U.S. service members expect the Army to prosecute Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl if a new Army investigation confirms allegations that he deserted his unit before he was captured, according to a new survey by Military.com.
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was released Saturday after he was held captive in Afghanistan by the Taliban for nearly five years. President Barack Obama announced his release during a White House Rose Garden ceremony standing next to Bergdahl's parents.
Responses from more than 8,800 service members, their spouses, veterans and retirees to questions regarding Bergdahl's release show the military community would not forgive Bergdahl and want him held accountable if he willingly left his post on June 30, 2009.
Members of Bergdahl's former unit have said Bergdahl deserted his post in Afghanistan. A 2010 classified Army report confirmed those allegations saying it also might not have been the first time Bergdahl left his post, according to a report by Military Times.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has said the Army will investigate Bergdahl's capture, but the first priority was helping him recover from his five years in captivity.About 95 percent of the more than 1,000 active duty, Guard and Reserve troops who responded to the survey said Bergdahl should face a court-martial or separate punishment if it is found he deserted his unit.
If Bergdahl is convicted, 86 percent of survey respondents said Bergdahl should not receive back pay for the past five years. The voluntary survey was conducted online from June 3-4.
A report by Military.com found that Bergdahl could receive up to $300,000 in back pay upon his repatriation to the U.S. However, he could forfeit that pay pending any desertion or Absence Without Leave (AWOL) charges under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice.
In order to negotiate Bergdahl's release, President Obama released five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo Bay. Many in the military community felt this agreement broke the long standing policy of never negotiating with terrorists.
"You always hear that you don't negotiate with terrorists but here we have five battle hardened commanders released," said Master Sgt. Dennis Mills, an Air National Guardsman.
In fact, more than 85 percent of the active duty, Guard and Reserve respondents said breaking that policy will increase the risk for targeted abductions of service members serving in combat zones.
Marine Cpl. Joshua Prall, who has deployed to Afghanistan, said the president's decision put deployed troops in increased danger. He also said he has little doubt Bergdahl deliberately left his unit because of reports he left his body armor and rifle.
"Some people said he got captured on patrol after he fell back. If he was on patrol, he would have had his body armor and his weapon. There was never a time I was on patrol and didn't have my weapon. That doesn't make sense," Prall said.
During his time in captivity, Bergdahl receive two promotions to sergeant. Troops took issue with those promotions. More than 80 percent of active duty service members said Bergdahl did not deserve those promotions if it is found he willingly left his post in Afghanistan.
Air Force Tech Sgt. Paul Vina said he initially was happy "we got one of our guys back" when he first heard that Bergdahl had been released. However, he started to worry about the possible results of the release. He said the airmen he's spoken to in his unit at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico have had similar reactions.
Vina and Prall also questioned why the White House chose to hold a White House Rose Garden ceremony to announce Bergdahl's release when so many unanswered questions surrounded his capture.
"I can't imagine the [Obama administration] would have ever imagined the backlash from this. I don't think they were prepared for it," Vina said. "I think they felt the country was war weary and were just going to be glad we brought one of our guy's back."
Obama on Thursday blamed most of the criticism on Bergdahl's release on Washington politics. "I'm never surprised by controversies that are whipped up in Washington. That's par for the course," he said.
However, Prall disagreed that the backlash from the release was a Washington creation. He said service members, especially those who have deployed to Afghanistan the past ten years, understand the danger Bergdahl potentially put his unit.
Prall highlighted the six soldiers that allegedly died searching for Bergdahl. He also questioned if any U.S. troops died trying to capture the five Taliban leaders.
"I was horrified to hear what they did to obtain Bergdahl's release," Mills said.
-- Michael Hoffman can be reached at email@example.com
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