Command sergeant major: No troops died searching for Bergdahl
By NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 31, 2016
Command Sgt. Maj. Ken Wolf had a message for the families of troops killed in Afghanistan after Bowe Bergdahl walked off his post.
“Their sons did not die looking for Pfc. Bergdahl,” Wolf said on Thursday’s “Serial” podcast, the 11th and final episode of the season.
The podcast investigating the Bergdahl case from seemingly all conceivable angles over the past few months, debunked the persistent rumor that six soldiers from his battalion had been killed during the 45-day, all-out search for Bergdahl. They were all killed in August and September, after the exhausting search effectively had been called off and the mission had changed to secure upcoming Afghanistan elections, according to court testimony.
“We looked and we looked and we looked and we didn’t find him,” said Wolf, who was the top enlisted leader in Bergdahl’s brigade. “No one in the Army is going to say, ‘We stopped looking for you’, O.K? But here’s the deal — it’s been 45 days and at this point we know where he’s at. He’s in Pakistan.”
Bergdahl’s unit — the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment — was not going to leave its battle space and go into Pakistan to find him, Wolf said.
Wolf, who said he believes Bergdahl betrayed his unit, nonetheless countered arguments from other soldiers that the search had second- and third-order effects that resulted in troops being killed in ambushes and other attacks.
“It doesn’t hold water because you’re in a very bad neighborhood regardless. You can get killed any day,” Wolf said.
Bergdahl walked off Observation Post Mest just after midnight on June 30, 2009, with a plan to hike 20 miles to Forward Operating Base Sharana to report what he viewed as his unit’s dangerous leadership, according to court testimony. He was captured hours later by the Taliban and kept captive for nearly five years under tortuous conditions in Pakistan.
He was released in 2014 in a prisoner swap that sent five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar — a deal that helped politicize the case. In televised statements, soldiers were enraged by the idea that Bergdahl might be lionized, when in their view he was a deserter and possibly a traitor. Some claimed he was responsible for others’ deaths and deserved to be court-martialed.
Bergdahl, 30, promoted to sergeant during his captivity, is headed to court-martial later this year on charges of desertion and misconduct that endangered troops who searched for him. The crimes carry sentences ranging from “no punishment” to life in prison. Two Army officers who investigated the case said Bergdahl should not be imprisoned, and most experts consider it unlikely that he would be harshly punished because of mitigating factors: Bergdahl enlisted in 2008 with a waiver after washing out of Coast Guard basic training with an emotional breakdown and has been diagnosed with a personality disorder that features delusions and paranoia. He was, according to court testimony, a naive idealist who sought to do the right thing, no matter the consequences, and a model prisoner-of-war who tried repeatedly to resist and escape.
Although the podcast concluded that no one was killed in the search, it did discuss two men seriously harmed on missions in the first couple of weeks after Bergdahl disappeared. Navy SEAL Jimmy Hatch lost a leg in a gunfight on a mission to find Bergdahl. Army Sgt. 1st Class Mark Allen was shot in the head on a different mission; he lost part of his brain, was paralyzed and rendered mute.
The podcast revealed that two other soldiers had walked off their posts in Afghanistan. In 2012, a soldier left his forward operating base to walk to join his unit at their outpost. In 2010, a soldier left FOB Sharana planning to walk to eastern Europe, carrying sunscreen and an ornamental sword and battle ax. Both were discovered early on by Afghan police and returned to their units before any harm was done. Neither was charged. The one planning to walk to Europe was sent home “to get the help he needed,” a military therapist told podcast host Sarah Koenig. The Army treats people like that as “head cases,” the therapist told Koenig, “like astronauts taking off their helmets in space”.
Some 3,500 soldiers have been convicted of being absent without leave from 2001 to 2014, and 980 convicted of desertion, most all of them in the U.S., according to numbers the Army provided to the podcast researchers.