The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For those tasked with finding Bowe Bergdahl, deep resentment remains

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl enters the Fort Bragg courthouse in North Carolina on Oct. 16, 2017. (Andrew Craft/AP)

The troops searching for Bowe Bergdahl were sleep-deprived and thirsty. Temperatures in mountainous Ghazni, near Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, crested 100 degrees. Although it was unusual to be without ready resupply for more than a few days, the inconceivable disappearance of a U.S. soldier called for round-the-clock missions far from their logistical hubs.

After 10 days in the field, their socks began to rot. Protective gloves frayed. They were dependent on Russian contractors to airdrop in more drinking water, but the hasty resupply included none — only Ga­tor­ade, muffins and hygiene products. The soldiers vented their frustration by blowing up the pallets, then continued their search for Bergdahl’s ghost.

This episode, described to The Washington Post by a former member of Bergdahl’s unit, illustrates one of the Army’s chief arguments for sending Bergdahl to prison: By abandoning his post in June 2009, he set in motion a chain of events that proved distracting to the Afghanistan war effort and put at grave risk the thousands of people tasked with finding him.

Military judge will decide whether Bowe Bergdahl should be jailed for life

Bergdahl, now 31, would spend five years in Taliban captivity before the Obama White House secured his release in a controversial prisoner exchange in 2014. He has pleaded guilty to charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

The judge who will determine Bergdahl’s fate, Army Col. Jeffrey R. Nance, is set to hear on Wednesday from troops who say their serious injuries are linked to Bergdahl’s disappearance — testimony that could determine the severity of Bergdahl’s punishment.

Nance also is expected to rule on a motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that President Trump, who has referred to Bergdahl as a "dirty, rotten traitor," compromised the soldier's right to impartial proceedings.

Wednesday’s testimony may include Army Sgt. 1st Class Mark Allen, who was shot in the head during a search mission and is confined to a wheelchair. Senior Chief Petty Officer James Hatch, a Navy SEAL, also has said his career was ended after being shot in the leg during a hastily planned operation to locate Bergdahl. He, too, may appear in court.

“Neither Allen nor Hatch would have been where they were, doing what they were doing, but for the actions of the accused,” Nance wrote in a July court filing.

The defense has argued that Bergdahl cannot be held responsible for successive events stemming from his disappearance and abduction. His lawyers have questioned how much blame Bergdahl shoulders for what occurred to others because of his actions.

More clear is how the expansive search effort affected the war in eastern Afghanistan at the time. Counterinsurgency operations were halted, along with preparations for a national election to shift all available resources to finding Bergdahl.

The former member of Bergdahl’s unit who described the botched resupply mission said a surge in related nighttime raids upset many Afghans at a time U.S. forces needed their support to help counter the Taliban’s influence. It angered most soldiers, too, he told The Post on the condition of anonymity to avoid conflicts with his current employer. The military’s sacred mantra of “leave no man behind” was challenged by the extraordinary event of a soldier leaving his post voluntarily, he said.

Resources flooded into Afghanistan's Paktika province, such as surveillance drones, Special Operations troops and helicopter support and equipment used to intercept phone and radio traffic. But that came at a cost to units outside the search area, forced to fight with fewer advantages, the former soldier said.

In one instance, five days after Bergdahl's disappearance, a U.S. combat outpost was nearly overrun by hundreds of Taliban fighters, resulting in the death of two U.S. soldiers in a sister battalion. Those soldiers were surprised by their attackers, they would later say, because they lacked drones and other intelligence assets that had been diverted to find Bergdahl, the former soldier recalled.

Both the prosecution and defense have the opportunity to present arguments that could influence the judge's decision. There is little doubt the prosecution will focus on how the war was affected by search efforts, said Brian Bouffard, a former Navy lawyer. The defense, meanwhile, might zero in on reports, such as one in Newsweek, that said search missions in Afghanistan continued even after the Pentagon was confident Bergdahl was being held in Pakistan.

"If anyone is wounded on a futile mission, there is a lot of blame to go around there," Bouffard said. "And I don't think you can lay that on Bergdahl."

But many who served with Bergdahl blame him for tragedies that befell other members of their unit, including several deaths, and frustration the former soldier said, adding that he is among the few who dispute that notion. Frustration has lingered among those who feel their combat tour — and everything since — remains defined by Bergdahl's disappearance, the former soldier said.

“It’s like,” he added, “the deployment that never ends.”