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As Bergdahl Returns Home, Accusations Of Desertion Surface


From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. The release of an American soldier after five years in captivity is prompting both praise and searing criticism. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl had been held by the Taliban. The Army has not officially determined how he went missing. He was simply listed as missing and captured. But among the soldiers who served with him in the hills of eastern Afghanistan there is growing anger and even disgust. They say he abandoned his post and that soldiers died as they searched for him. NPR's Tom Bowman spoke with two members of Bergdahl's unit and has this report.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Sergeant Evan Buetow was on duty at a small bunker made of sandbags and wood high above combat outpost Mest. It was the morning of June 30, 2009. Suddenly, a message squawked over the radio.

SERGEANT EVAN BUETOW: They said hey OP two is Bergdahl up there?

BOWMAN: Buetow was in charge of Bergdahl - part of a team of four soldiers. He said Bergdahl was supposed to be at his truck.

BUETOW: And they said yeah, well, he's not down here.

BOWMAN: Buetow turned to another soldier. They both had the same thought.

BUETOW: Right at that point I looked over at Cody and we knew it. We knew that he walked away.

BOWMAN: Buetow said they knew it because the soldiers of the platoon found Bergdahl odd. He kept to himself. And he started to question the war and what the American Army was doing there.

BUETOW: He was really frustrated with how the United States Army was handling the war in Afghanistan. He was really frustrated that - he was just upset with the whole process - that we weren't doing anything. And that it was bad. And that we, you know - it was just kind of ridiculous the things that they have us doing.

BOWMAN: That day the soldiers searched the small outpost for Bergdahl. They found his weapon, his body armor and his night vision goggles stacked by his bunk. That was odd.

Sergeant Buetow remembered now that Bergdahl asked another soldier what would happen to him if his gear went missing. So they couldn't find Bergdahl, but his gear was still there. The soldiers pushed from the outpost and scoured the countryside heading into villages they rarely visited. More soldiers were brought in to search for him. For more than two months they swept the entire area.

JOSH CORNELISON: Every single thing that we did was revolving around finding Bowe Bergdahl. Everything.

BOWMAN: That's Josh Cornelison, a medic with Bergdahl's platoon.

CORNELISON: With so many extra ground units in the area, the Taliban really just kind of could sit back and choose who and when they wanted to actually strike.

BOWMAN: Sergeant Buetow believes Bergdahl's capture in the search for him can be linked to the deaths of six soldiers.

BUETOW: They were on directed missions in search for Bergdahl when they were killed.

BOWMAN: Less than a month after he went missing the Taliban posted a video of Bergdahl. He's seated cross-legged on a rug wearing local garb - blue shirt and pants. He's asked by one of his captors why he left his outpost.

SERGEANT BOWE BERGDAHL: I was behind the patrol. I was lagging behind the patrol when I was captured.

BOWMAN: Josh Cornelison says that's false. Every patrol is carefully conducted.

CORNELISON: There is no infantry unit in the history of the United States Army that is going - is going to strip a soldier of all of his equipment and leave him behind.

BOWMAN: Sergeant Buetow said he heard something even more troubling about Bergdahl shortly after he went missing. They intercepted a Taliban radio message from a local village. It suggested Bergdahl though missing had not yet been captured.

BUETOW: There is an American in Yahya Khel. He is looking for someone who speaks English so he can talk to the Taliban. I was sitting right there with that interpreter with that system when that came over the radio. And I heard that get said.

BOWMAN: Bergdahl will soon be heading back to the United States where he'll be reunited with his parents. But Josh Cornelison says Bergdahl should face charges as a deserter.

CORNELISON: He needs to be held 100 percent accountable for everything that he put us through. He needs to be held accountable for willfully walking away from his post.

BOWMAN: Whether Bergdahl faces any charges is uncertain. Army officials say the first step is to get him home. Tom Bowman, NPR News Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
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