In July 2009, 23 members of Congress signed a letter demanding that Lt. Col. Ralph Peters apologize for stating on a Fox News segment that PFC Bowe Bergdahl “abandoned his buddies, abandoned his post, and just walked off” a U.S. Army base in Afghanistan prior to his capture by the Taliban. Peters’s comments “call into question, without any supporting evidence whatsoever,” the congressmen wrote, “PFC Bergdahl’s patriotism and commitment to his country.” Yesterday, Bergdahl admitted to that abandonment, pleading guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy in a military court.
Here are Peters’ original comments, which he made on Monday, July 20:
Nobody in the military that I’ve heard is defending this guy; he is an apparent deserter, reports are indeed that he abandoned his buddies, abandoned his post, and walked off. We’ll see what the ultimate truth of it is, but if he did, he’s a deserter in wartime . . .
I want to be clear — if when the facts are in, we find out that through some convoluted chain of events, he really was captured by the Taliban, I’m with him. But if he walked away from his post and his buddies in wartime, I don’t care how hard it sounds. As far as I’m concerned, the Taliban can save us a lot of legal hassles and legal bills.
His comments quickly attracted criticism for their insensitivity and frankness, and lead to “efforts” made by the show’s anchor, Julie Banderas, to express that Peters’s opinions are not those of Fox News. The next day, Tuesday, July 21, the congressmen – all veterans, 14 Democrats and nine Republicans — published their letter, in which they “demand[ed] an apology to PFC Bergdahl’s family” from apparently both Fox News and Peters — the letter was addressed to then-Fox News chairman Roger Ailes.
To clarify his statements and answer the criticism, Peters joined Bill O’Reilly on The O’Reilly Factor that night. This is Peters, speaking during the segment:
Let’s lay out what our military knows happened, Bill. First of all, I asked a very senior military leader for a yes or no answer: “Is PFC Bergdahl a deserter?” The answer was yes . . . Our army also knows that he left his combat outpost, he left his buddies in the hours of darkness, left his weapon behind of his own volition.
O’Reilly stopped Peters here to argue this makes Bergdahl “crazy,” saying “there’s gotta be something mentally wrong with [him]” to abandon his weapon and fellow soldiers in somewhere as dangerous and remote as Afghansitan. Peters continues by explaining that the reason for his frustration is grounded in elevations of Bergdahl to “hero” status; the media is celebrating a controversial prisoner of war while ignoring injured soldiers in hospitals or decorated veterans at home:
I do hope for his family’s sake this guy comes back safely . . . [but] the other networks aren’t doing the investigative work; [they should] say “What’s the circumstances? Can we talk to the guys in his unit?” . . . It’s also a legal case. As a minimum this is a court-martial offense. Of course, we may just put him on Oprah’s couch when he gets back, we’ll see.
The next day, Wednesday, July 22, saw a second firestorm, including a separate statement by then-representative Eric Massa (D., N.Y.), titled “Congressman Eric Massa demands that Fox News immediately fire Bill O’Reilly and Lt. Col Ralph Peters and apologize to the family of PFC Bowe Bergdahl.” To be clear, those who critiqued Peters took issue most with the supposed implication that Peters hoped the Taliban executed Bergdahl. But their incredulity was founded in a disbelief that Bergdahl could’ve deserted his post.
On her MSNBC show that day, Rachel Maddow played a clip of Paul Rieckhoff, head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, saying Peters “needs to shut his mouth” because “he doesn’t know what happened on the ground.” Maddow then provides her own incredulity:
[Paraphrasing Peters] “I can guarantee you that he ashamed his unit.”
Guarantee us? Really?
Her guest, Jim Miklaszewski, chief Pentagon correspondent for NBC News, then says there’s no evidence that Bergdahl deserted his unit:
Well, you know, as you mentioned a moment ago, senior military and Pentagon officials, not only in Washington but there on the ground in Afghanistan, say there’s no question he’s not a deserter.
Now, he did leave his post by himself. He came off a patrol on June 30th, dropped off his weapon, his body armor, grabbed up a bottle of water, compass and a knife, and took off out on his own. And it was some time after that, apparently, that some local militants grabbed him and turned him over to the Taliban.
Now, should he have left the post alone? Of course, not. But it doesn’t make him a deserter.
Perhaps Peters’s statements were too aggressive, but he was correct that Bergdahl’s capture was due to desertion. Even O’Reilly was right in his assumption that Bergdahl was mentally unstable, which was confirmed following Bergdahl’s return to the U.S.