An article published last week in Newsweek magazine, written by former Idaho Mountain Express reporter Michael Ames, claims that the U.S. Army used the abduction of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to justify numerous raids in southeast Afghanistan, even though the military knew Bergdahl had been moved to Pakistan shortly after having been captured by Taliban militants in 2009.
“The idea that America’s only prisoner of war in the post-9/11 era was being held inside the borders of a key ally in its War on Terror posed some serious problems,” Ames wrote.
Bergdahl was raised in Blaine County. For reasons that remain unclear, he apparently left his military base, unarmed, in the Paktika province of Afghanistan in June 2009. He spent the next five years in Taliban captivity. The soldier was freed during a controversial prisoner swap last year, which freed five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
A hero’s welcome-home party for Bergdahl in Hailey was canceled last summer when threats were sent to the Bergdahl family and Hailey City Hall, claiming that Bergdahl was a deserter or traitor, and responsible for the deaths of soldiers sent to search for him after he was captured.
“The full truth—that the Army sent infantrymen on dangerous missions to find a soldier it knew was no longer missing—is far more complicated, and confounding,” Ames wrote in Newsweek.
Ames reported that the military assumed Bergdahl was transported quickly across the Pakistan border after he was captured.
The Army has charged Bergdahl with desertion, and a separate charge of misbehavior in the face of the enemy. The latter charge could bring a maximum penalty of life in prison. A hearing is scheduled on July 8 to determine if the case goes to a court-martial, is dismissed, or settled without a trial.
Ames interviewed Bergdahl’s former platoon-mates to paint a picture of the time before Bergdahl was captured at Observation Post Melek, 25 miles from the Pakistan border.
“He was one of the fittest in the platoon, two of them told Newsweek,” wrote Ames, who is now based in New York City. “He was meticulous about the gun-cleaning, field-manual-memorizing details of military life. He and his buddies liked to spend nights drinking chai with the Afghan National Police officers stationed up on a dusty hill. He smoked a pipe. Some of the guys thought he was weird, but they all thought he was reliable.”
“Up until the second he walked away, he was the example of the good soldier,” Ames quoted Blackfoot Co. Army Specialist Gerald Sutton as saying. “He was always doing his job. We never had to worry about him.”
Bergdahl’s close friend from the platoon added, “He always did what he was told, always there to help you. Always,” Ames wrote.
Bergdahl’s disappearance changed the mission for Blackfoot Co. and the 1st Battalion of the 501st Regiment “instantly and dramatically,” Ames wrote.
“From the second he (Bergdahl) left until we left the country, our whole mission was screwed up,” Bergdahl’s friend told Ames. “[In] every operation order until March 2010, he was thrown in the mix: ‘You’re gonna be looking for Bergdahl.’”
“It changed the mission [in Afghanistan] for everyone,” said Sgt. Jordan Vaughan in the Newsweek article. Vaughan served in a separate Blackfoot Co. platoon and said he was sent on at least 50 missions to find the missing soldier, Ames wrote.
“We stopped the regular counter-insurgency mission and instead went and looked for Bergdahl,” Vaughan was quoted as saying.
“It was a wild goose chase,” said a friend of Bergdahl’s from the 2nd Platoon, in the Newsweek article. “We went all over southeast Afghanistan.”
“But, he adds, ‘We did whack a lot of people in the process,’” Ames reported.
“According to Vaughan and other men from Blackfoot Co., at least eight soldiers were killed on those searches. Platoon medic Josh Cornelison told NBC News last June, ‘Every single person that died [out there] was doing something to find Bowe Bergdahl,’” Ames reported.
“And yet the Pentagon has steadfastly denied the claim,” Ames wrote. “‘I do not know of specific circumstances or details of U.S. soldiers dying as a result of efforts to find and rescue Sergeant Bergdahl,’ former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last summer.’”
Ames interviewed parents of a soldier who allegedly died while searching for Bergdahl, and other military and State Department officials under the condition of anonymity, to show that the Army used Bergdahl’s disappearance to conduct raids, kill enemy fighters and gather intelligence in Afghanistan.
“Bergdahl’s abduction coincided with the start of the largest American surge of the 13 years of that war—from less than 40,000 servicemen in early 2009 to about 100,000 in late 2010. In the summer of 2009, the Taliban were ascendant across southern Afghanistan,” Ames wrote.
“The escalation affected both sides of the border. On the Pakistan side, CIA drone strikes, that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports likely killed many more civilians than militants, rose from 35 in 2008 to 117 in 2010,” Ames wrote.
“In both legal and moral terms, the charge that Bergdahl’s actions led to the deaths of fellow soldiers is the most important and disturbing one he faces,” Ames wrote.
Ames told the Idaho Mountain Express in an interview on Monday that since the Newsweek article was published on April 9, the feedback from sources and in general has been “90 percent positive.”
“The day after the story came out, I heard from another soldier who had talked to the news media about soldiers that had been killed looking for Bergdahl,” Ames said. “He said he discussed the article with a friend he had served with in Afghanistan, and they agreed that the article was spot on.”
Ames said he also heard from one of six soldiers described in the Newsweek article as having denounced Bergdahl during a “media tour” partially-funded by Fox News.
“He said he was happy to read some public airing of what the (Bergdahl) family had gone through,” Ames said.
Ames said regardless of the Army’s motives following Bergdahl’s disappearance, he remains uncertain as to why Bergdahl left his military base in 2009.
“I hope people will remain open-minded and realize that the full story has not been told,” he said.