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Did the Army fail Bergdahl?

rainey BARRETT


I’m going to advance a theory about Sgt. B. Bergdahl that I suspect you probably haven’t seen anywhere else. The fact that you likely haven’t means I’m probably crazy as hell. But, hey, those of us who write on the old I-net machine aren’t real writers and thinkers anyway, right?

This kernel of digital thought is based on my own years in uniform and the thousands of people I met while doing so. Because many of those years were spent in locations with personnel from other services, I got a pretty good look at people in all branches. Sans uniforms, we were a good cross-section of American life. Some very intelligent individuals – others that had to be reminded daily which foot was the left and which arm was the right.

A basic fact I learned is not everyone in uniform should be – whatever their motivations for joining. But, in my day, a lot of folks were either drafted or so scared they would be that they jumped into one branch or the other just to have a choice. The topic of an “all volunteer” military was never mentioned. You gambled the draft wouldn’t get you or you went off to “march” in the military.

Regardless of which branch, you’re immediately thrown into a lifestyle of life-changing experiences with people you’d never meet any other way. If you were from a small, all-white Oregon town, you quickly learned there really were others who didn’t look, talk or act like all the folks back home. Not that you weren’t intellectually aware of that. You just never showered with ‘em or ate with ‘em or – if you were a bit social – got to know ‘em.

If you were a “normal” heterosexual male, you found not every other guy was. In those days, that meant a quick discharge. If you were of a race with a learned hatred of the other, there were new social techniques to learn – quickly – to deal with that. If you had no patience with those whose hygiene skills weren’t up to yours, you had another learning experience. In fact, service in any military unit was – and is – a constant “learning experience.”

Even back then, not everyone “made the grade.” We had “washouts.” Guys who couldn’t adjust. Or wouldn’t. The primary goal of basic training in any of the branches has always been to quickly whip recruits into at least a basic military unit for further training. Almost as important has been the need to find those that can’t make the transition and weed ‘em out. Even in today’s all-volunteer military, not everyone who does so – regardless of motivation – should be accepted.

Given that background – and extensive reporting of Bergdahl’s days in the military and of his family’s lifestyle – my hunch is the sergeant is one of those and that he slipped through the cracks.

Hailey, Idaho, is a relatively isolated community of some 8,000 souls Though only about a dozen miles South of Ketchum/Sun Valley, Hailey is a more rural town with a slower and more local flavor – the sort of place rural South Blaine County folks go to buy necessities. Compared to Ketchum/Sun Valley, Hailey is definitely not in the “fast lane.”

Bergdahl’s family seems not to be a “fast lane” bunch, either. His father and mother talk more like some of the more liberal crowd in the area. Some of their words bring memories of what were called “hippie-types” about 45 years ago. Their descriptions of Bowe, and quotes of many other locals who’ve said something of his background, talk of a “good kid” – one who was sort of quiet – who didn’t have a lot of problems with school or other local authority. A kid with conscience. And a bit of a dreamer. A kid who kind of kept to himself – not part of the popular crowd – pleasant enough – smart enough but not outstanding.

Some reporting since Bergdahl’s release has told of a few times when he just wandered away from his army duties. In basic training, he once said he just wanted to go see a sunset. In Afghanistan, he had gone – unarmed – on more than one foray into local areas to look around. In an email to a friend, he talked to wanting to walk to China into “the artist’s painted world, hiding from the fields of blood and screams- hiding from the monster within.” He’d also repeatedly expressed concerns to fellow soldiers about what the American military was doing to the native population and of his serious concerns about it.

Dig a bit deeper. In 2006, he “washed out” of the Coast Guard for “psychological reasons” before he joined the army.

“O.K., Rainey,” you say. “Where the hell are you going with all this?”

Well, here’s where. Given my own military experiences and adding what we now know of Bergdahl’s, this sounds like a guy who should’ve been “washed out” in basic training. Or rejected by a recruiter. Especially with the previous Coast Guard “psych” discharge which was certainly on the record. He sounds like a serious-minded kid, just out of his teen years, raised in a rather liberal family by parents who’ve expressed similar concerns about the war in Afghanistan. I don’t know enough about them to call them “conscientious objectors” but they’re certainly more forthcoming – and articulate – with their reservations about the war than most folks. His father’s gone so far as to learn the local Afghan dialect and grow a beard common among Afghan men. Those things also speak of someone with more than casual feelings about events. You ever hear of anyone else in a similar situation going that far? Me neither.

Seems to me Sgt. Bergdahl is a guy who should’ve never been in uniform. He sounds like a good kid who certainly would have never made “Soldier of the Month.” He sounds like a bad civilian “fit” in army fatigues.

Bergdahl – or any captive American in a war – should’ve been rescued. All else is political B.S.. The rescue was right. Now, if a subsequent military investigation finds what Bergdahl did by wandering off fits the Uniform Code of Military Justice definition of “desertion,” take the proper steps to administer punishment as specified. That’s the “army way.”

Still, it seems to me the army bears more than a little responsibility for Bergdahl being in Afghanistan in the first place. His background – his upbringing – his family beliefs – his repeatedly expressed concerns about what war was doing to other human beings – the previous discharge for “psychological reasons” – all of that should have raised red flags. He had a history before his capture. A history that was well-known to those around him in the military. A history that seems to have been ignored.

Sometimes that, too, is the “army way.”

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