By JAMES GORDON MEEK
As the White House praised the return of soldier Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban, some Afghan war veterans answered with anger over how the young soldier fell into enemy hands in the first place and the price the U.S. has paid to get him back.
Rarely had the circumstances of Bergdahl's vanishing in June 2009 been publicly discussed during his captivity, apparently for fear of jeopardizing his safety while in Taliban control. But years of simmering anger by some vets may finally be bursting into the open now that he’s safely heading back stateside – and now that the Taliban has celebrated the return of five middle- to senior-level figures that had been held for years in Guantanamo Bay.
“I went to extreme personal sacrifice to see some of the guys that are walking get justice,” one special operations forces commander who was involved in chasing down high-value targets in Afghanistan told ABC News. “Should I or others involved be looking over our shoulders now?”
Nathan Bethea, a former soldier who says he served in Bergdahl’s unit, recently wrote that he and his colleagues had been forced to stay quiet about the truth of Bergdahl’s case.
"And that the truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down," Bethea wrote in The Daily Beast Monday. “Bergdahl was relieved from guard duty, and instead of going to sleep, he fled the outpost on foot. He deserted. I’ve talked to members of Bergdahl’s platoon—including the last Americans to see him before his capture. I’ve reviewed the relevant documents. That’s what happened.”
By his own account in a Taliban-released video in July 2009, Bergdahl said he was caught after lagging behind during a patrol -- which would have been the only instance of such a capture in the 13-year war. Bethea wrote there was no such patrol that night. The Taliban said he was drunk and wandered off base. The U.S. intercepted radio traffic in the area that indicated Bergdahl had been captured while relieving himself, according to documents obtained and released by WikiLeaks.
“We were attacking the post, he was sitting taking expletive[.] He had no gun with him,” said a “traffic report” apparently capturing a conversation between two members of the Taliban.
A 2012 Rolling Stone article about the Bergdahl case by the late journalist Michael Hastings said the young soldier had become disillusioned while serving in an infantry platoon with low morale and bad leadership, and that he had emailed his father Bob to say, "The horror that is [A]merica is disgusting." His father urged him to obey his conscience. Hastings reported that Bergdahl “decided to walk away.”
At a private Army promotion ceremony in Washington in late 2012, a general discussed how he and a subordinate officer had helped lead search efforts in eastern Afghanistan with an infantry battalion at the time Bergdahl disappeared. "He left our organization and went over to the other side," the general told the small audience at the closed reception, which was attended by an ABC News reporter.
A Special Forces operator confirmed to ABC News the account of Bergdahl's walking away by Bethea, the general and other soldiers, including the substance of an emotional anonymous testimonial posted online in the comment section of the Rolling Stone article, purportedly written by another soldier who served with Bergdahl.
Bergdahl's status was changed from "missing/whereabouts unknown" to "missing/captured" within days of his disappearance, however.
Today a Defense Department spokesperson said the military has never stated that Bergdahl walked away from his post. The spokesperson said that preliminary investigations into the case were all missing Bergdahl’s side of the story.
At an emotional press conference this weekend, Bergdahl’s father Bob said he was “proud of how much [Bergdahl] wanted to help the Afghan people and what [he] was willing to do to go to that length.”
“I think you have succeeded,” the elder Bergdahl said.
Bob and his wife Jani declined to answer questions at the press conference and requested patience from the media. “I know Bowe is going to have a lot to say about this,” Bob said. “But that’s still a distant, future thing, and I won’t let things get in the way of Bowe’s recovery.”
A former senior military Special Forces advisor who was in Afghanistan and directly involved in efforts to mount a rescue mission for Bergdahl told ABC News there was anger and frustration after Bergdahl’s capture because soldiers were being asked to risk their lives to save a man who allegedly “was disillusioned and walked off base.”
Bethea said he "participated in the attempts to retrieve him throughout the summer of 2009" and named soldiers from the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division who he said were killed in action as the search dragged on for months with daily missions. The Pentagon spokesperson said it would be “impossible” to confirm the allegations about the deaths related to the Bergdahl search.
The Special Forces operator who spoke to ABC News said his team near Kabul was sent to the decrepit outpost near Ghazni to "stir up intel" on Bergdahl's whereabouts.
"When he left he had his knife, his compass, his bottle of water. That's what the 25th Infantry Division guys said to us," the Special Forces operator told ABC News Sunday. "We were all pissed off. We were going to go out there and search every building to find this kid."
A National Guard unit was ambushed and suffered casualties on July 8 while searching for Bergdahl and the next day a Special Forces team was hit in a U-shaped ambush by Taliban firing PKM machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. "I got shot three times. One through my leg, one hit my knee and one hit my radio," the operator recounted.
On a medevac flight home, the Special Forces operator said he met a U.S. Navy SEAL who had been shot in the legs on a commando mission looking for Bergdahl and his captors.
The Pentagon and Obama administration had steadfastly said they were determined not to leave any man behind including Bergdahl, a 501st Infantry Regiment trooper who was promoted by the U.S. from specialist to sergeant during his captivity by Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani's insurgent network. He was believed held in Pakistan.
A senior U.S. Special Operations officer told ABC News earlier this month that the military was still discussing how to address Bergdahl's possible desertion then, days before his release in exchange for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay was achieved this week.
Several veterans of the Afghan war familiar with Bergdahl's case said they hoped he would be prosecuted, but others said he undoubtedly has suffered enough during his long ordeal. Few think he will ever be charged for desertion because of statements by President Obama and his top military leaders on Saturday that they had fulfilled their obligation to leave no man behind. Criminal charges, if any, would be brought by the Army, which has jurisdiction.
"I say leave him be. He has enough baggage he'll have to deal with," said one special operator currently deployed.
"Obviously there is a political dimension to this as well as a legal dimension," retired Army Lt. Col. Geoff Corn, a former judge-advocate who now teaches at South Texas College of Law, told ABC News. “If there were indications that he deserted or collaborated with the enemy, the command responsible for reintegrating him could decide to investigate and charge him.”
"They will be debriefing him extensively during reintegration process to get his side of the story,” Corn said.
After Bergdahl’s release, White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos Sunday that Bergdahl had served the U.S. “with honor and distinction.”
She declined to say whether the U.S. plans to re-investigate Bergdahl’s capture.
“I’m not going to speculate on what the future looks like or whether he needs a lawyer, let’s just get him back,” the Pentagon spokesperson said today.
A former Army Ranger who spoke to ABC News on the condition of anonymity said he was familiar with the community in which Bergdahl lives and said he understood the soldier to be a “good kid.”
“There is a lot of speculation around his detention and there is truth on both sides,” the ex-Ranger said. “The only ‘win’ in this is that no more Americans will be put into harm’s way looking for Bowe.”
ABC News’ Rhonda Schwartz and Lee Ferran contributed to this report.