When I fought in Afghanistan there were many stories about how Bowe Bergdahl was captured. In one video released by the Taliban, Bergdahl said he had lagged behind on a patrol and been taken. For years, it stood as a kind of accusation against his comrades in Blackfoot Company: They had left him behind. But, on the day Bergdahl disappeared, June 30, 2009, there was in fact no patrol, according to other soldiers who were there. On that night, instead of patrolling, they slept in the earthen bunkers of OP Mest, an outpost scraped from a hillside in Afghanistan’s rugged and remote Paktika Province. Life at OP Mest had been miserable: weeklong rotations in the scorching heat, no showers, no food except for Meals Ready-To-Eat.
The next morning, Sergeant First Class Larry Hein took muster. Then the misery really began. Bergdahl was gone. At 9:00 a.m., Hein called over the radio to report a missing soldier. Bergdahl was then classified DUSTWUN—Duty Status: Whereabouts Unknown. A little before 5:00 p.m. that afternoon, the senior officer responsible for Paktika ordered that “all operations will cease until the missing soldier is found. All assets will be focused on the DUSTWUN situation and sustainment operations.” Drones and intelligence aircraft were diverted; recovering Bowe Bergdahl became Blackfoot Company’s central mission.
Beginning that August, Bergdahl’s battalion lost six soldiers in a three-week period—all of these fatalities occurred on a mission that was related to, or influenced by, the effort to find Bergdahl. In this remote part of an increasingly remote war, suffering and loss—the senselessness of Afghanistan—often played out in Bergdahl’s name. By March of 2010, Bergdahl’s infantry battalion had returned home without him. Before they left, the Army mandated they sign non-disclosure agreements. Bergdahl’s story wouldn’t be theirs to tell.
I served in the Marines, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and later, in special operations in Afghanistan’s rugged Paktika Province, for a good part of 2010 and 2011, working out of a remote firebase a few kilometers from the Pakistani border. At night my colleagues and I would climb on our bunkered roof, a tumbler of scotch or a cigar in hand, and watch the drone strikes against al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership in South Waziristan. During those days, Bergdahl’s case loomed ever-present. The irony that an iconic figure in a war that had largely been deserted by the American people was probably a deserter himself was never lost on us. It seemed just our luck.
Among sailors, a crew member who brings bad luck is known as a Jonah. It’s a long-held superstition, deriving from the Book of Jonah. Then the sailors said to each other, ‘Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.’ They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. And like the hapless crew that sailed Jonah to Tarshish, we found ourselves in a storm fighting in Afghanistan. With Bergdahl’s disappearance always in the background, imaginations ran wild. Why did the Taliban in Paktika execute attacks with such unusual precision and lethality? Some hypothesized that Bergdahl had informed them of our tactics. Why did Afghan civilians refuse civil aid that they so obviously needed? Others believed rumors that Bergdahl had participated in a propaganda campaign against us. None of this could be substantiated, but over there Bergdahl became the idol of discontent for so many. He was the Jonah.
And this wasn’t only among the rank and file. One of my colleagues, a CIA case officer, was charged with collecting information on Bergdahl’s whereabouts. For months after his disappearance, his location was known with a high degree of precision. At various levels of government, certain options had been floated as to what a recovery mission might look like. After flying in and out of Kabul for endless rounds of inter-agency meetings, my colleague grew frustrated by the Army’s inaction. He questioned the efficacy of these deliberations. A senior officer pulled him aside. “No one’s serious about a rescue mission,” he said. “It’d be too risky. Maybe if Bergdahl had actually been captured they’d do something, but he deserted.”
My colleague flew back to our firebase and returned to his desk. He continued to track Bergdahl. Anytime someone in southeastern Afghanistan claimed to have credible information on Bergdahl, my colleague had to stop what he was doing and travel for hours to debrief the source, cursing all the while. Bergdahl became the idol of his discontent also. His Jonah.
During my eight-year military career, I only met one deserter. It was eleven years ago. I was 23, a newly minted Second Lieutenant on my way to Iraq. At Marine Corps Base Quantico, where I underwent training, we had to get decals for our cars. Behind a counter in the Provost Marshall’s Office, stamping an endless ream of forms, stood a man in his early sixties. He was silver-haired with a ruddy complexion. He wore the same Marine pattern camouflage utilities as me, but his shirt bulged where age had made him soft. On his collar, he wore no rank. He was a private. As he stamped my form, I couldn’t stop looking at him—the oldest private I’d ever seen. He didn’t seem to mind. I’m sure I wasn’t the first. We exchanged pleasantries. I can’t remember much of what we said, but I remember what he called me, “Sir,” and the way he smiled when he said it.
Later I learned that the 60-year-old private had deserted during the Vietnam War. He’d gone to Canada and reentered the country some years later. In 1977, on his first day in office, President Carter pardoned military deserters who had not yet been convicted or punished as well as those who avoided the draft. Although it was given pro forma, individuals were still required to apply for clemency. During the Iraq War, the Marine Corps opened dozens of long-cold desertion cases. The old private I met had seen this renewed effort and turned himself in. Offered a brief stint in the brig and a fine, he finished out his enlistment instead.
And that’s what I remember most about his smile: He seemed to recognize both the sanctity and absurdity of his choice.
Among veterans of the Afghanistan War, Bergdahl’s return has unleashed a range of emotion. For some, he’s the POW returned home with a hero’s trappings. In a conflict that has eschewed war’s traditional definitions of front lines, combatants, and armies, however, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what he’s become. Over the last five years, Bowe Bergdahl has been, more than anything else, a symbol, used by many: his former comrades, the Taliban, and the White House—which revealed the details of the prisoner swap a few days after President Obama’s speech last week announcing the 2016 withdrawal from Afghanistan.
For many, though, he continues to be an emblem of discontent, the Jonah of their Afghan voyage. Just after the news broke, Cody Full, a former soldier from Bergdahl’s squad, sent out his recollections of the disappearance in more than one hundred tweets. He concluded by writing: “So without B going missing we wouldn’t have been in certain places. And without being in those places, 2 brothers wouldn’t have given the ultimate sacrifice. They went out like fucking Hero’s.” A few tweets later, referring to his non-disclosure agreement, he wrote: “Anybody got a lawyer btw?” When I spoke to Nathan Bradley Bethea, one of the officers from Bergdahl’s battalion, he put it more succinctly: “He’s back and my friends are still dead.”
The only thing that seems clear in any of this is the suffering. For five years, Bergdahl suffered in captivity as an idol held by the Taliban. The soldiers sent to recover that idol suffered, too. Each will decide whether they wish to forgive him—or whether he will continue to be their Jonah.
That story had its end also. After being thrown overboard by his shipmates and swallowed by the whale, Jonah prayed to God:
When my soul fainted within me
I remembered the Lord…
Those who regard worthless idols
forsake their own mercy…
So the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.