his back pay accrued while in terrorist captivity, and dishonorable discharge after his guilty plea to charges of Desertion and Misbehavior Before the Enemy. I received a mixed response and plenty of angry comments regurgitating various conflicting numbers of troops who supposedly died due to Bergdahl’s actions.
We deeply respect Rep. Gabbard for her many courageous choices and bucking of the Establishment, including being the only sitting member of Congress to deploy to the middle east, her resignation from the DNC to endorse Bernie Sanders, and her fact-finding trip to Syria to investigate the media narrative that the Assad-controlled Syrian military carried out Sarin and Chlorine gas attacks. The fact that even she has been caught up in propagating this false narrative only goes to show how universal this “common knowledge” about Bergdahl is in military culture.
Let’s look at the facts. Let’s remember the opinion of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who stated under oath in 2014, “I have seen no evidence that directly links any American combat death to the rescue or finding or search of Sergeant Bergdahl.”
Let’s also remember that, two years prior to his Army enlistment on a waiver in 2008, he had already had a brief military career as a Coast Guard recruit. In 2006, only 26 days into his basic Coast Guard training, he was discharged from the military following an incident in which he experienced a psychological breakdown and was quickly judged unfit for service.
Yes, you read that right. This prior discharge for breaking down under stress in training conditions normally should have been a disqualifying factor to his attempt to re-enlist in 2008, according to the “Standards of Medical Fitness” policy. However, as they did with 20% of all Army recruits in the year 2008, the Army slapped a waiver on his enlistment application and shipped him off into combat.
During the course of his Court Martial proceeding, the Army has formally investigated Bergdahl’s mental health. The Army Sanity Board evaluation held that Bergdahl suffers from PTSD and Schizotypal Personality Disorder, including at the time that he walked off his post. They concluded, “…Sgt. Bergdahl did have a severe mental disease or defect at the time of the alleged criminal conduct…”
Let’s also turn to the most comprehensive deep-dive investigative journalism done on this issue, which comes from journalist Sarah Koenig. In October of 2016, after spending over a year of trying to acquire the records of the military investigations into each of the 6 soldiers declared by Republicans, FOX News, and military culture to have been “killed looking for Bergdahl,” Koenig published her follow-up article, “Was Anyone Killed Looking for Bowe Bergdahl? Some Hard Evidence, at Long Last”.
Admittedly, in October 2016, America was a bit busy.
Here are the results; none of the six fallen soldiers were searching for Bergdahl, and none of them died during the 45-day period during which the military pursued its far-ranging “DUSTWUN” manhunt attempting to retrieve Bergdahl after his disappearance. The actual missions of these six fallen soldiers are clearly articulated by military investigators in the 15-6 Investigation reports, ranging from providing security during the Afghanistan national elections, to killing or capturing enemy forces, to securing strategic mountain locations. Koenig does, however, find hard evidence that three soldiers were wounded on July 7th, 2009 on a mission devoted to searching for Bergdahl, within the 45-day period of the DUSTWUN search. So there you have it, folks. The final tally of the weight on Bergdahl’s soul is 0 dead, 3 wounded, for which he has been appropriately punished in military criminal proceedings.
In the context of recent American history, Bowe Bergdahl is not the first POW to have been subjected to the white-hot blasts of fury from the military culture’s rumor mill, and right-wing politicians. Gary Powers, Scott O’Grady, and more recently, Senator John McCain have all been unfairly lashed and had their loyalty questioned by unfeeling and unempathetic parties. Our treatment of our returned POW’s has too often been a complete miscarriage of our duty to those who have served under the most difficult conditions imaginable.
When we do not raise our voices against these attacks, when we fail to lead by welcoming home our POW’s with jeers and death threats, we dishonor the sacred bond between our nation and those who serve it. The case of Bowe Bergdahl has been justly adjudicated, and from here on out, I wish him plentiful peace and quiet, and the opportunity to rebuild a new life.