The surprise release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl over the weekend has elicited a furious backlash among military veterans and some civilians who want the soldier to be tried for desertion.
Opposition groups have appeared on Facebook. One titled "Bowe Bergdahl is NOT a Hero!" had more than 10,000 members as of Monday evening. The site features pictures of six soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan during missions to allegedly find the prisoner of war.
The Facebook group also includes a link to a petition accusing Bergdahl of desertion and being absent without leave -- both violations of military law.
"Punish Bowe Bergdahl for walking off base with intent to not support the War On terror," states the petition, which was submitted to the White House’s website and generated more than 4,000 signatures as of Monday afternoon. "Bowe Bergdahl broke several Articles under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and needs to be punished not rewarded."
President Barack Obama held a brief press conference in the Rose Garden on Saturday to announce that Bergdahl had been freed in exchange for five Afghan detainees at the naval prison at Guantanamo Bay. The enlisted soldier, now 28, was held by Taliban captors for almost five years, making him the longest-held American military prisoner since the Vietnam War.
The decision drew immediate criticism from Republican lawmakers who accused the administration of negotiating with terrorists and skirting existing law for failing to notify them within 30 days of any prisoner release.
Nathan Bradley Bethea, who served in the same unit as Bergdahl in Paktika province -- the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment -- wrote a detailed article for The Daily Beast about his involvement in efforts to find the missing soldier throughout the summer of 2009. "The truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down," Bethea wrote.
He lists eight soldiers who died either directly or indirectly as a result of Bergdahl's disappearance, including six in his battalion and two in a sister battalion -- the 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry -- which served in an area near the Pakistani border.
The soldiers in his unit were Pvt. 1st Class Morris Walker, Staff Sgt. Clayton Bowen, Staff Sgt. Kurt Curtiss, 2nd Lt. Darryn Andrews, Pvt. 1st Class Matthew Martinek and Staff Sgt. Michael Murphrey, Bethea wrote. The soldiers in the sister unit were Pvts. 1st Class Aaron Fairbairn and Justin Casillas, he wrote.
Enlisted personnel interviewed on the phone by Military.com said they were angry and frustrated with Bergdahl for what they described as abandoning his fellow soldiers at a time of war.
A sergeant at Fort Hood, Texas, who requested anonymity to speak freely about the topic without professional repercussion, questioned the administration's decision to turn over such high-value detainees from Guantanamo.
"We should not have given away five of the top bad guys -- pretty much enemies of the U.S. -- for one soldier that was in need of help and is still in need of help," he said. “We gave away five very key leaders away that could do more harm to the U.S.”
The sergeant said he was adamantly opposed to Bergdahl receiving a promotion to staff sergeant. Bergdahl's reportedly in line for advancement because he hasn't been classified as a deserter. After being taken prisoner, he was promoted twice -- to the rank of specialist in June 2010 and then sergeant in June 2011, according to The Associated Press.
Instead, the sergeant said Bergdahl should be tried in a military court. At the very least, he should make a formal statement regarding the circumstances of his departure.
"People got killed actively searching for him," he said. "He owes them some sort of answer.”
-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at Brendan.McGarry@monster.com.