“Deserter” might be the appropriate label for SGT Bowe Bergdahl, America’s only prisoner of war until he was released last week in a controversial swap for five Taliban detainees. It is an ugly word, ripe and sticky with betrayal. It means a soldier sworn to defend his nation has left his post without permission, and with no plan to return. He has abandoned his comrades. It is worse than away with out leave, for AWOL soldiers come back and face the appropriate disciplinary action. It leaves you short, just short, of being a traitor.
But it is just as likely that Bergdahl was the one deserted by an Army that could not keep up with the mental health needs of deployed force.
Among the many heated words and inflammatory assertions in the week since his release, there are just two really relevant facts: First, Bergdahl left his base alone without permission and walked unarmed into hostile enemy territory. For any American, walking off into Paktika province in 2009 was a stupid and dangerous move, basically suicidal. He is very lucky to be alive. Second, Bergdahl had gone AWOL before, probably more than once. He had a history of this kind of behavior. We have also heard that he may have been disillusioned with the war and may have wanted to go off into the mountains.
So something was not right with Bowe Bergdahl at the time he disappeared. This should not be surprising. Since 2003, the military has conducted regular surveys of deployed troops mental health in an effort to better manage combat stress. The “Mental Health Advisory Team” (MHAT) report from the period closest to Bergdahl’s disappearance in 2009 found that 21.4 percent soldiers and marines surveyed in in Afghanistan reported acute stress, depression, or anxiety.
The Army has tried to address issues like combat stress and PTSD, and we train our forces to look for signs and try to get people help when they need it. They can be pulled out of the fight to go on short mid-tour recuperation trips out of theater or to an in-theater “restoration center.” Apparently no such intervention was taken for Bergdahl, and the Army needs to try to understand why a soldier with a history of going AWOL was allowed to stay in the fight without adequate intervention.
As of now, no one can say whether Bergdahl wandered off because he was delusional or suffering from some mental health issue. He may have gone AWOL, expecting to sneak back after a stroll. He may have been deserting with some notion of living among Afghan villagers. Or it could be worse: he may have been bent on treason and planning to join the Taliban. But we do not know. No matter how often news channels broadcast speculation as if it is fact, we do not know.
Now that Bergdahl is back, he should get what all U.S. soldiers deserve: our gratitude for volunteering to serve; the best care we can provide; and a fair hearing before being labeled anything other than patriot.
Vikram J. Singh is Vice President for National Security and International Affairs at the Center for American Progress.