Did Six Soldiers Really Die Looking for Bergdahl? Not Quite

by Spencer Case

The allegation that Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s disappearance and alleged desertion led to the deaths of at least six soldiers has intensified the public reaction to news that the U.S. exchanged five Taliban leaders for Bergdahl. But a closer examination of the story calls into question claims that a number of soldiers died in the process of looking for the missing infantryman.

In a CNN story entitled “How did 6 die after Bergdahl’s disappearance?” Jake Tapper writes,

Interviews with soldiers familiar with the specific missions in which the six died suggest the charge [that the search for Bergdahl resulted in six deaths] is complicated — but not without merit given how much the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment became focused on “PR” — personnel recovery — after Bergdahl vanished from his guard post on June 30, 2009.

Tapper goes on to detail the circumstances of each of the deaths in the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment — Bergdahl’s unit — that occurred between August 18 and September 6, 2009. All six deaths happened after the initial search, called DUSTWIN (Duty States: Whereabouts Unknown), had concluded. An unnamed U.S. official told CNN that the Army and the Pentagon could find no evidence that anyone was killed while searching for Bergdahl.

Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that pressure to search for Bergdahl as an auxiliary objective to other missions played some role in these deaths. For example, the first deaths, on August 18, were those of Staff Sergeant Clayton Bowen, 29, of San Antonio, Texas, and Pfc. Morris Walker, 23, of Fayetteville, N.C. They died from an IED blast while on a reconnaissance mission in Paktika Province, preparing for the August 20 elections. An unnamed officer quoted in the story said he believes the numerous air-assault missions aiding the search for Bergdahl contributed to the poor security situation in that province.

The claim that Bergdahl’s desertion did lead to American deaths, if indirectly, is further supported by a June 6 piece for the Daily Beast by former Army captain Nathan Bradley Bethea. Bethea, who served in Bergdahl’s battalion in Afghanistan when he went missing, elaborated the points made in that piece during a later interview with Anderson Cooper. He told Cooper:

When the report came up that there was an American soldier missing and he was likely captured, we . . . stopped everything that was happening in Paktika Province – and, to be honest with you, the whole of Regional Command East, Paktika Paktya, Ghazni and Khowst provinces – every American soldier got a change of mission and people starting getting sent out on these large-scale [operations] called “cordon and search” operations in which any village, any location where they had received information of a possible, you know, safe-house, or area where guys involved might be hiding, or where Bergdahl would be being held, they would go and surround the village and search every house, and this went on for days and then weeks.

Bethea’s piece also suggests that there could be more than six related deaths, since that figure accounts only for the fatalities in Bergdahl’s own unit:

One of my close friends was the company executive officer for the unit at Zerok. He is a mild-mannered and generous guy, not the kind of person prone to fits of pique or rage. But, in his opinion, the attack would not have happened had his company received its normal complement of intelligence aircraft: drones, planes, and the like. Instead, every intelligence aircraft available in theater had received new instructions: find Bergdahl. My friend blames Bergdahl for his soldiers’ deaths.

The preponderance of evidence seems to suggest that soldiers did indeed die due to Bergdahl’s disappearance, but exactly how many and who they were might be unknowable.