News / USA

US Soldiers' Deaths May Have Only Tenuous Link to Bergdahl Search

FILE - Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in an undated image provided by the U.S. Army.
FILE - Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in an undated image provided by the U.S. Army.
Reuters
The frantic search for Bowe Bergdahl began the moment his comrades discovered he was no longer inside the fragile outpost in a rock-strewn valley in one of the most hostile corners of Afghanistan.
 
Exactly why Bergdahl left is subject to intense scrutiny. But accounts by two Taliban sources as well as several U.S. officials and fellow soldiers raise doubt over media reports that he had sought to join the Taliban, and over suggestions that the deaths later that year of six soldiers in his battalion were related to the search for him.
 
His dramatic release on May 31 after five years in captivity in return for five Taliban commanders sparked a national controversy over whether President Barack Obama paid too high a price for his freedom. That was fueled by allegations by some in his battalion that he was a deserter, and that soldiers died because they were looking for him after his disappearance in the early hours of June 30, 2009.
 
While many questions remain, a Reuters reconstruction of his disappearance indicates that at the time when Bergdahl's six comrades in the 1st Battalion of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment were killed in August and September 2009, his fallen comrades were on other missions like securing the Afghan elections and, according to one U.S. military official, the period of intensive ground searches had already ended.
 
But several soldiers in his unit said the quest to locate him never really ended, and that it was an element of every mission they undertook, prompting some to blame the deaths on him.
 
The U.S. Army has declined to give an account of those fraught weeks, saying a new investigation will be conducted when Bergdahl, now being treated at a U.S. military hospital in Germany, is able to take part.
 
An initial investigation noted that Bergdahl had slipped away from his base in the past, once during training in California, only to return a short while later, according to people familiar with its classified findings.
 
His disappearance in June 2009 came at a time of increasing attacks on U.S. forces from a resurgent Taliban: there were nearly 200 U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan between the time of his disappearance and the end of 2009.
 
He had been on guard duty in one of the armored trucks parked in a circle on a dry riverbed to form a crude outpost in one of the most hostile corners of Afghanistan, in Paktika province along the border with Pakistan, according to several of his fellow soldiers.
 
US Lawmakers to Probe Bergdahl Releasei
X
Michael Bowman
June 08, 2014 8:02 PM
Later this week, U.S. lawmakers will hold the first hearings into the prisoner swap that freed Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in return for five Taliban detainees. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington.

They described him as a bookish loner who would rather learn Pashto than drink beer. Bergdahl, they said, had few close friends in the unit.

“He definitely was very reserved, an introvert,” said former Sergeant Matt Vierkant, a team leader in Bergdahl's platoon.
 
At roll call that morning, it became quickly apparent that he was missing - though his gun, ammunition and body armor had been left behind.
 
Missing-person report
 
After searching the trucks, latrines, bunkers and quarters of Afghan National Police stationed with them, the platoon radioed in a missing-person report and immediately set out to search for him.

Within 2.5 hours, infantry units had fanned out to set up roadblocks and search nearby villages.
 
The area was tense. Three days earlier, Pakistani warplanes had launched a new offensive against the Taliban just across the border in South Waziristan, killing at least a dozen Taliban fighters in a rugged region known for heavily armed tribesmen and camps harboring al-Qaida and Taliban leaders.
 
As the search got under way, Vierkant, Bergdahl's fellow platoon member, encountered two village children who said they had seen an American in Army clothes crawling through the weeds.
 
About 2:30 p.m., a U.S. listening post picked up radio chatter indicating that an American soldier with a camera was looking for someone who could speak English, according to U.S. military records published by anti-secrecy group Wikileaks.

Three hours later, they heard a U.S. soldier had been captured.
 
Taliban sources said they found Bergdahl walking alone after receiving a tip from local villagers.
 
“Our people didn't understand what he was saying at first because they don't speak English. But later when they took him to a safe location, we realized that he wasn't happy with his people and that's why he left them,” a Taliban commander based in the Pakistani city of Quetta told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
 
The next night, Afghan National Police at the outpost where Bergdahl had disappeared received a radio call from the Taliban saying they wanted to trade 15 prisoners for the American, the military reports said.
 
Four days after that, the Army received a tantalizing tip - Bergdahl had been spotted in a black Toyota Corolla, flanked by men on motorcycles. He was wearing dark khaki clothing with a bag over his head.
 
That was the closest they would get for another five years.
 
Taliban fighters moved Bergdahl to Angoor Adda, a border town between South Waziristan in Pakistan and Afghanistan's Paktika province.

He was then taken to South Waziristan and later to the Shawal valley, a forested, mountainous area between North and South Waziristan, a Taliban commander based in Helmand province told Reuters.
 
Bergdahl did not show any interest in converting to Islam or joining the Taliban during those early weeks of his captivity, the commander said.
 
“We didn't trust him as he could have been a spy. There were frequent drone strikes in the tribal areas and that's why we were afraid of him,” he said.
 
Bergdahl has told U.S. authorities he was held in solitary confinement for long periods. The New York Times reported that he told medical officials in Germany he was kept in a metal cage in the dark for weeks after he tried to escape.
 
Ground search
 
Bergdahl's regiment searched for him at a frantic pace for several weeks. Where before troops might have had several days of down time to recharge between missions, now they would only return to their base for four to six hours - just enough time to gather more equipment and take a shower.

Then it was back to the desert for another mission.
 
“When he walked off, everything changed throughout the whole province of Paktika. The mission for us and for everybody else was find Bergdahl as fast as you can,” Vierkant said.
 
Soldiers had to cope with temperatures that regularly climbed above 100 degrees Farenheit (38 C) and fine sand - known as “moon dust” - that worked its way into eyes, ears, and lungs, causing respiratory infections.
 
“It looked like I walked through a big bag of baby powder,” said former Specialist Billy Rentiers, who participated in the search as part of Easy Company, a support unit in the 501st regiment.
 
The increased number of missions at that time left troops vulnerable to attack more often, forcing them to step beyond the security of their outposts into hostile terrain, said several soldiers involved in the search.
 
Ambushes appeared to become more frequent and sophisticated during this time, the soldiers said.
 
In mid-July, military officials called off the dedicated ground search and gave soldiers other primary missions after concluding that Bergdahl had been taken to Pakistan, according to a U.S. military official speaking on condition of anonymity.
 
The official said some Bergdahl-related surveillance continued for about another month, and soldiers were also told to keep an eye out and to ask about Bergdahl while carrying out primary missions.
 
Casualties began
 
It was in mid-August that the battalion, still in Paktika province, started taking casualties. On Aug. 18, a roadside bomb killed Staff Sergeant Clayton Bowen, 29, and Private First Class Morris Walker, 23.
 
Bowen's mother, Reesa Doebbler, said she was told by her son's former comrades that he was on a mission to provide election security, an account confirmed by other sources, including a U.S. military official.

Reuters was unable to contact Walker's family.
 
Staff Sergeant Michael Murphrey, 25, died on Sept. 6 while setting up a security camp after a day spent distributing humanitarian aid, said Jack Kessna, a former member of Bergdahl's Blackfoot Company who has worked with other former soldiers to determine the cause of the deaths.

Kessna said Murphrey's death could not be linked directly to the search.
 
Murphrey's sister, Krisa, said she was never given official information about his mission after his death and had to rely on accounts by her brother's comrades.
 
“Some say that he was not on a rescue mission, that he was on a humanitarian mission. And then some say that, sure it wasn't a rescue mission, per se, but Bergdahl was always the secondary mission,” she told Reuters.
 
Staff Sergeant Kurt Curtiss, 27, was shot on Aug. 26 while his unit was supporting Afghan security forces during an enemy attack.

Reuters was not able to contact Curtiss' family.
 
On Sept. 4, Second Lieutenant Darryn Andrews, 34, died when enemy forces attacked his vehicle with a roadside bomb and a rocket-propelled grenade. Private First Class Matthew Martinek, 20, died a week later from wounds sustained in the same attack.

The parents of both Andrews and Martinek told Reuters last week they believe their sons died searching for Bergdahl, saying they were told this by other soldiers in the platoon.
 
Former Private First Class Jose Baggett, who normally sat next to Andrews on every mission as driver and radio telephone operator, had been injured when a roadside bomb hit his truck on a previous mission. Martinek took his place.
 
“I even remember helping him pack his gear for the mission,” Baggett said. “Worst day of my life to date.”
 
Baggett said he doesn't think the death of the two soldiers, or anybody else, can be directly linked to the search. Even if Bergdahl had not walked off, the battalion still could have taken casualties during its 12-month tour of Afghanistan, he said.
 
A U.S. military official said that, like the other casualties, the two men were not engaged in a search for Bergdahl but were on a logistics mission.
 
Vierkant believes otherwise.
 
“It was what every mission was, every day: find Bergdahl,” he said.
Taliban Video of Release of US Soldier Sgt. Bergdahli
X
VOA News
June 04, 2014 11:02 AM
Footage of Taliban video released Wednesday showing the handover of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier who was freed Saturday as part of a prisoner exchange. The 17-minute video, made public on Wednesday, shows Bergdahl clean shaven, including his head. He is dressed in a white traditional Afghan robe. The soldier is initially seen sitting in a pick-up truck that is parked on a hillside. He blinks constantly and rubs his eyes in the bright sunlight. Several armed men stand nearby.

You May Like

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

New methods for mapping pain in the brain not only validate sufferers of chronic pain but might someday also lead to better treatment More

Sierra Leone's Stray Dog Population Doubles During Ebola Crisis

Many dog owners fear their pets could infect them with the virus and have abandoned them, leading to the increase and sparking fears of rabies More

Fake, Substandard Medicines Pose Global Challenge

So-called 'fake drugs' include expired medicines, those with manufacturing defects, and bogus tablets More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Paini
X
Shelley Schlender
April 20, 2015 7:03 PM
Pain has a purpose - it can stop you from touching a flame or from walking on a broken leg. As an injury heals, the pain goes away. Usually. But worldwide, one out of every five people suffers from pain that lasts for months and years, leading to lost jobs, depression, and rising despair when medical interventions fail or health experts hint that a pain sufferer is making it up. From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Italy Rescues Migrants After Separate Deadly Capsize Incident

Italy continued its massive search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Monday for the capsized boat off the coast of Libya that was carrying hundreds of migrants, while at the same time rescuing Syrian migrants from another vessel off the coast of Sicily. Thirteen children were among the 98 Syrian migrants whose boat originated from Turkey on the perilous journey to Europe.
Video

Video New Test Set to Be Game Changer in Eradicating Malaria

The World Health Organization estimates 3.4 billion people are at risk of malaria, with children under the age of five and pregnant women being the most vulnerable. As World Malaria Day approaches (April 25), mortality rates are falling, and a new test -- well into the last stage of trials -- is having positive results in Kenya. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA from Nairobi.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.

VOA Blogs