The Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl case is much more complicated than it seems to the reductionists among us. Three facts are clear:
- Sgt. Bergdahl left his post in a war zone in Afghanistan.
- The Taliban held Sgt. Bergdahl prisoner for five years.
- The U.S. Government negotiated his release and return in exchange for the release of five Guantanamo Bay detainees.
Numbers 1 and 2 are innocuous facts. Number 3 uncovers raw scabs in our (mostly political) psyche. On the one side there are those who are happy to have an American prisoner released and out of enemy hands. There are others who consider him a deserter and a traitor whose life was not worth the prisoner swap. Although I do not share the latter point of view, my concern here is with neither side. I care about how men (and women today) find themselves in war zones in the first place.
[The photo below was actually attached to a story about America’s opening salvos in Iraq 13 years ago. I chose it because of the “facelessness” of it: each an individual, each an everyman. And they seem to be walking into a forest: the unknown, the dangerous.]
My draft notice in 1965 was automatic. After I decided to leave college my 2-S (student) deferment was gone and 4-F (physical deficiency) was out of the question. The Army was ramping up its numbers and there I was. Hello, Uncle Sam. Many guys my age stayed in school to avoid the draft, some brought their hernia X-rays with them to the draft board looking for a medical, some, I heard, even went to Canada. Most of us who received “Greetings” in the mail, however, ended up in uniform.
The draft was non-democratic. Although I have strong feelings about universal service to the country, the buildup of troops to staff the Vietnam War drew from a pool that exposed vulnerable young men to a military life experience they did not deserve. To wit,
A guy drafted into my company in basic training did not belong there. At the induction center in Newark, he failed the written test three times; the test monitor thought he was lying so filled in enough correct answers to have him pass. During our first day on the rifle range at Fort Devens he proved so dangerous that the instructor labeled him a “dud.” There is more, but the point is made.
He made it all the way to Vietnam in wrinkled fatigues and dirty boots. Within the first two weeks in-country we were ambushed. Everyone hit the ground immediately … save one. He became our first casualty. He never should have been there. I hate that word, “dud.”
I can’t even guess how much, if anything, my comrade had in common with Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. But the Associated Press story below sure makes me wonder. (Bold type is my own.)
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Well before Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl walked away from his Army post in Afghanistan, he washed out of the Coast Guard three weeks into boot camp ...
Two years later, though, he joined the Army, obtaining a waiver from rules that bar the enlistment of those with certain psychological problems.
Military recruiters also waive criminal background status and questionable (under the influence) driving records when they need to boost quotas. The military, you see, has a sliding scale of enlistment requirements, depending on how many conflicts we are involved in at the time.
The details about his mental health — including the Army’s later diagnosis of Bergdahl as suffering from “schizotypal personality disorder” — are contained in newly released documents …
In a 2014 interview soon after his release, Bergdahl told a general investigating his disappearance that he grew up reading about the samurai code and World War II heroes, spending much of his time alone wandering the Idaho woods with cats, dogs and horses. He loved the ocean and found the Coast Guard’s domestic mission honorable, but admitted in the interview to being overwhelmed around other people.
Somewhat ironic, perhaps, this is also a symptom of PTSD.
Bergdahl said a psychiatrist asked him to sign paperwork, and he received an “uncharacterized discharge” from the Coast Guard. In court, his lawyers have described it as a “psychological discharge.”
In 2008, however, Bergdahl was granted a waiver to enter the Army, which at the time had relaxed its recruitment standards because it was stretched thin by the fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thank you Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rove, et al. The military relaxed standards and the administration didn’t fund the wars.
The documents released … include a form from July 2015 showing that … Bergdahl suffered from schizotypal personality disorder when he left his post in Afghanistan. A Mayo Clinic website says people with the disorder have trouble interpreting social cues and can become significantly distrustful of others.
Another PTSD symptom.