Skip to main content

Bergdahl still has a hard road home

By Daniel O'Shea
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed June 4, 2014
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with one of his Taliban captors in Afghanistan
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with one of his Taliban captors in Afghanistan
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bowe Bergdahl a "hometown hero" in Hailey, Idaho, and a "deserter" to some soldiers
  • O'Shea: He learned Pashtun; building rapport with captors is critical to survival as a hostage
  • He says Bergdahl probably wondered each day if this would be his last
  • To break vow to fellow soldiers is terrible: If he indeed deserted, that will haunt him, too

Editor's note: Daniel O'Shea was a reserve Navy SEAL officer mobilized for Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. He served as the coordinator for the Hostage Working Group at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq from 2004 to 2006, managing the interagency coordination for hundreds of international hostage-taking incidents. He served as a counterinsurgency adviser for the commander of the International Security Forces: Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012. He is a vice president at GROM Technology. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan O'Shea. Watch him on "AC 360" at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday.

(CNN) -- U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl -- a former captive, a survivor and a hometown hero to many in Hailey, Idaho -- is being accused by some of his fellow soldiers of deserting his post. This charge of treason will be proven or dismissed in the coming weeks and months. But whether it is true or not, and whether he faces official military charges, he has already been sentenced to life to be haunted by his captivity -- and if the allegations are true, his choices.

Daniel O\'Shea
Daniel O'Shea

Survivors of the Hanoi Hilton, POWs during Vietnam such as Sen. John McCain and Medal of Honor winner Adm. James Stockdale, endured the rigors of long days, months and years of surviving captivity. But Bergdahl's experiences were starkly different from those of his military predecessors.

He was not held by a nation-state recognized by the United Nations, nor did he have fellow prisoners to commiserate with or rely upon for comfort, aid and solace. The "hostage" experience when you are kidnapped by Islamic extremists is like no other imaginable. Every day, you wake believing you might die from a bullet from an AK-47 or a dull knife blade sawing across your throat.

Bowe did not have someone to share in his day-to-day misery. His constant fear upon waking up every morning probably was: "Is this my last day on Earth?"

Most American soldiers captured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were executed within days or weeks of captivity. How did Bergdahl survive five years with one of the most extreme and militant wings of the Taliban?

The U.S. Department of Defense instructs all students at Survival Evasion, Resistance and Escape schools that building rapport with your captors is critical to your survival as a hostage. This is urged to make your kidnappers see you as a human and not an "object" that should be exploited or executed. This can be as simple as learning phrases in your captor's language to Bergdahl's extreme case, where he learned Pashtun and possibly even converting to Islam.

Every POW from Hanoi has spoken of the importance and power of communications between fellow captives as critical to their survival and sanity.

W.H.: Bergdahl release 'the right thing'
Was Bergdahl seeking out the Taliban?
Obama unapologetic over Bergdahl
Bergdahl release triggers firestorm

As well as the overwhelming trauma of being held hostage, Bergdahl will have to deal with the accusations of desertion by some of his fellow soldiers. Did he indeed walk off his combat outpost in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, as many soldiers say he did?

In his e-mails home before his capture, Bergdahl told his parents he was "ashamed to be an American," and wrote that the U.S. Army is ... "the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. ... I am sorry for everything here. .. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting."

Yet within days of his capture, the first video proving him alive aired on July 18, 2009. In it, Bergdahl, choking back tears, adopted a different tone.

"Well, I'm scared," he said. "It's very unnerving to be a prisoner."

We have a moral and ethical obligation to bring all Americans, including all members of the military, home from a hostage or prisoner of war situation. It's a relief that Bergdahl's long ordeal is over and he will finally be reunited with his family. He was the longest-held American military prisoner since Vietnam, and the only American soldier who survived any significant length of time in the capture of Islamic militants since the post 9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began.

"Leave No Man Behind" is the mantra of the Personnel Recovery Mission to bring all POWs and MIAs home from war.

The mission says that: "Preserving the life and well-being of U.S. military personnel placed in danger of isolation, beleaguerment, detention, or capture while participating in a U.S.-sponsored activity or mission is one of the highest priorities of the United States government and the Department of Defense." Personnel Recovery's other ethos is "Return with Honor."

The "Freedom bird" planes that brought home Stockdale and McCain included POWs who many believed did not live up to the same standard of resistance demonstrated by their peers.

Now five years later, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will be coming home to his family and a very mixed reception by his countrymen.

Bergdahl will have many questions to answer as he continues through the repatriation process of medical exams, physiological screenings and debriefs on what his actions were before, during and after his capture and subsequent detainment by the Taliban.

One can only speculate about his original intent, but I expect his opinion of the America that sacrificed so much to bring him home is not what it was five years ago.

Like all soldiers, Bergdahl made a solemn vow to defend his country and fellow soldiers -- to serve with honor. That he lived up to that oath is very much up for debate.

Some members from his former unit, "his tribe," believe that Bowe broke that vow. To be unfaithful to your fellow soldiers in a time of war is the ultimate betrayal. To put your brothers-in-arms at risk, some of whom might have died because of your actions, is an unforgivable sin for members of the military.

If the accusations are true, even if he is not tried under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Bergdahl will live with that shame the rest of his life. Bowe Bergdahl still has a long and difficult journey home.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOp.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:12 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
updated 5:24 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
updated 7:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
updated 7:50 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 7:00 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
updated 4:31 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT