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FEATURE REPORT

Bergdahl, Franks: A tale of 2 'deserters'

U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Lawrence Franks was sentenced to dismissal from the military and four years of imprisonment in December 2014 after deserting his post in 2009.

U.S. ARMY PHOTO

By NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 20, 2016

Three months before Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl walked off his base in Afghanistan, 2nd Lt. Lawrence Franks walked away from his in upstate New York.

Two months before Bergdahl was returned to U.S. custody in Landstuhl, Germany, on May 31, 2014, Franks turned himself in at the Army garrison in Wiesbaden, Germany.

Both men had been gone for five years. But while Bergdahl, 30, awaits court-martial on desertion and misconduct charges, Franks, 29, awaits release from the prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

Franks went to court-martial with little fanfare in December 2014, and a military jury convicted him of desertion and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. The formerly exemplary West Point graduate was sentenced to dismissal from the service and four years of imprisonment.

The sentence was seen by some as harsh in light of Frank’s history of suicidal depression and one other fact: Franks had been engaged in the war on terrorism, albeit with a different army. The case is scheduled for appellate review this summer.

“We’re focused on getting the conviction overturned and the sentence vacated,” said Franks’ appellate lawyer, Jack Zimmermann. “We don’t think he committed a crime.”

It’s impossible to predict whether Franks’ court-martial outcome might foreshadow the highly politicized Bergdahl case. There are differences.

“Franks was an officer. He was educated at taxpayer expense,” said Eugene Fidell, Bergdahl’s lawyer. “He wasn’t being held captive. He was being paid good money. The disparities are very substantial.”

Yet Franks’ story in many ways parallels Bergdahl’s and is in some ways even stranger.

Parallels

According to reports in The New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine, Franks left his unit at Fort Drum as it was preparing for an Afghanistan deployment. He flew to France and joined the French Foreign Legion.

Before enlisting in the Army, Bergdahl had also tried to join the legion, a wing of the French Army composed mainly of foreign volunteers and with a reputation for taking all-comers, few questions asked.

Where Bergdahl was rejected, Franks excelled. He was given a new name, Christopher Flaherty, and a new, far lesser rank — legionnaire second class, the equivalent of a private. He did peacekeeping tours in the Central African Republic and Djibouti. In 2013, after Islamic fighters linked to al-Qaida took over northern Mali, Franks, who’d been promoted several times, became personal security guard to the commanding French army general.

“He is a man I will never forget and by whom I will always stand,” Brig. Gen. Laurent Kolodziej said in video testimony at Franks’ trial, according to the Times. “He is more than a born soldier; he is a born gentleman.”

Meanwhile, Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban hours after walking off his base on his way to report what he perceived as dangerous flaws in his unit’s leadership. Bergdahl spent most of his time alone in the dark, sometimes beaten and tortured, particularly after escape attempts.

“You do your best; that’s all you can do. I think Sgt. Bergdahl did that, and I respect him for it,” testified Terrence Russell, who debriefed Bergdahl after he was recovered in a prisoner swap.

Franks surrendered after he’d completed his five-year contract with the legion.

“To turn myself in was the happiest moment in my life,” Franks told the Times. “Now I was coming home to my family and to take responsibility for what I had done.”

Officers in charge of both men’s Article 32 investigatory hearings were sympathetic and recommended against general court-martial and imprisonment. The Army went ahead, nonetheless. But while Franks faced a maximum six-year sentence, Bergdahl’s misconduct charge — endangering troops who searched for him — potentially exposes him to a life sentence.

Gung-ho soldiers

Franks and Bergdahl were both considered gung-ho soldiers before they disappeared. Military ethicist and Georgetown University professor Nancy Sherman said that both, reared in strict, religious families in the rural West, seemed to have held idealized, unrealistic expectations of the Army and themselves.

Bergdahl was enthralled by samurai warriors, and strived to do the right thing regardless of outcome. Franks revered the Spartan king Leonidas, who died heroically in battle in 480 B.C. Both frequently believed that they’d failed to live up to their own standards.

Romantic ideas are not uncommon in young people drawn to the military and its veneration of honor, duty, sacrifice and service to the nation.

“Often, that’s a very good thing,” Sherman said. “But you can see how there could be this excess and this sense of perfection. Duty can’t be perfectly achieved.”

Behind the military mystique, in other words, is an institution composed of people who are all too human.

“The more idealized your view of an institution, the more prone you are to disappointment in leadership and in yourself,” Sherman said. “There’s severe moral disappointment. The illusions burst.”

Franks was diagnosed with depression and suicidal ideation. Bergdahl, who was diagnosed with a personality disorder characterized by paranoia and delusion, had washed out of the Coast Guard in boot camp and should not have been enlisted into the Army, according to retired Army psychiatrist Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis.

Yet, there will always be soldiers who go astray simply because the combat arms rely on young men, Xenakis said. “Who else is going to decide to jump out of a perfectly good airplane?”

Such daring is indivisible from the impulsivity of the youthful male brain, Xenakis said. “This is the strength. But like everything else, your strength can be your weakness.”

montgomery.nancy@stripes.com

Bowe Bergdahl (right) is shown with Badruddin Haqqani in a Twitter post.
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