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

UN Fears Rights Violations in China-backed Projects

UNHCHR investigates link between financing development and ignoring safeguards for human rights More

Boko Haram Violence Tests Nigerians’ Faith in Buhari

New president has promised to stem insurgency; he’s scheduled to meet with President Obama at White House July 20 More

Social Media Network Wants Privacy in User’s Hands

Encryption's popularity in messaging is exploding; now it's the foundation of a new social network More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugeesi
X
Carolyn Weaver
July 06, 2015 6:47 PM
In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugees

In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Rice Farmers Frustrated As Drought Grips Thailand

A severe drought in Thailand is limiting the growing season of the country’s important rice crop. Farmers are blaming the government for not doing more to protect a key export. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Video

Video 'From This Day Forward' Reveals Difficult Journey of Transgender Parent

In her documentary, "From This Day Forward", filmmaker Sharon Shattuck reveals the personal journey of her transgender father, as he told his family that he always felt he was a woman inside and decided to live as one. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Floodwaters Threaten Iconic American Home

The Farnsworth House in the Midwest State of Illinois is one of the most iconic homes in America. Thousands of tourists visit the site every year. Its location near a river inspired the design of the house, but, as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, that very location is now threatening the existence of this National Historic Landmark.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.

VOA Blogs