For soldiers, justice in Bergdahl case looks different
The case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is complicated and often emotional for many service members. Bergdahl walked away from his post in Afghanistan, was captured by the Taliban and now faces a court-martial.
Thursday night, the University of Alaska Anchorage hosted a panel with three soldiers, two of whom served with Bergdahl and are now out of the U.S. Army and one soldier currently serving. They talked about what happened to their unit after Bergdahl walked away, why they think he did it and what they’d like to see happen now that he’s back home.
U.S. soldiers had been fighting in Afghanistan for eight years when Bergdahl walked away from his post in 2009. He’d only been in country for a few months when he deserted Observation Post Mest.
“It was a somewhat controversial outpost,” said former Army Sgt. Johnathan Rice. “They put us there for no particular reason.”
Rice served in the same company as Bergdahl and has his own theory about what happened.
“Bergdahl has said essentially that he had wanted to, not join the Taliban, he wanted to be similar to a reporter that’s embedded in the Taliban, and he wanted to write a book about it,” said Rice.
Bergdahl has said he sought to draw attention to what he thought was a life-threatening breakdown of leadership in his unit. Something Rice says, if true, could have been accomplished much more easily.
“Even the Army adopted the open door policy so at any time, we could go up to any officer, any leadership and essentially just have an open forum with them,” he said.
Former Army Staff Sgt. Nick Tabaczka, who also served in Bergdahl’s company, says regardless of why Bergdahl left, that one action had consequences for the soldiers.
“Whether he walked away or not, we still have to go into ‘operation find him,’ and so everything changed,” said Tabaczka.
The routine patrols and counterinsurgency efforts stopped and a full search began, pushing the soldiers farther from home base.
“With us ramping up our Op tempo, we exposed ourselves significantly more,” said Rice.
With exposure comes risk of injury and death. Some blame what happened in the next two months squarely on Bergdahl.
“If you look at July of that year, so the very first month after this happened, we had broken the record for us soldiers killed in combat. Not a record obviously you’re trying to break,” said Tabaczka. “In August, we broke that record. So if you want to put it in context as far as there’s a correlation, it’s right there.”
After five years in captivity, his former unit has mixed reactions to the exchange that brought Bergdahl home: the release of five high-ranking Taliban leaders.
It made Rice angry, but Tabaczka saw a silver lining.
“I don’t really care what we have to give up, let’s just get this guy back because once we get this guy back, we’re that much closer to answers and we’re that much closer to justice,” said Tabaczka.
This case brought two American ideologies head-to-head: Don’t leave a man behind but also ddon’t negotiate with terrorists.
First Lt. Ryan Murrell says, from his perspective, as a soldier currently serving, bringing people home matters more.
“We never leave a soldier anywhere, no matter what,” said Murrell. “Despite their heinous crimes, whatever it may be, whatever facts you have, you have to do whatever you can to get all your soldiers home.”
So what is justice for Bergdahl’s desertion? For Tabaczka, a court-martial scheduled for later this year is enough.
“I’m just happy it made it that far because at least I had my faith [in Army justice] renewed. At least now I can say I’m proud of my service again,” he said.
Rice wants more, saying, “the only thing I want is for him to stand trial and for him to be found guilty, dishonorably discharged, stripped of rank, stripped of awards.”
It’s the ultimate punishment for a soldier who committed the ultimate crime: abandoning his post and his brothers in arms.
Bergdahl faces two charges: desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. The misbehavior charge is the more serious of the two and comes with a sentence of life in prison. His court-martial is scheduled for August.
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