Among all the unanswered questions about the disappearance, long captivity, and subsequent prisoner trade for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, it seems safe to conclude that Bergdahl wasn't very popular in his platoon. The first clue is that several of the men who served with him or near him are calling him a deserter and worse, blaming him for the deaths of between two and eight soldiers.
Then there's this report from The New York Times, which spoke to platoon members who described Bergdahl as "bookish and filled with romantic notions that some found odd.... Other platoon members said that Sergeant Bergdahl wrote Jason Bourne–type novels in which he inserted himself as the lead character." Cody Full, one of several members of Bergdahl's platoon who gave interviews "arranged by Republican strategists," The Times notes, complained that "he wouldn't drink beer or eat barbecue and hang out with the other 20-year-olds."
But unlike desertion (punishable by death), unpopularity isn't a crime. And while the idea that Bergdahl was a deserter whose kidnapping directly led to the deaths of half a dozen troops is becoming a fixed media narrative, it isn't necessarily true.
Two soldiers died in an ambush on the Zerok combat outpost on July 4, 2009 — the only deaths during the intense search period, which ended July 8 — and six others died between Aug. 18 and Sept. 5, reports The New York Times, which tried to verify the deaths through military logs and casualty reports. The verdict: Critics are blaming Bergdahl for "every American combat death in Paktika Province in the months after he disappeared," during a period of intense fighting in the region and the country. In the same period a year earlier, five troops had been killed.
The Army Times also tackles the charge of desertion, based on reports that Bergdahl just walked off the base with a compass and no weapon or body armor. The Army's initial investigation was wrapped up in 2010, and remains classified, says the Army Times' Andrew Tilghman, but "several soldiers in Bergdahl's unit told investigators that Bergdahl talked about his desire to leave the base unaccompanied and that he may have done so and returned unharmed at least once before the night he disappeared for good."
Bergdahl may be guilty of desertion or the lesser crime of going AWOL, and he may have betrayed his fellow soldiers. But his former platoon members don't have those answers. Really, none of us do yet. And we may not for a while. "Our first priority is ensuring Sgt. Bergdahl's health and beginning his reintegration process," Army Secretary John McHugh said Tuesday. "There is no timeline for this, and we will take as long as medically necessary to aid his recovery."
Regarding "the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we'll learn the facts," said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in a Facebook post on Tuesday. But "like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty. Our Army's leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred. In the meantime, we will continue to care for him and his family."
That's good advice, for the Bergdahl case and so much more.