More soldiers who served in Afghanistan are emerging to challenge the Obama administration’s attempt to give Army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl a hero’s welcome. Several of Bergdahl’s former platoon members accuse him of deserting his unit in 2009 and emphasize that six other soldiers died during the search for the missing private (who was later promoted in absentia).
As allegations of desertion — a criminal offense historically punished by harsh sentences — emerge from multiple witnesses, the administration’s judgment and decision to swap him for five high-ranking Taliban officials are coming in for sharp condemnation from Republicans and some Democrats.
Amid the devastating claims from soldiers who served with Bergdahl — who eventually made his way into Taliban custody and spent five years in western Pakistan, probably with the Haqqani terrorist network — the White House has tried to quell or dismiss questions about him, as has the State Department. Foggy Bottom spokeswoman Marie Harf Tuesday encouraged reporters to be “really careful about believing every second- or third-hand report out there.”
However, the reports are in fact coming from soldiers who served with Bergdahl and were with him up until he left the base, as well as soldiers who were sent to look for him following his disappearance. Here is a list of ten of those platoon members, as well as accounts of the families of soldiers who died searching for Bergdahl:
Jose Baggett, former Pfc
Jose Baggett knew two of the soldiers who were killed searching for Bergdahl.
“Nobody knows if he defected or he’s a traitor or he was kidnapped,” Baggett told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “What I do know is, he was there to protect us, and instead he decided to [defect] from America and go and do his own thing. I don’t know why he decided to do that, but we spent so much of our resources, and some of those resources were soldiers’ lives.”
Nathan Bradley Bethea, former infantry officer
“The truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down,” writes Nathan Bradley Bethea, who served in the same battalion as Bergdahl and participated in attempts to retrieve him.
In an article for the Daily Beast, Bethea describes the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance, and the search mission that followed.
“Bergdahl was relieved from guard duty, and instead of going to sleep, he fled the outpost on foot,” Bethea writes. He elaborated in a CNN interview, “There wasn’t any other explanation — he must have intentionally left the guys in his unit behind.”
The combat platoons in Bergdahl’s battalion undertook daily search missions, and some of these missions would last for ten days. “The war was already absurd and quixotic,” Bethea writes, “but the hunt for Bergdahl was even more infuriating because it was all the result of some kid doing something unnecessary by his own volition.”
Bethea explains how six soldiers were killed in the search for Bergdahl. Though Bergdahl has finally returned, he wrote, “those men will never have the opportunity.”
Bethea has forgiven Bergdahl, saying his retrieval “at least reminds soldiers that we will never abandon them to their fates, right or wrong.” Still, he wrote that Bergdahl “has much to answer for.”
Evan Buetow, former sergeant
Former Army sergeant Evan Buetow was Bergdahl’s team leader at the time. Buetow told CNN intelligence from the search for Bergdahl indicates that Bergdahl deserted his platoon to seek out the Taliban. Buetow noted that following Bergdahl’s apparent desertion, the Taliban attacks on American forces got more effective.
“Following his disappearance, IEDs started going off directly under the trucks,” Buetow said. “They were getting perfect hits every time. Their ambushes were very calculated, very methodical, like they knew what we were going to do.”
Buetow explained that U.S. searchers monitored radio and cell-phone communications during their attempts to find Bergdahl, and overheard a conversation that suggested that Bergdahl was pursuing the Taliban. He said that the searchers heard, “the American is in [a nearby village], he’s looking for someone who speaks English so he can talk to the Taliban.”
“And I heard it straight from the interpreter’s lips as he heard it over the radio,” Buetow said.
In an ABC interview, Buetow also described how Bergdahl “was very upset with the army and how we were handling the war.”
Joshua Cornelison, former platoon medic
“Yes, I’m angry,” former medic Joshua Cornelison told the New York Times about the celebration of Bergdahl as a hero.
“I won’t get into the politics, but now that he’s back, he needs to be held 100 percent accountable,” Cornelison told the newspaper. He added that the platoon was ordered to quit other missions to find Bergdahl, “putting myself and 29 other people in my platoon in hell for 90 days.”
Cornelison joined others in calling for Bergdahl to be court-martialed.
“He is not a hero — he is, rather, a deserter,” he said in a separate interview with NBC. “He willfully decided to be selfish and to walk away from everything we were trained to do.”
Cody Full, former sergeant
“I believe that he deserted, without a doubt in my mind,” Sergeant Cody Full said of Bergdahl, his former platoon-mate, in a Fox News interview.
Full described how some of Bergdahl’s activities before he deserted were “tell-tale signs” of his intentions to desert. The former sergeant sent his belongings home, emailed remarks critical of the U.S. army, and spoke to the Afghan national police with an “agenda,” Full said.
Bergdahl’s departure “was premeditated, it was thought out,” Full said in a separate ABC interview. “He left on his own accord.”
“We all took an oath; he violated his oath when he deserted us and put other Americans in jeopardy,” Full said. He explained that the six soldiers who died in the search for Bergdahl were in that situation because of his desertion.
Josh Korder, former sergeant
Former Army sergeant Josh Korder, who served with Bergdahl, told CNN that Bergdahl is “at best, a deserter, and at worst, a traitor.”
Korder described how immediately after their platoon’s arrival in Afghanistan, Bergdahl “starting separating himself from us and everyone in the platoon, and started gravitating more towards the Afghan soldiers.”
As to why Bergdahl decided to leave the platoon, Korder thinks that Bergdahl “just wanted to go on an adventure, without having anybody to answer to.”
Korder expressed frustration that though the six soldiers who died searching for Bergdahl were given little recognition and media attention, Bergdahl has been nationally celebrated in the media.
“Any of us would have died for him while he was with us,” Korder said. “For him to just leave us like that — it was a very big betrayal.” Korder thinks that Bergdahl should be questioned and possibly tried once he is healthy.
Greg Leatherman, former squad leader
Bergdahl’s former squad leader told Time that while he respected Bergdahl’s “loner” personality, he speculated that Bergdahl’s efforts to read the Koran and learn Pashto were his way of “preparing” to walk off the base and live on his own.
Leatherman knew some of the men who died searching for Bergdahl, and came forward to share his frustrations. “People deserve, and especially the families, to know the truth about what happened,” he told This Morning.
Gerald Sutton, former army specialist
Former Army specialist Gerald Sutton, a former platoon-mate of Bergdahl’s, believes Bergdahl should face the consequences of his actions, including a court-martial.
Sutton told Fox News that although he does not know what Bergdahl’s motivations were, he thinks the desertion was “premeditated.”
“I just don’t want to see him hailed as a hero,” Sutton said.
Matt Vierkant, former sergeant
One of Bergdahl’s former platoon-mates thinks the swap of five Taliban officials for Bergdahl doesn’t make any sense. “I don’t understand why we’re trading prisoners at Gitmo for somebody who deserted during a time of war, which is an act of treason,” former Army sergeant Matt Vierkant told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
“I was pissed off then, and I am even more so now with everything going on,” he continued. “Bowe Bergdahl deserted during a time of war, and his fellow Americans lost their lives searching for him.”
An anonymous platoon-mate remarked that the resentment toward Bergdahl for walking off was unmatched. “The amount of animosity is nothing like you’ve ever seen before,” the soldier told CNN.
The solider recalled the “unbelievable” efforts the military made to rescue Bergdahl when he first disappeared, including one instance where platoons ran out of water, food, and ammunition while on the mission. “All because of the selfish act of one person,” the soldier said.
Family of Members Lost Searching for Bergdahl:
Sondra and Andy Andrews
The parents of Second Lieutenant Darryn Andrews were initially told their son died on a mission searching for a Taliban commander, only to learn recently that he was killed on a mission tasked with finding Bergdahl. Andy Andrews called the situation a “cover-up.”
Prior to Andrews’s death, his parents recalled him telling them about his platoon-mate’s disappearance.“He said [Bergdahl] just walked off — he wasn’t captured on a battlefield or anything, he just walked off the base and left everything behind except a compass and a bottle of water,” Andy told Fox News.
Both parents hoped that Bergdahl would be tried before a court.
“He left his men during a war, so that is even more critical than just leaving their base,” Sondra said. “He left them without adequate men, he created a vulnerability there for them because they had to look for him, and the Taliban knew that the Americans would look for their men.”
While she does not blame Bergdahl directly for the death of her husband, Staff Sergeant Kurt Curtiss, Elizabeth Ivory did take issue with the praise the former captive has received.
“I’m more than happy that he is no longer a prisoner of war,” she told NBC. “But I’m not okay with people wanting to call him a hero.”
— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online. Molly Wharton is an intern at National Review.