Bergdahl still has a hard road home

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

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.

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.

Daniel O'Shea

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.

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?

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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.

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