By Rene Sotolongo:
Robert Bowdrie “Bowe” Bergdahl is the United States Army soldier who was held captive by the Taliban from June 2009 until May 2014. He now stands accused of multiple violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and President Obama is considering pardoning him.
As a twenty year Navy vet I have performed the duties of both soldier and leader. Yes, I was a boots-in-the-dirt sailor with “hardware” equipped units as part of Naval Coastal Warfare, which was redesignated as Maritime Expeditionary Security Groups.
As a Navy Chief with the Maritime Expeditionary Security Groups, I was a non-commissioned officer responsible for twenty-six E-6 and below personnel. I have had multiple deployments to the Middle East, and so I can speak with some authority on the issue of Bowe Bergdahl.
The problem is that we just don’t have all the facts. Much of what is being discussed about Bergdahl is based on rumors, innuendo, and incomplete information. In fact, several news outlets including the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others, have taken the Army to court to get them to release the results of it’s formal investigation- known as an Army 15-6.
This report (the 15-6) is not classified and Bergdahl testified that he does not oppose its release. Yet the Army will not release the 371 pages of sworn testimony collected by 22 investigators with interviews of over 57 people.
As of late November of this year, the Army has turned down all requests…without explanation. So I will say this, based on the information at hand, not all of the responsibility should fall on the shoulders of Bergdahl. There were in fact multiple failures by his Chain of Command. And this very well could be the reason why the Army is not forthcoming with the information on Bergdahl.
So let’s stick to what we do know.
According to the BBC, NBC News, and Newsweek (which I cross referenced with the Associated Press, Fox News, and several other media outlets) Bergdahl was serving with an Alaska-based infantry regiment in Paktika province near the Pakistani border. Sometime around June 30, 2009, Bergdahl went missing. And that is about all we know for a fact.
So based on those facts there is only one of two possibilities for Bergdahl. Either Bergdahl was on sentry duty or he was not.
Was Bergdahl on duty when he disappeared? This is a critical question that has not been clearly and emphatically answered. And it’s an important question. You see, regardless of what military branch you serve in, all branches of the service have the standing 11 General Orders of a Sentry. These 11 general orders govern the actions and conduct of a service member who is on duty. All service members, regardless of branch, have the 11 general orders pounded into their brains in boot camp, so claiming ignorance of the 11 general orders is not a defense.
Here is the general order most pertinent to the Bergdahl case.
General Order number 5: To quit my post only when properly relieved.
Based on all information known, Bergdahl was never relieved of duty. So this implicates he either was on duty and abandoned his post or he was not on duty and he left the base.
In either case he violates military orders and the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. (UCMJ)
If he was in fact on duty, then he abandoned his post and violated general order number five and the UCMJ. This is a court martial offense.
If he was in fact NOT on duty, then he left the base without permission and was “absent without leave” or AWOL. Which is also a court martial offense. Please note that being AWOL is different than desertion. And it’s a distinction I made deliberately. Desertion in this case is hard to prove. We have no idea whether Bergdahl “intended” to come back. And because he was taken prisoner, that mitigates the desertion issue in my opinion. But it does not mitigate being AWOL.
Bergdahl either abandoned his post or he went AWOL. End of story. I have had shipmates thrown in the brig for doing either one… hell, I even had shipmates thrown in the brig because they fell asleep on duty. So why should Bergdahl receive any special dispensation?
I won’t even get into the argument as to why he left. There are enough conspiracy theories floating around on that. He left because he couldn’t hack it. He had mental problems. He joined the Taliban. Whatever…any way you want to slice it, he should be court martialed… period. And Obama should in no way shape or form grant him a pardon.
Granting Bergdahl a pardon would be a monumental disaster and would set a very dangerous precedent that could destroy the good order, morale and discipline of the military service. While the President is in fact the Commander in Chief, he should let the military court system do it’s job and determine guilt or innocence. Besides, don’t pardons usually come “AFTER” you are found guilty… not before?
But the story does not end there. There are also glaring failures of the Chain of Command.
First, when in a war zone or high threat area you always, and I mean always, use the buddy system. Period. The Army may have a different way of doing things, granted, but having been embedded with the Army and having served with the Navy and worked with the Marines, EOD and the SEAL’s I can tell you, the buddy system is the unwritten rule of warfare. So why, knowing that Bergdahl had a panache for going on “walk abouts” was he allowed to venture out alone and without a battle buddy?
Second, where the hell was the security of this base. I can tell you that you just don’t “walk of a base” without someone knowing. In a forward operating base (FOB) all line of sites must be covered and sentry points established to cover firing arcs in order to provide 360-degree security of the base.
So how did Bergdahl just walk off? The only way I can see him doing that is if he was the sentry on duty and abandoned his post…which seems to fit with the narrative. Bergdahl would have had to have been the sentry on duty to be able to simply walk off into the sunset like that.
Third, you never ever go anywhere without your rifle and your sidearm. These are military issued pieces of equipment you are responsible for. You either turn them in at the armory or you keep them in your possession at all times…period.
How was Bergdahl simply allowed to leave his weapons and gear in his barracks? Which then begs the question… if he left his weapons behind then he could not possibly have been the sentry on duty. No one in their right mind would allow themselves to be relieved by a soldier not properly equipped to do the job. At the very least it would have raised the red flags and the chain of command would have (or should have) gotten involved. Which then leads us back to our second point above. If Bergdahl was not the sentry on duty, how did he get off base without anyone knowing?
And then there is this:
Just days after U.S. Army Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl went missing from his base in Afghanistan in 2009, the men in his platoon were ordered to sign papers vowing to never discuss what he did or their efforts to track him down. Many of those men were already exhausted, searching endlessly in the hot dust and misery of the Afghan desert for a guy they knew had chosen to walk away.
More than six months later, long after Army officials learned Bergdahl’s captors had smuggled him into Pakistan, commanders still had a sweeping gag order on thousands of troops in the battlefield. Some were told they could not fly home until they signed the nondisclosure agreements.
Ultimately there are two guilty parties here, Bergdahl and the Chain of Command. If you are going to hold one of them accountable, you must hold the other accountable as well. But that is a story no one wants to talk about.
Case in point: As reported by Newsweek and as presented by the defense in court, The Army shares the blame for this tragedy. In 2006, Bergdahl washed out of Coast Guard basic training with a mental breakdown. In 2008, the Army issued him a waiver and deployed him to one of the world’s most dangerous war zones. This, despite the fact that an Army psychiatry board determined that at the time of his deployment he suffered from “a severe mental disease or defect.” In Afghanistan, his superiors ignored a concerned report about Bergdahl’s mental state from a sergeant in his platoon.
Bottom Line: I have a lot of respect for Bergdahl and even a little admiration. I respect and admire him for enduring over three and a half years of captivity, his repeated attempts at escaping his captors, and his ability to survive. But I would still court martial him. But more importantly, I would also hold the Army and his Chain of Command responsible as well. There are a lot of inconvenient truths out there and the biggest one is the failure of his Chain of Command.
Rene C. Sotolongo is an OpsLens Contributor and a retired U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer who served for over twenty years as an Information Systems official. Sotolongo also specialized in homeland security and counterterrorism.