Untangling the Mysteries Behind Bowe Bergdahl's Rescue Mission

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Some say Bowe Bergdahl is a modern-day Benedict Arnold who sought to aid America’s enemy on the battlefield and caused the death of fellow soldiers. Some say the Army is trying to hide the truth in the fog of war. U.S. Army/Getty

It was before dawn at Observation Post Mest-Malak, a U.S. Army outpost surrounded by Taliban-controlled villages in eastern Afghanistan, when the men in Blackfoot Company 2nd Platoon first noticed that Bowe Bergdahl was missing. An Army veteran who says he was one of Bergdahl’s closest friends in Afghanistan and spoke to Newsweek on the condition of anonymity, remembers the moment well. “[Specialist Shane] Cross came over and he whispered, ‘Hey, you seen Bergdahl?’ and I knew instantly he was gone. I said, ‘He’s gone. He’s fucking gone.’”

The U.S. Army boasts that it does not leave men behind, so when Private First Class Bergdahl disappeared in Paktika province on June 30, 2009, the Army was going to find him, no matter the cost.

His platoon-mates all knew Bergdahl was eccentric, a quiet kid who prided himself on the wilderness survival skills he learned growing up in Idaho. He was one of the fittest in the platoon, two of them told Newsweek, and he was meticulous about the gun-cleaning, field-manual-memorizing details of military life. He and his buddies liked to spend nights drinking chai with the Afghan National Police officers stationed up on a dusty hill. He smoked a pipe. Some of the guys thought he was weird, but they all thought he was reliable. “Up until the second he walked away, he was the example of the good soldier,” says Army Specialist Gerald Sutton. “He was always doing his job. We never had to worry about him.” Bergdahl’s close friend from the platoon adds: “He always did what he was told, always there to help you. Always.”

In downtime bitch sessions, when the men talked about shooting themselves in the foot or other schemes to get out of the war early, Bergdahl reportedly said his plan would be to walk to India. Or he said he would shed his weapons and gear, Siddhartha-like, and join the Kochis, nomadic Pashtun tribes whose dark tents dotted the Afghan valleys that looked eerily similar to the Idaho backcountry where he had honed his Man vs. Wild skills. His buddies thought it was just talk. “Everybody wanted to leave. We thought he was just venting,” the friend says. “We didn’t take it seriously. [At OP Mest] you couldn’t even walk outside the base. We were in contact with the enemy anytime we left.... It was like, ‘Whatever, [Bergdahl], you’re full of shit.’”

But he did leave. Alone and unarmed, the 23-year-old was abducted within hours by local Zadran tribe militants, sources tell Newsweek, who passed him up the Taliban’s regional chain of command. He was held as a hostage for five years, and only returned last year after a prisoner swap that freed five Taliban fighters from the U.S. military’s Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp.

04_10_FE0115_Bergdahl_10 From left, Colonel Bradley J. Kamrowski, Ph.D., Major General Joseph P. DiSalvo, and Colonel Ronald N. Wool deliver a press conference in San Antonio, Texas to report on Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's return to the United States and reintegration at Brooke Army Medical Center. Drew Anthony Smith/Getty

Ten months after returning to home soil, Bergdahl was formally charged on March 25, 2015, with two crimes under the Army’s Uniform Code of Military Justice: “Desertion With Intent to Shirk Important or Hazardous Duty” and the more serious “Misbehavior Before the Enemy by Endangering the Safety of a Command, Unit or Place.” He is awaiting an Article 32 hearing, similar to a grand jury, and is working a desk job at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. The Army tries dozens of desertion cases each year (17 men were found guilty of the charge in 2009), and the maximum punishment is five years in military prison, a dishonorable discharge and the loss of back pay. The misbehavior-and-endangerment charge is far more serious, exceptionally rare (according to Stars & Stripes, the last high-profile case was in 1968) and brings the maximum penalty of life in prison.  

‘You’re Gonna Be Looking for Bergdahl’

Why Bowe Bergdahl walked into a hostile war zone isn’t much clearer now than it was the day he left. OP Mest was operating without an officer at the time, and according to his lawyer, Bergdahl snuck away to report disciplinary problems in his unit to an officer at a nearby base.

For the men he left behind in Blackfoot Company and the 1st Battalion of the 501st Regiment that night, life in Afghanistan changed instantly and dramatically. “From the second he left until we left the country, our whole mission was screwed up,” Bergdahl’s friend says. “[In] every operation order until March 2010, he was thrown in the mix: ‘You’re gonna be looking for Bergdahl.’”

“It changed the mission [in Afghanistan] for everyone,” says Sergeant Jordan Vaughan, who served in a separate Blackfoot Company platoon and says he was sent on at least 50 missions to find the missing soldier. “We stopped the regular counter-insurgency mission and instead went and looked for Bergdahl.” According to Vaughan and other men from Blackfoot Company, at least eight soldiers were killed on those searches. Platoon medic Josh Cornelison told NBC News last June, “Every single person that died [out there] was doing something to find Bowe Bergdahl.”

04_10_FE0115_Bergdahl_04 A Blackfoot Company, 1st Battalion 501st infantry Regiment (Airborne) 25th Infantry Division soldier mans an observation post at Malakh above where they were building a base for Afghan National Security Forces, May 27, 2009. Sean Smith/Guardian/Camera Press/Redux

In both legal and moral terms, the charge that Bergdahl’s actions led to the deaths of fellow soldiers is the most important and disturbing one he faces, and yet the Pentagon has steadfastly denied the claim. “I do not know of specific circumstances or details of U.S. soldiers dying as a result of efforts to find and rescue Sergeant Bergdahl,” former defense secretary Chuck Hagel said last summer. Bergdahl had been promoted during his captivity.

The families of those fallen men are outraged and frustrated by this apparent contradiction of facts and testimony. “They’re not liars,” says Cheryl Brandes of the soldiers’ claims. Her son, Matthew Martinek, died from wounds suffered during an ambush on September 4, 2009, while on a mission, his comrades told her, to find Bergdahl. “There needs to be an investigation,” she told Fox News. “Why is this such a cover-up? Why can they not just tell us, ‘Yes, your son was looking for another soldier?’ What’s so bad about that?”

The Pentagon cannot answer Brandes without conceding an awkward and troubling fact: On the day her son was flanked by Taliban militants in an ambush that also killed 2nd Lieutenant Darryn Andrews, officials in Washington and Kabul already had overwhelming intelligence that Bergdahl was no longer in Afghanistan.

04_10_FE0115_Bergdahl_09 Bob Bergdahl listens as his wife Jani reads a message to their son Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl during a press conference at Gouen Field national guard training facility on June 1, 2014 in Boise, Idaho. Scott Olson/Getty

‘We Assumed It Became a CIA Operation’

From the hilltop guard post at OP Mest, it was just 25 miles or so to the Pakistani border, and, according to a former State Department official who spoke to Newsweek on the condition of anonymity, there was a widespread assumption in Kabul that Bergdahl would be shuttled to Pakistan as fast as his captors were able.

The day he was reported DUSTWUN (Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown), American military commanders working with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ordered a secretive military unit—variously referred to as the intelligence support activity, mission support activity, the activity or gray fox—to track leads about his whereabouts. One of the first officers on the case was an unconventional-operations specialist who was attending a jirga, a meeting of Afghan tribal elders, when he got the call about Bergdahl. The officer, who is not authorized to discuss the case and spoke on the condition of anonymity, says, “I got a call from our guy in Kabul. He said, ‘Hey, we got a lost puppy.’

“We just happened to be talking to the elders in this tribe with knowledge of the area [where Bergdahl went missing],” the officer tells Newsweek. He says he immediately got to work, calling dozens of sources across Afghanistan. “We talked to Taliban lawyers and mullahs, border security police, a lot of people.”

The intelligence-gathering quickly brought precise information about Bergdahl’s captors. “We knew how they were going to move him, where they were going to move him. We figured it would be 48 hours at the most before he was across the border,” the officer says. When he investigated whether the Army could prevent Bergdahl’s captors from taking him across that border, the answer was clear. “There is no way to shut down border traffic. It’s the Silk Road, for God’s sake,” he says. “It’s been a smugglers’ transit route for thousands of years. So [the Taliban] better be pretty good at it. And they are.”

Within days, this officer was told by his superior to give up the search: “I was told to drop it, that someone else has got it.” The following week, he learned that the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which planned and executed the most sensitive raids of the war—including Operation Neptune Spear, the mission that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011—had also been called off. “When JSOC was told to stand down,” the officer tells Newsweek, “we assumed it became a CIA operation in Pakistan.”  

04_10_FE0115_Bergdahl_06 Men in civilian clothing lead Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, in white, towards a helicopter in eastern Afghanistan on May 31, 2014. Voice Of Jihad Website/AP

The moment Bergdahl was taken across the Afghan-Pakistani border, the search for him jumped its own distinct legal boundary. Rescuing the “lost puppy” went from the purview of traditional military operations to a covert intelligence mission. “Anything south of that line was outside the area of Operation Enduring Freedom,” the military mission in Afghanistan, the officer says. At that point, “it would have taken the president or a CIA operation to call a cross-border raid.”

By the second week of July, civilian and military officials were so confident Bergdahl had been smuggled across the Pakistani border that the JSOC and clandestine special operations units were called off the search…

So why did the Army continue to send infantrymen in Afghanistan on dozens of missions in hostile territory to find him?

A High-Value Hostage

The militants who captured Bergdahl were never coy about their identity or why they had kidnapped him. Two days after he was abducted, they held the Taliban equivalent of a press conference to take responsibility and make their demands. “The case will be referred to Sirajuddin Haqqani and other top Taliban leadership,” Mullah Sangeen, a well-known Taliban commander in Paktika, told a CBS reporter on July 2, 2009. “They have to decide the future of the U.S. soldier, but we would not mind a prisoner exchange.”

04_10_FE0115_Bergdahl_05 U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) meets with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad in Doha, December 10, 2013. Mark Wilson/Pool/Reuters

The Pentagon was equally clear about the players involved. “An American soldier captured in southeastern Afghanistan is being held by a notorious militant clan, a senior U.S. military official said,” is how CNN’s Barbara Starr put it. Reports by the BBC, The Washington Post, and The Long War Journal concurred: Bergdahl had been taken by the Haqqani Network.

The Haqqanis were a terrorist threat that was well known in Washington and Kabul, and they were a constant source of diplomatic headaches. During the Cold War, Jalaluddin Haqqani was a handsomely paid CIA proxy in the fight against the Soviets, but after 9/11, his family took up arms against the latest infidel invaders. “In Pakistan’s tribal areas of North and South Waziristan, Maulavi [Jalaluddin] Haqqani and his sons run a network of madrasas and training bases and provide protection for foreign fighters and terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda,” The New York Times reported in June 2008.

In November of that year, the Haqqanis lured Times reporter David Rohde to an interview south of Kabul, then snatched him and immediately smuggled him across the border to Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. “The Haqqanis oversee a sprawling Taliban mini-state in North Waziristan with the acquiescence of the Pakistani military,” Rohde said in A Rope and a Prayer, the 2010 book he co-wrote with his wife, Kristen Mulvihill, about his seven months as a Haqqani hostage. By the spring of 2009, several months into his captivity, Rohde’s situation was common knowledge to then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton, State Department ambassadors to the region, management of The New York Times, American intelligence and law enforcement agencies, as well as the private hostage negotiators and consultants Rohde’s wife and family had recruited.

On June 20, 2009, Rohde fled in a daring and successful escape, the details of which remain unclear. Ten days later, in a stroke of luck for a terrorist group that had made kidnapping a pillar of its business, the Haqqanis replaced the journalist with an even more valuable hostage—the first and only American soldier captured in that war.

04_10_FE0115_Bergdahl_03 Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, right, stands with a Taliban fighter in eastern Afghanistan. Voice Of Jihad Website/AP

‘Looking for Someone Who Speaks English’

Before Sangeen called that press conference, Bergdahl’s captors hurried to make a proof-of-life tape and deliver it to the highest-ranking American official they could reach in Kabul. Having video proof was a high priority for the militants, first discussed in a conversation intercepted by American spy planes about six hours after Bergdahl’s platoon reported him missing. “An American soldier with a camera is looking for someone who speaks English” is how the Army interpreter paraphrased the intercepted radio or cellphone chatter. That message, which was logged in the classified Army record later published by WikiLeaks, matches the memories of men in Blackfoot Company who heard the interpreter’s words over the radio that morning. It is cited as proof by some members of the platoon and multiple media organizations that Bergdahl had gone looking to join the Taliban, that he was a traitor. “That means he’s going to collaborate with the enemy, [doesn’t] it?” Sean Hannity said on his Fox News show.

But according to Robert Young Pelton, a journalist consulted by the military to help find Bergdahl, that message was wrong, a bad translation from the captor’s Pashto language. It wasn’t the young American who had a camera and was looking for someone who spoke English; it was Bergdahl’s kidnappers, hurrying to speak to and record proof of their high-value hostage.

Pelton was working in Afghanistan as the director of AfPax, a subscription-based, conflict-zone information service. For a monthly fee, he provided clients with a stream of information gathered by local sources. “We had subscribers from every venue: media, State Department, [nongovernmental organizations], etc.,” Pelton tells Newsweek. “The military, special operations, came to us and asked us for help [tracking Bergdahl].” One former military intelligence officer who would not talk on the record about the Bergdahl incident tells Newsweek that AfPax was the best source of clean intelligence in Afghanistan at the time.

The day after Bergdahl walked off his base, the spy planes picked up another conversation between militants about their new prize: “Can you guys make a video of him and announce it all over Afghanistan that we have one of the Americans?” the first asked. Another man replied, “We already have a video of him.”

To Pelton, who tracked Rohde and other kidnapping victims in eastern Afghanistan, Bergdahl’s destination was never in doubt: “We knew he was going to Pakistan as soon as [the Army] said they were missing a guy.” Pelton worked with RC-East commanders—conventional U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan—for about two weeks before he was told to stop. “We went over to their office and they had maps on the wall, and we would point to Pakistan and say, ‘He’s going that way.’ That’s when they told us to wave off,” he says.

Pelton, who wrote about his work tracking Bergdahl for Vice, says, “Everyone knew that Bergdahl was in Pakistan, and now everyone is trying to rewrite history.”

Ransom Demand: $19m and 25 Prisoners

By the time the Haqqanis released their first proof-of-life video to the media, some Army officials had been informed that Bergdahl was already over the border. According to Qayum Karzai, the older brother of then-Afghan president Hamid Karzai, the Haqqanis delivered their first messages, via a courier, to Major General Edward Reeder Jr., commander of Special Operations in Operation Enduring Freedom at the time. The militants wanted $19 million and 25 prisoners from Gitmo, roughly the same ransom demands first made to free Rohde. “Everyone knew he was in Pakistan…the Afghan government, tribal leaders, Afghan reporters,” Karzai tells Newsweek. “Everyone talked about it.” At a time when many feared Bergdahl had been killed, Karzai says he also helped deliver a message from the prisoner to his parents in Idaho. 

04_10_FE0115_Bergdahl_07 A billboard calling for the release of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, held for nearly five years by the Taliban after being captured in Afghanistan, is seen near Spokane, Washington on February 25, 2014. Jeff T. Green/Reuters

According to Linda Robinson, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, who interviewed Reeder for her book One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare, the general learned of Bergdahl’s location from two sources. The first, a former Taliban minister who had joined the Afghan government, told Reeder that Bergdahl had been taken to Miran Shah, the same town where Rohde spent most of his seven months in captivity. The second was the courier. Sometime shortly after Reeder received the first ransom demand, the courier brought a second message that lowered the ransom to $5 million and dropped the request for a prisoner swap. Reeder told Robinson he passed the message up the chain of command, but to his surprise, “none of his superiors followed up on it.”

Reeder declined to comment on this story through an Army public affairs officer. Both retired general Stanley McChrystal, Reeder’s superior at the time, and retired general Mike Flynn, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency during the search, also declined to answer Newsweek’s questions related to the Bergdahl case. (Reporter’s disclosure: For the first year of Bergdahl’s captivity, I worked in his hometown, and his father was the UPS deliveryman at the office where I worked.)  

On July 18, 2009, 18 days after Bergdahl had walked away from his base, the Haqqanis released a video of him to the international press, and ABC News reported that, according to “a person actively involved in the search,” he had been taken to Pakistan. In interviews with ABC News, U.S. officials at the Pentagon and in Kabul denied the claim, insisting he was still in Afghanistan.

‘The War Was About to Be Lost’

The idea that America’s only prisoner of war in the post-9/11 era was being held inside the borders of a key ally in its War on Terror posed some serious problems. In mid-2009, when Bergdahl apparently was smuggled over one of the most dangerous borders in the world, Washington had real concerns over “not wanting to go to war with Pakistan,” says Ahmed Rashid, a Lahore, Pakistan–based journalist and author.

Bergdahl’s abduction coincided with the start of the largest American surge in the 13 years of that war—from less than 40,000 servicemen in early 2009 to about 100,000 in late 2010. In the summer of 2009, the Taliban were ascendant across southern Afghanistan, and, as Robinson writes, the Americans realized “the war was about to be lost.” The escalation affected both sides of the border. On the Pakistan side, CIA drone strikes (that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports likely killed many more civilians than militants) rose from 35 in 2008 to 117 in 2010. After an errant ISAF helicopter killed three Pakistani soldiers stationed near the border, the Pakistanis temporarily cut off the ISAF’s main supply artery, and relations between Washington and Islamabad hit new lows.

Rashid, who consulted with both the Rohde and Bergdahl families during their negotiation efforts, says the captured soldier was an inconvenient truth for the Americans. At such a delicate moment, a covert cross-border raid to retrieve one infantryman was a catastrophic risk. Bergdahl was trumped, says Rashid, by the top American priority: “protect the already fragile but still useful relationship with Pakistan to get at Al-Qaeda.”

On Christmas Day 2009, nearly six months after the Army called off its elite special operations and JSOC units from the search, and after commanding officers sent the men of Blackfoot Company on nearly six months’ worth of raids and missions to allegedly find him, the Haqqanis released a second proof-of-life video, a strange and uncomfortable spectacle. A thin Bergdahl sometimes reads and sometimes rambles through a lengthy indictment of American policy:

“And so do I, my family members, my fellow soldiers in the Army and their families, and all the regular Americans, do we or even should we trust those that send us to be killed in the name of America? Because aren’t our leaders, be it Obama or a Bush or whoever, aren’t they simply the puppets of the lobbies that pay for their election campaigns?”

Speaking for the Pentagon, Rear Admiral Gregory Smith called the video an affront to the soldier’s family and friends. “It reflects nothing more than the violent, deceitful tactics of the Taliban insurgency,” he said. “We will continue our search for Bowe Bergdahl.”  

‘You Will Be Hunted…’

In the days after Bergdahl disappeared, Blackfoot Company scrambled its platoons. For the first 35 to 40 days, according to several men, the search was “nonstop.” Squads were sent to follow every lead, in any direction. For some, that meant driving to sit in far-off “blocking positions” to intercept any Taliban vehicles that might be stowing him. Some soldiers were sent beyond the reach of the Army’s supply trucks, to desert frontiers where contracted Russian pilots air-dropped food and water from helicopters that looked older than the Americans on the receiving end. The soldiers of Blackfoot Company were also sent to raid distant Afghan villages. Infantrymen distributed pamphlets to Afghan civilians asking for information about Bergdahl. The flyers had pictures of American soldiers kicking down doors and a caption that read, “If you do not release the U.S. soldier then…you will be hunted.”

Bergdahl’s platoon’s missions soon ranged beyond Paktika and into neighboring border provinces. “It was a wild goose chase,” says Bergdahl’s friend from the 2nd Platoon. “We went all over southeast Afghanistan.” But, he adds, “we did whack a lot of people in the process.”

04_10_FE0115_Bergdahl_02 Sgt. Jonathan Rice (L) of Port Orange, Fla. and Sgt. Michael Phillips of Hemet, Calif. from the Army's Blackfoot Company 1st Battalion 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment keep watch during a joint patrol with the Afghan National Police on December 4, 2009 in Sar Hawza, Afghanistan. Scott Olson/Getty

As the weeks wore on, another Blackfoot Company team leader, Sergeant Johnathan Rice, suspected his commanders weren’t really looking for Bergdahl. “Common sense dictates that [whoever took him wasn’t] going to keep him around for long.” But unlike most of the soldiers in his platoon, Rice saw a method in the Army’s madness. “From an infantryman standpoint, we were doing our job for once,” he says. “We were actually going to towns, doing our assaults, raiding places.”

Before Bergdahl went missing, Rice says, his men had their hands tied. “We weren’t able to do ‘hard knocks’—when you hit a target and breach their house early in the morning or overnight. We would need a ridiculous amount of intel to get the green light to do that kind of thing. But if it was a mission to retrieve Bergdahl, it was an instant green light. It was always worded as ‘These people could have information on Bergdahl.’ But my speculation is that they were targets that we wanted to bring in anyway.”

Rice felt his men were now taking the fight to the enemy, rather than “just knocking on the door and asking to have some tea.” Before Bergdahl left, “we were walking through markets buying goats because we had nothing else to do.” During these searches for Bergdahl, “we had excuses to hit high-value targets or hit people of interest.”

“A lot of valuable intelligence was gathered,” Rice says, and Bergdahl was the excuse his commanders needed to do their jobs. “Leadership took the opportunity, and I stand 100 percent behind it.”

04_10_FE0115_Bergdahl_11 President Barack Obama (C) stands with Bob Bergdahl (R) and Jami Bergdahl as he delivers a statement about the release of their son, prisoner of war U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, D.C., May 31, 2014. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The #Bergdahl Lynch Mob

After being held hostage for five years, a pale and bald Sergeant Bergdahl emerged from the back of a militant’s Nissan, allegedly in the border province of Khost, and boarded an American Blackhawk helicopter. Within a day, about 8,000 miles to the west, five Taliban detainees (at least two of whom had been in leadership positions) boarded a U.S. C-17 military transport plane at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and were flown to Qatar, where they would be free but monitored and travel-restricted for a year. When National Security Adviser Susan Rice announced the swap as a triumph for America, further proof the U.S. Army doesn’t abandon its men, the frustrations of the soldiers who had searched for Bergdahl roiled social media.

In the fall of 2009, the Army had the men in Blackfoot Company sign nondisclosure agreements, requiring them to never talk about the Bergdahl affair. But as stories from Afghan War soldiers started showing up on Twitter and Facebook, six veterans of the 2nd Platoon, including Specialist Sutton, were recruited by Republican strategist Richard Grenell for a media tour. They were flown to New York last summer from Michigan, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and California and, says Sutton, put up in a cramped Manhattan hotel paid for by Fox News. They trashed Bergdahl, calling him a deserter first and foremost, but also, some said, a traitor, a sympathizer of America’s enemy and a coward.

Much of the mainstream political media jumped in gleefully, speculating about Bergdahl’s motives, his politics and his religion. They also opined on his parents’ politics and religious beliefs, his father’s “suspicious” beard, how frequently they talked to their son. And most important to the analysts of policy and politics, they talked about whether Bergdahl was “worth it.”

04_10_FE0115_Bergdahl_08 A sign of support of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is seen in Hailey, Idaho, June 1, 2014. Patrick Sweeney/Reuters

After those soldiers and their families went public, Bergdahl’s hometown of Hailey, Idaho, was swarmed, and the FBI was called in when Bergdahl’s family received multiple death threats. This spring, with each update about his case, including the recent news that he will face desertion and misbehavior-and-endangerment charges, the #Bergdahl lynch mob is roused again, overflowing with the righteous vengeance of those who want Bergdahl imprisoned for life, or worse. “The evidence shows right now that U.S. soldiers were killed searching for the man,” Bill O’Reilly said on his Fox News show in late March. That statement is not quite accurate. The full truth—that the Army sent infantrymen on dangerous missions to find a soldier it knew was no longer missing—is far more complicated, and confounding.

Forged in the political heat of TV news studios, the vitriolic descriptions of Bergdahl’s character and behavior do not match what those who knew him best say about him now. “He was a heck of a soldier,” says Bergdahl’s friend from 2nd Platoon. “He was odd. He was different, which is why the other guys didn’t like him.… He did meditating and Buddhist stuff and people thought it was weird. I’m weird. Everyone is weird in their own way.”

In politics and war, simple myths are more useful than complex realities. The soldiers who searched for Bergdahl did so without question, and in their selflessness, they called upon the military’s essential and sacred codes of honor. The families and small towns that lost men in those searches bear a powerful witness to the horror and confusion of America’s longest war. They deserve an honest accounting of what happened to their sons and why.

And as he prepares to defend himself against the charge that he caused their deaths, so does Bowe Bergdahl.

This story was updated to clarify that Qayum Karzai did not deliver, handle, or have knowledge of the video or ransom demands for Bowe Bergdahl. He helped deliver a letter from the prisoner to his parents.