The Obama administration is facing mounting questions about the controversial prisoner swap that freed Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from jihadists in Pakistan in exchange for the transfer and ultimate release of five senior Taliban commanders previously held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Lawmakers are questioning the wisdom and legality of the move. Intelligence officials are expressing deep concerns about its ramifications. And those who served with Bergdahl—or took risks in the efforts to rescue him—are directly challenging the Obama administration's characterization of the former captive and his actions.
In an appearance on ABC's This Week on Sunday, National Security Adviser Susan Rice claimed that Bergdahl "wasn't simply a hostage, he was an American prisoner of war, taken on the battlefield." She added: "He served the United States with honor and distinction."
"That's not true," says Specialist Cody Full, who served in the same platoon as Bergdahl, and whose tweets over the weekend as @CodyFNfootball offered an early firsthand account of Bergdahl's departure. "He was not a hero. What he did was not honorable. He knowingly deserted and put thousands of people in danger because he did. We swore to an oath and we upheld ours. He did not."
"He walked off—and 'walked off' is a nice way to put it," says Specialist Josh Cornelison, the medic in Bergdahl's platoon. "He was accounted for late that afternoon. He very specifically planned to walk out in the middle of the night."
"He was a deserter," says Specialist Full. "There's no question in the minds of anyone in our platoon."
In interviews, several of Bergdahl's platoon mates described a soldier who was contemplative, detached and quixotic. He wrote adventure stories—"Jason Bourne, Ramboish type of shit," says one soldier—that placed himself at the center of the action. "He'd write 'Bowe Bergdahl walked across the dark and dusty street' or something like that."
He spent his free time studying Dari and Pashto and took great interest in the lives of local Afghans. Fellow soldiers say that when the platoon dined with the local Afghan National Police forces, Bergdahl lingered to mix with the Afghans. In free time on Forward Operating Base Sharana, when others passed time playing games, chatting with friends or clicking around their computers, Bergdahl chose to engage the locals. "He'd spend hours drinking tea with them, just hanging out," says one of Bergdahl's former platoon mates. "He got to know the locals well and had many friends."
He was energized when his unit worked with local Afghans and helped them improve their own lives. But he was troubled when their missions included more traditional military functions. "It wasn't all rainbows and smiley faces," says Cornelison. "A lot of the time it was brutal and rough and he got very disillusioned. He got angry and frustrated."
"You don't mail all your personal belongings home, especially your computer. It's not like you can go to a sports bar -- there's no sports bars over there," says Specialist Full. "You just wouldn't give up your computer if you weren't planning to leave. He knowingly deserted and he put countless fellow Americans in danger -- not just his platoon mates."
If there is little question in the minds of the former members of Bergdahl's unit that he was a deserter, it's not clear that the military came to that same conclusion—at least formally.
Current and former military and intelligence officials tell THE WEEKLY STANDARD that the U.S. Army conducted an exhaustive investigation into Bergdahl's separation from his platoon. The investigation, undertaken by an officer from outside of the unit and called an AR 15-6, involved sworn testimony from virtually everyone who had regular contact with Bergdahl. The soldiers in Bergdahl's platoon were questioned repeatedly by investigators. Many were ordered to sign non-disclosure agreements, a step that a former senior military official calls "highly unusual."
Cornelison, as the unit's medic, was questioned virtually every time the platoon rotated back to a large base to clear up and get a hot meal. "We got 90 minutes for a shower and a meal -- and I spent 45 minutes every time answering their questions." Investigators asked about everything—from the circumstances of Bergdahl's departure, to his views on the Army and his interactions with other soldiers. A frequent line of questioning involved the kind of information Bergdahl possessed that could aid the Taliban—medical knowledge, how the Army responds to IED attacks, troop movements, rules of engagement.