Stop Persecuting Bowe Bergdahl
He and his parents have suffered enough—like all of us veterans.
By MATTHEW HOH
June 30, 2014
When you go through the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) School there are a number of things that are literally beaten into you. You are hit in the face and slammed against walls. Rifle butts and barrels strike you in the head. You are placed in small wooden boxes and deprived of food and sleep, and some of you are water-boarded (yes, it is torture). But the most important and beneficial aspects of the training are the psychological pressures and forces you are subjected to. You are taught what you should expect and what it is you should do to mentally survive captivity as a prisoner of war. You learn through practice to depend on your fellow prisoners and, most importantly, to hold fast in your faith and the knowledge your country will never forget you and the United States will always come for you.
I went through SERE training in southern California in 2000. It was April, so the hot desert days quickly became cold desert nights. With little water, no food, (you do, however, get to eat bugs, cactus and rabbits) and only a piece of parachute and a fellow Marine for warmth and shelter, you are forced to put your training into practice and rely upon not just the physical strength of your fellow trainees but their mental strength. Implicit in that reliance is the understanding you will support one another and that, in turn, you will not be abandoned. The core concept of SERE is “Return Home with Honor,” and again you are holding faithful to the conviction you will not be forgotten. To finish off your training, American commandos rescue you from the prisoner of war camp in a simulated raid. The contract is clear: Never give up, because you will never be forgotten and you will never be left behind.
A few years later, I went to war in Iraq. I saw friends die and took part in a process and system of killing that that was justified by a nonexistent, made-up threat to American national security. A foreign country, innocent of any crimes against the United States, was plunged into a barbaric and horrifying civil war, a war that is still slaughtering its citizens. Even with all of the mendacity and madness of the Iraq war, coming home plagued with survivor’s guilt and moral injury, you still believe in the institutions, you still believe in the ideals and principles that say you will not be forgotten, that your nation owes you a debt and that debt will always be met.
Today I’m not sure if I know any veterans who still believe such platitudes. Most of us cringe at the yellow “Support the Troops” bumper stickers that still adorn some cars—mostly they are the non-magnetic kind that are pasted on and not easily removed. Many Americans would be surprised to know the United States still has 33,000 troops in Afghanistan, 12 of whom, including two teenagers, were killed this past month in what is America’s historically most unpopular war. We veterans are among the few who still pay attention to the mostly unnoticed and pointless dying in a war that 84 percent of Americans are against, and we also find ourselves cursing under our breath during the cheers and ovations for the veteran without legs in the wheelchair who gets free tickets to a baseball game, but who can’t get timely or thorough physical and mental health care and who has a pretty good chance of killing himself someday. According to Veterans Administration figures, some 22 veterans are now committing suicide every day—and the average hasn’t fallen below 18 a day since 9/11, which means that something like a total of 100,000 veterans have killed themselves since then. Loud clapping, free food and your face on the Jumbotron during a rousing rendition of a Lee Greenwood song seems to be what you are owed, not health care, disability assistance, adequate job training or a public and truthful accounting of why these wars were fought and why they were lost. Our youngest veterans, those who bore the brunt of the death and mutilation in these wars, have a 22 percent unemployment rate. The generals who lost these wars teach at Stanford, USC and Yale.
Into this environment, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has returned from five years as a prisoner of war. I am a friend of his mother and father, Jani and Bob. They are wonderful, kind and loving parents. I hope someday they tell their story of how they survived five years of suffering, unsure if they would ever have their son back, while waging a practically unacknowledged campaign to win his freedom. Without their strength in each other and their commitment to their son, I seriously doubt if Bowe = would now be back home in the United States.
Nearly 7,000 American families have not had their sons and daughters return from these wars. You would expect that, with such losses over the last 13 years, as a nation, we would rejoice in the end of the Bergdahls’ anguish and grief. However, in complete defiance of any obligation to our men and women in uniform or the thousands upon thousands of family members of the uniformed dead of these wars, Sergeant Bergdahl and his parents have been victimized and demonized in a horrific display of politically inspired hate and vitriol.
For five years Jani and Bob lived a parent’s worst nightmare, fearful every day for the knock on the front door from a man in uniform on a mission to tell them their son would never come home. As any parent would be, the Bergdahls were overjoyed at Bowe’s return. They weren’t expecting parades and a hero’s welcome, but neither did they expect a whole new nightmare—the one they are now living. Imagine what it’s like to see your son demonized, and without any evidence, every time you turn on the television. Every day they must endure hateful innuendo while wondering what the future holds for their son, his name and his chances for a normal life.
We do know, based on the Army’s investigation of Bergdahl and subsequent news reports, that he left his base voluntarily, but he had done so previously, always returning to the base. We know he left his base without a weapon or any of the items he likely would have taken if he had intended to desert—such as food, clothing, a sleeping mat, etc. We know Bergdahl was taken as a prisoner of war in a struggle and that he tried to escape multiple times from his Taliban captors. Nothing other than the words of his fellow soldiers—soldiers he characterized in emails printed by Rolling Stone magazine “as pieces of sh*t” and who were members of a unit widely acknowledged to have leadership and discipline problems—indicates desertion. The Army investigation in August 2009 did not find Bergdahl guilty of desertion, and I am confident the current investigation, which I fully support, will not conclude desertion either. Reckless, dumb, crazy behavior, yes—but not desertion. Yet, in a shameful and disgraceful manner that reminds me of Vietnam Veterans being spat upon, Sergeant Bergdahl and his family have been labeled as traitors, their suffering and sacrifice buried beneath partisan hate highlighted by grandstanding politicians and ratings-obsessed pundits.
For those who are still in uniform and any of those considering enlisting, realize and recognize this reality: You are taught you won’t be abandoned, that you will be taking care of and the pain of combat worthy of the cost. But the truth is your war may quickly be forgotten, your sacrifice will likely become a poltician’s talking point and your care will be no better than third rate.
That’s not what they taught me at SERE school. There, the conviction is ever-present that if you become a prisoner of war you will not be abandoned and you will always be brought home. But future prisoners of war should know this certainty: Your value as an American service member, and the treatment of your family, will not be measured against a code of conduct you may believe in or any of the trite and hackneyed platitudes bandied about by generals or politicians. Nor will large swaths of the public or media show any degree of sympathy or appreciation for your mother and father’s loss. Instead, your release will be measured against public opinion polls. I trust the military is updating its SERE course curriculum.