WASHINGTON – For all the yellow ribbons strewn across his hometown in Idaho and the gratitude expressed by his parents in an emotional visit to the White House on Saturday, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will receive a hero’s welcome when he returns to the United States after nearly five years in Taliban captivity.
From military forums across the country, a groundswell of anger is rising over the Obama administration’s silence on perhaps the most controversial question surrounding the deal that freed Bergdahl in exchange for five senior Taliban members: Was he a deserter?
So far, the U.S. government has shied away from the long-nagging question, which raged anew Monday with growing clamor on the Internet about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance from his unit’s small forward position in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009.
Military-related blogs, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages were filled with screeds from commenters accusing Berg- dahl of being a “traitor” or a Taliban “collaborator.” The online publication The Daily Beast published a nearly 2,000-word first-person account by a former Army infantry officer who said he was privy to details of Bergdahl’s disappearance and who stated flatly that “he was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.”
The mother of one of six soldiers who have been identified as being killed in circumstances related to the search for Bergdahl was furious over the opaque handling of the case, telling the Army Times that the Pentagon “really owes the parents of these fallen soldiers the truth.”
But instead of addressing the desertion issue head-on, complained many military analysts and war veterans, the Obama administration is allowing the debate to fester, only deepening the skepticism of current and former service members who demand to know how Bergdahl left his unit, how many U.S. forces were killed in the search effort, and whether there are plans to conduct a legal review of his case and, if necessary, prosecute him.
Michael Waltz, who as an Army major commanded U.S. Special Forces in eastern Afghanistan at the time Bergdahl disappeared, said the sergeant deserted and shouldn’t have been accorded POW status.
“He just walked off after guard duty and wandered into the nearby village,” Waltz told McClatchy in an interview Monday. “This guy needs to be held accountable when the time is right, of course. Every American deserves to come home. I’m happy for his family. But he needs to be held accountable.”
Angry commenters took special aim at National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s televised remarks Sunday that Bergdahl “served the United States with honor and distinction.” They also bristled at Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s surprise visit Sunday to Afghanistan, where he praised the operation that freed Bergdahl but never mentioned the desertion issue before an audience of U.S. service members who undoubtedly have seen the debate swirling around the case.
Even military voices warning against trying Bergdahl in the court of public opinion say the Obama administration owes its enlisted men and women more transparency.
“Hagel hopped up on stage saying, ‘Oh, it’s a great day. We got him back.’ Crickets. Crickets,” said Fred Wellman, a retired lieutenant colonel who as spokesman for Army Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq handled the communications on many crises that reflected poorly on the U.S. military.
Wellman said his advice to defense officials would be to acknowledge the concerns of the enlisted ranks and veterans, to explain that there’s a plan to deal with the legal implications, and to stress that the most important focus now is restoring Bergdahl to health and reuniting him with his family in Idaho after nearly five years in the hands of a brutal enemy of the United States.
“They’re really underestimating the fury over this,” Wellman said. “It’s a tidal wave of anger.”
At White House, State Department and Pentagon briefings, reporters asked directly whether Bergdahl was a deserter. Officials all offered variations of the same talking point: “We would characterize him as a member of the military who was detained while in combat,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday.
The questions also didn’t dampen enthusiasm for Bergdahl’s return in his hometown of Hailey, Idaho, where planning for a welcome event at the end of the month were proceeding. “For now, we’re going to keep the politics out of Hailey and focus on the news that Bowe was found, and he is safe,” said Stefanie O’Neill, a co-organizer of the group “Bring Bowe Back,” now renamed “Bowe is Back.”
O’Neill said she hasn’t had any cancellations from those slated to perform, including singer Carole King and the Travis Hardy Band. Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, also are expected to attend.
“I think the event is growing, as opposed to diminishing, through all of this,” said O’Neill, a stay-at-home mother of two who estimates she’s done 70 interviews with local, national and international media over the past two days.
When asked about the questions swirling around Bergdahl’s capture at a news conference at Boise’s National Guard facility Sunday, Ralph Kramer, the director of the Boise Valley POW MIA support organization, had a simple response: “We’re happy he’s home.”
And for congressional Republicans, the exchange fit a larger narrative about Obama’s foreign policy – that once again he had ignored Congress by not notifying it 30 days in advance of any release from Guantánamo, and that once again he had been outwitted by a wily adversary. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., described the released detainees Monday as the “Taliban Dream Team” and called for an immediate hearing on the prisoner exchange, which the White House called a “transfer” because the five members of the Taliban have to stay in Qatar for a year.
“The United States is less safe because of these actions,” Graham wrote in a letter demanding an inquiry. “I fear President Obama’s decision will inevitably lead to more Americans being kidnapped and held hostage throughout the world.”