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Former soldiers recount trying search for missing POW Bowe Bergdahl

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — When Anchorage-based Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl went missing at a lightly fortified outpost in southeastern Afghanistan in 2009, soldiers he left behind say it upended their deployment mission from one of turning Afghans away from the Taliban into a dangerous and fruitless rescue operation.

“Everybody’s improving their own areas, improving the villages around them, making life better and making it easier for us to leave — we started the engine, we walk away,” said Nick Tabaczka, then a staff sergeant in Blackfoot Company (the same unit as Bergdahl) and now a University of Alaska Anchorage student. “When all this happened, everything changed.”

“After Bergdahl disappeared, we started doing our rescue missions back to back,” said Kenneth Nall, then a private and now a stay-at-home dad. “That’s when people were starting to get hurt all the time, because we had pushed so many more soldiers in theater to look for this guy.” Nall himself was badly injured when his Army vehicle struck an improvised bomb in the search for Bergdahl.

The first jubilant moments when Bergdahl was released by the Taliban on May 31 in a swap for five Guantanamo prisoners quickly turned sour and political. Some in Congress objected to the swap. Members of Bergdahl’s Second Platoon, interviewed in national media, in some cases in arrangements made by Republican strategists, described Bergdahl as a deserter. The former soldiers said at least two Anchorage-based soldiers were killed in action because of him.

With the issue simmering on the national stage, four former soldiers from Bergdahl’s company, including three from the platoon that split duty at Outpost Mest with Bergdahl’s platoon, agreed to an interview last week. They said they wanted to express solidarity with the soldiers from the Second Platoon, at least on the point that the Army should investigate Bergdahl as a deserter who endangered his fellow soldiers and should be held to account in a court-martial if the facts warrant.

But they also said they had no interest in getting involved in the partisan politics surrounding Bergdahl’s release and said they were happy he can now come home — even if his destination is a brig and not his hometown of Hailey, Idaho.

The four, Tabaczka, 34, from Manistee, Mich.; Nall, 35, from Lubbock, Texas; former Sgt. Johnathan Rice, 27, from Daytona Beach, Fla.; and former Spc. Ryan McNeely, 27, from Buchanan, Mich., all remained in the Anchorage area as civilians after leaving the Army’s 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. They served in the Brigade’s 2009 deployment to Afghanistan with the 150-soldier Blackfoot Company of the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment.

Rice approached the Anchorage Daily News / Alaska Dispatch last week to express his opinions on Bergdahl’s release.

'They had lost their man'

The 3,500 soldiers and six battalions of the 4-25th paratroop brigade began deploying in February 2009 for a one-year mission to three restive provinces in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border: Paktiya, Khost and Paktika.

It was Tabaczka’s third deployment. He’d been to Iraq twice, including the extended 15-month deployment of the 4-25th during the 2007 surge. But now, and instead of his normal assignment as squad leader, he worked intelligence for Blackfoot Company at the 1-501st headquarters, Forward Operating Base Sharana.

Rice, now a college student, was also a veteran of the 2007 Iraq deployment of the 4-25th. In Afghanistan, he was fire team leader of Third Platoon. Nall and McNeely, who now works with developmentally disabled people, were assigned to the platoon.

Outpost Mest was built on a dry riverbed at the village of Mest Malak, they said. It covered maybe an acre or two and was shared with Afghan police.

“The first night we went out to Mest, we were the first platoon that was out there to actually start building on the OP,” Nall said, using shorthand for outpost.

The perimeter fortifications were modest at first, they said: rolls of concertina wire, their own armored trucks, trenches, and a bluff behind them. Because they were in the dry riverbed, they were below the adobe buildings of the villages and were occasionally attacked by gunfire and mortars.

Second Platoon — Bergdahl’s — took turns at the outpost with the Third, each staying from four days to a week. The platoons had between 20 and 30 soldiers, depending on injuries, leaves or other assignments. Rice said the outpost was their down time between patrol rotations.

The three soldiers said they knew Bergdahl by sight but didn’t socialize with him. He appeared awkward around people, they said.

The first few months of deployment were relatively uneventful — by design.

“For a year before we went to Afghanistan, everything that we learned and everything that we did training-wise, was diverted to counter-insurgency operations,” said Tabaczka, the former intelligence officer. “If you joined the Army to play ‘Call of Duty,’ but (in) real life, you were going to be a sorely disappointed.”

Instead of hunting down and engaging insurgents, the mission of the entire brigade was to secure civilian areas, help build roads, clinics, schools and other infrastructure, work with officials to improve governance, and train Afghan soldiers and police.

“If you were objecting to the war, or you were against violence or you were upset about your deployment, as is reported when it comes to Bergdahl’s personal opinions, this was the deployment to be on,” Tabaczka said.

Tabaczka was back in Anchorage on his 14-day leave when the news broke about Bergdahl. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing on television — maps and images of his company’s Outpost Mest.

Back in Afghanistan, Third Platoon had just cycled out of the outpost.

“And then the very next morning we had to go back out because they had lost their man,” Nall said.

“We had a very quick sit-down with Second Platoon’s leadership, because two of their squads were already in Mest trying to gather intel,” Rice said. “While they were searching, we immediately went further south to go outside of Mest to start trying to gather intel ourselves. Initially it was fan out and find out what you can find out.”

“Within 24 hours, the entire company was in the field. There was nobody left on base from our company,” Rice said.

A few days later, Tabaczka got back to Afghanistan. Everything had changed. Soon the entire battalion was engaged. For about a month, the small outpost became the staging area for the search effort by 1-501st, he said. Blackfoot Company leadership moved in. The perimeters were fortified with Hescos, large dirt-filled barricades that can withstand blasts and provide cover from rifle fire. The Army airlifted portable fuel bladders and supplies to the outpost so soldiers wouldn’t have to go back to base to restock.

Though the soldiers were told right away by their command that Bergdahl was thought to have walked off, the first news reports of what had happened made little sense to them. One version had him captured while using the latrine. But that assumes the toilet was at the edge of the outpost. In fact, the toilet — a latrine where waste is burned — is placed in the safest spot at the outpost, in the center, Tabaczka said.

Another version had him being captured while lagging behind on a foot patrol. But that also wouldn’t happen, Tabaczka said. If a soldier is falling behind, the patrol slows down or puts the slowest soldier at front to pace the rest.

And it seemed unlikely that insurgents could have pierced the perimeter to kidnap Bergdahl without making noise and provoking a fight, they said.

The logical explanation, McNeely said: “Every perimeter has its weak points, and you’re going to know that from the inside.” That was probably how he got out unnoticed, McNeely said.

“He wasn’t captured, we didn’t fail him, but it changed everything,” Tabaczka said. “The effort went through the roof — multiple day missions. You’re hoping a truck broke down so you can get some extra time to rest.”

At least for Blackfoot Company, the counterinsurgency mission went by the wayside, the soldiers said.

“After this happened, we went from throwing away 75 percent of (intelligence) to taking 100 percent of every piece of intel we got, which I could probably say that a lot of the times was bait,” McNeely said.

One example: McNeely’s platoon sergeant was given a set of coordinates and told to take his soldiers to that spot.

“We ended up in an apple orchard and we were on top of this grid coordinate looking for what we were supposed to find — we didn’t know,” McNeely said.

Luckily, one of the soldiers noticed the mine.

“It was right on the grid coordinates that we had received,” he said.

A series of violent incidents

For Third Platoon, the search for Bergdahl continued through the summer. On July 15, Rice was leading a vehicle patrol through the nearby central village of Yahya Khel. Nall was the turret machine gunner in Rice’s MRAP — a mine-resistant armored truck.

“It was one of those times when you were going through the villages looking for where he was at, or where he might be, or where he had been,” Nall said. Then Nall saw something out of the ordinary, a sign that soldiers in combat zones are on the watch for. He had waved at an Afghan kid, and the kid smiled and waved back. From nowhere, the kid got a backhanded smack across the face from the man with him.

“Every time you wave to the locals, they’re either going to wave back, or they just going to stare at you with an ugly stare. I saw that father hit his son, something was about to happen.” It was obvious the father didn’t want someone to see his son being friendly to Americans.

Nall warned Rice, then took cover. Seconds later, a perfectly placed homemade bomb detonated under the vehicle and blew it half. Nall got out, pulling another man from the burning vehicle. They all made it to safety but had to be evacuated with injuries.

On Aug. 31, McNeely was on night foot patrol looking for signs of Bergdahl. They stopped to sleep in an abandoned building on the edge of Yayha Khel and set up a guard rotation. In the middle of the night, someone tossed a grenade into the building.

The leader of Third Platoon, 2nd Lt. Darryn Andrews, gathered a squad of soldiers to investigate. McNeely was the only SAW gunner and took his light machine gun with the squad. But it was an ambush, and McNeely was hit by gunfire. His liver was lacerated, his lung punctured, ribs shattered and diaphragm broken. A sucking chest wound hindered his breathing until a medic gave him emergency treatment, then a helicopter lifted him to safety.

That explains why McNeely wasn’t with Andrews on Sept. 4 when Andrews’ vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb in the vicinity of Yahya Khel. Andrews and his six crew members survived the attack, but while they were trying to recover their vehicle, an insurgent fired a rocket-propelled grenade at them. Andrews, 34, was killed on the spot. Another soldier from Third Platoon, Pvt. 1st Class Matthew Martinek, 20, died from his wounds Sept 11.

Andrews and Martinek have been cited in national reports as the two most likely soldiers to have been killed as a consequence of the search for Bergdahl.

“If you want to make the jump and say that his choice caused the deaths, you can make the choice if you want to,” Tabaczka said. “We’re not exactly saying that — we’re just saying that the tempo changed. It also ramped up other casualties, other injuries. Some were extremely critical.”

Massive rescue operation — and its costs

It wasn’t until October, just a few months before their time in Afghanistan was up, when the Third Platoon finally got back to training Afghan soldiers, Rice said.

When the last soldiers of the brigade got back to Anchorage in March 2010, the 4-25th leadership declared the mission a success. The deployment furthered Afghan security and was “responsible for improvements in general education and training in civics, mechanics, construction, and the restoration of schools, roads, agriculture, and livestock development.”

Blackfoot Company comprised less than 5 percent of the brigade’s forces, so there were plenty of soldiers for the counter-insurgency effort in the brigade’s three-province operations area. Now, more than four years later, with Bergdahl’s release, soldiers from the company say they feel free to talk about the massive rescue operation — and its costs.

For Tabaczka, the best news he has heard out of Washington in the last week came from Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said that Bergdahl might indeed face desertion charges.

“I did a fist pump in the house,” Tabaczka said. “Up until that moment, I didn’t have that assurance it was going to happen.”

Tabaczka said Bergdahl, if he deserted, affected too many lives to not be held to account. “You’re a private first class — if you’ve got buyer’s remorse for being in the Army one day, pulling security on your shift, you don’t get to make the decision, ‘I’m going to reroute the entire flipping tactical agenda,’” he said. “We don’t stand for lynching him up — we just want this thing to see the light of day. I had no assurances before this weekend that they would’ve tried him.

“Our president, our government, owe that to families who lost those soldiers looking for this guy,” Nall added. “They need an explanation of what really happened. I think they deserve that, and I think the American people deserve the truth.”

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