Freed hero or traitor? As the only U.S. soldier held by the Taliban is released, the doubts over his story and its unsettling echoes of a controversial TV thriller
- Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl went missing in Afghanistan in 2009
- Ex-comrades say he was 'selfish' and cost the lives of other U.S. soldiers
- Likened to fictional U.S. Marine Nicholas Brody played by Damian Lewis
- Homeland sees the character captured in Iraq before becoming a Muslim
By TOM LEONARD
PUBLISHED: 19:08 EST, 2 June 2014 | UPDATED: 02:17 EST, 3 June 2014
Comrades recall how Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl had just come off guard duty in the early hours of June 30, 2009, when he approached his team leader with a peculiar question.
If he were to leave their base — a remote U.S. outpost in the mountains of south-eastern Afghanistan — would it be a problem if he took his ‘sensitive’ equipment?
Having been advised that taking his gun and night vision goggles would certainly be ‘a problem’, the 23-year-old returned to his makeshift barracks and collected his water bottle, digital camera, knife, compass and diary. Then he slipped into the darkness.
Life imitating art: Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl as a young private (left) and a Taliban hostage (right)
When he was nowhere to be found at roll call the following morning, the military launched a major operation to find him before the enemy did.
Reports came in of a U.S. soldier asking the locals if any of them spoke English, and children said they saw a soldier behaving strangely as he writhed around on his stomach in the weeds.
By the afternoon, intercepted radio messages revealed he was in the hands of the Taliban. Despite a couple of early sightings and a series of internet video appearances, which showed him looking progressively more gaunt and unhealthy, Bergdahl disappeared.
An idealistic dreamer who once tried to join the French Foreign Legion and idolised British survival expert Bear Grylls, he wasn’t seen again face to face by a fellow countryman until last Saturday.
Then, nearly five years after he went missing, the 28-year-old was handed over to special forces troops on the Afghan-Pakistan border and whisked off in a helicopter.
The exchange of the sole U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan for five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo Bay has plunged the Obama administration into a major row over ethics and strategy. It has also sensationally raised another question: just who is the man the U.S. is welcoming back?
The return of a long-missing soldier held by captors as ruthless as the Taliban (or rather a linked group called the Haqqani) would normally be the occasion for universal rejoicing. But Republican politicians and former comrades — until now legally forbidden to discuss Bergdahl in case it jeopardised rescue efforts — say there is nothing to celebrate.
Bergdahl, they claim, was a ‘selfish’ deserter who cost the lives of at least six other U.S. soldiers, who died as the hunt for him took them into dangerous rebel-held areas.
'Captured by Al Qaeda in Iraq': Fictional Sergeant Nicholas Brody is played by actor Damian Lewis in Homeland
Worse, amid considerable evidence that he was sickened by the American military operation, and sympathetic towards Afghans, some insist the U.S. may be welcoming back a traitor. Whatever his motives for leaving his base and walking out of the war, could Bergdahl have been ‘turned’ by the Taliban?
As former comrades jammed internet forums and radio stations yesterday to attack Bergdahl, it was becoming increasingly clear why some liken him to the fictional Sergeant Nicholas Brody in the smash-hit TV series Homeland.
Brody, played by British actor Damian Lewis, is a U.S. Marine captured by Al Qaeda in Iraq and gradually converted to the terrorists’ cause. He learns Arabic and becomes a Muslim. In a moment that convinces him he is on the wrong side, a little boy he has befriended is slaughtered in a U.S. air attack.
While no one seriously suggests Bergdahl is an Islamic assassin, there are striking echoes of the TV drama in his story
Rescued by special forces years later, he is welcomed home by an America that little suspects he has a terrorist agenda and plans to assassinate the Vice-President.
While no one seriously suggests Bergdahl is an Islamic assassin, there are striking echoes of the TV drama in his story.
In Homeland, the hostage’s wife finds solace in the arms of his best friend — and Bergdahl will return to find his girlfriend, Monica Lee, has found love with another man. Bergdahl told her in internet messages to his family not to wait for him. But when her mother called her with the news of his release, the 25-year-old asked her: ‘What do I do now?’
Of course, just because a TV series indulges an outlandish scenario, it hardly means a real soldier would ever react the same way. Bergdahl’s father, Bob, has said he will ‘defend his character until the day I die’.
Mr Bergdahl, who lives with Bowe’s mother, Jani, at a ranch near the Idaho mountain town of Hailey, learned Pashto — Afghanistan’s official language — and grew a bushy, Taliban-style beard. He wanted to come across as the sort of man to whom the Taliban might respond when he pleaded for his son’s return.
Parents: Bergdahl's father, Bob (right), has said he will 'defend his character'. Mr Bergdahl, who lives with Bowe's mother, Jani (left), at a ranch in Idaho, learned the language of Pashto and grew a Taliban-style beard
Even Bergdahl’s devoted parents admit he made for a highly unconventional soldier. They home-schooled the boy, instilling in him their Christian values. He was outdoorsy, able to shoot a .22 rifle and ride a horse by the age of five. Later, he travelled around Europe and applied to join the French Foreign Legion but was turned down, reportedly because recruiters doubted his mental stability. Instead, he joined the U.S. Army, but from the start he kept apart from other soldiers, whom he saw as ill-disciplined and hopeless.
He buried himself in books about Zen meditation, the writings of Aristotle and a book called Three Cups Of Tea, about a crusade to educate girls in Afghanistan. He told a friend that if their first tour of duty in Afghanistan was ‘lame’, he was going to ‘walk off into the mountains of Pakistan’.
He told a friend that if their first tour of duty in Afghanistan was 'lame', he was going to 'walk off into the mountains of Pakistan'
Members of his unit, part of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, say his manner became odder when they reached eastern Afghanistan’s remote Paktika region. ‘He spent more time with the Afghans than he did with his platoon,’ said a comrade.
He told some of them he wanted to walk to India. His father admitted to military investigators that his son became ‘psychologically isolated’.
In letters and emails home, Bergdahl made his disillusionment clear. ‘I feel ashamed to even be American,’ he wrote. ‘The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting.’
In an uncanny echo of Homeland, Bergdahl was particularly affected by seeing an Afghan child fatally run over by a U.S. armoured vehicle.
‘We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armoured trucks,’ he complained in a final email sent three days before he disappeared. ‘I am sorry for everything. The horror that is America is disgusting.’
The possibility that Bergdahl might have become more than just an unwilling prisoner started to gain traction after the Taliban put out an early internet video of him wearing a long beard and military uniform, denouncing the U.S. operation and pleading to be released.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Army promoted Bergdahl twice while he was a captive, first to the rank of specialist, before making him up to a sergeant. He is also entitled to his full back pay.
Clip: A still from a 2010 video released by the Taliban had footage of a man said to be Bowe Bergdahl (left)
In 2010, a Taliban commander calling himself Haji Nadeem claimed Bergdahl had converted to Islam and renamed himself Abdullah. Bergdahl, he said, had learned Pashto and was so trusted that he was allowed to go off bird-hunting with an old British rifle and sleep at night without shackles.
More significantly, he had allegedly been teaching the Taliban how make bombs and set ambushes. Afghan intelligence officials confirmed they had heard he was socialising with his captors over Afghan green tea and even teaching them to play baseball.
The Pentagon dismissed stories of his providing military assistance as Taliban propaganda. Others pointed out that Bergdahl can be forgiven for fraternising with men he feared might behead him. Even Nadeem admitted his fellow Taliban had come to doubt the sincerity of ‘our dear guest’ after his escape attempt in 2010.
In an uncanny echo of Homeland, Bergdahl was particularly affected by seeing an Afghan child fatally run over by a U.S. armoured vehicle
Reportedly jumping from a first-floor window of his mud-and-brick home in Pakistan, he evaded recapture for three days before being found weak, exhausted and near naked in a shallow trench.
Whatever the truth, he faces tough questions from debriefers, once they overcome his reported difficulties about speaking English.
Former comrades certainly don’t feel he deserves a hero’s welcome. Some say he must be tried before a military court. ‘Bergdahl was a deserter and soldiers from his unit died trying to track him down,’ says Captain Nathan Bradley Bethea, who served in the same battalion.
But he said he refused to call Bergdahl a ‘traitor’ on the grounds he didn’t know what happened after he was captured.
The White House insists it doesn’t care why he left his post, it simply wants him home. But the Obama administration faces angry accusations that it broke the law by not warning Congress of the hostage deal, and has set an ugly precedent that will encourage other terror groups to take hostages.
In his hometown of Hailey in the picturesque Sawtooth Mountains, few believe the stories about Bergdahl being a deserter or a traitor. His only weakness, locals say, was being too much of an idealist.
So could he really, like Homeland’s Sgt Brody, have been ‘turned’ by his captors, or is Bergdahl simply a man who has suffered an awful ordeal?
For the officers debriefing him in Germany, they are tantalising questions indeed.
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