'No One Left Behind' Ethos Up For Debate After Bowe Bergdahl Deserter Allegations

  • Idaho National Guard
    A marker of the Idaho National Guard Joint Force Headquarters is seen while the Berghdahl family held a news conference in Boise, Idaho, on June 1, 2014. Reuters/Brian Losness
  • Bergdahl in Captivity
    U.S. Army Private Bowe Bergdahl eats in a video released by his captors at an unknown location in Afghanistan on July 19, 2009. Reuters
  • Bowe Bergdahl
    U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Berghdal is pictured in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Army and received by Reuters on May 31, 2014. Reuters
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No one shall be left behind: It’s one of the core values of the U.S. military. So when Pvt. Bowe Bergdahl went missing in 2009 and was believed captured by the Taliban, the Army immediately set about trying to find him. Their efforts cost the lives of six U.S. soldiers.

When Bergdahl was released on May 31, his parents flanked President Barack Obama at the White House as he announced the good news to the nation. Bergdahl seemed set for a hero’s welcome.

But a day later, some of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers in Afghanistan said he had walked off post voluntarily, putting the lives of those who searched for him at risk and prompting a debate over whether the ethos to never leave a soldier behind should have applied to him. 

(Questions about Bergdahl's conduct further fueled the political controversy over Obama’s decision to exchange five Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl’s safe return.)

Other soldiers and veterans hold fast to the idea that the military looks out for its own. One of them is Barry Romo, who commanded a platoon in Vietnam from the summer of 1968 to the spring of 1969, who now works with the War Resisters League, an antiwar group that has existed since 1923.

“We would absolutely never leave a man behind,” Romo told International Business Times. “Even if Bergdahl did walk off post, he may have been suffering from delayed PTSD or had some sort of shell shock. Just because he [may have] walked doesn’t mean he should be left behind.” Romo added that it is not yet clear whether Bergdahl intentionally abandoned his post. “We cannot judge him until all the facts have been collected,” he said.

The circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance have not been established, though military transcripts suggest he was captured by the Taliban after falling behind on a patrol when he stopped to use a makeshift latrine. Some former soldiers said they believe he made a conscious decision to go AWOL. The Army said it would investigate the allegations, and a source told Army Times that he may have left and returned at least once before. 

“The truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down,” wrote Nathan Bradley Bethea in a Daily Beast article. Bethea is an Afghanistan vet but he was not in Bergdahl's unit and has no first-hand knowledge of the situation. 

In any case, the decision to bring Bergdahl back does not preclude an investigation into his actions: those are two separate strands of military policy. “In general, you absolutely go after a missing soldier, even if it is to adjudicate their conduct in a court martial,” said Chris Zeitz, a sergeant who served in Kunar province, Afghanistan, between spring 2009 and spring 2010. “One question at issue, however, is whether his conduct endangered lives. Anytime you go on mission into enemy-held terrain, you are taking a risk. If he went AWOL, for whatever reason, his conduct then would have disrupted the mission in his area of operations.”

According to an Army spokesperson, there are no set regulations governing when or whether a soldier can be left behind -- that it is left to the discretion of the commanding officer. However, there is a Soldier's Creed which states in part, “I will never leave a fallen comrade.”

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made clear in a Facebook post that what Bergdahl, who was promoted to sergeant while in captivity, may have done has no bearing on whether an attempt should have been made to rescue him: the Army's warrior ethos stands, regardless.

“In response to those of you interested in my personal judgments about the recovery of SGT Bowe Bergdahl, the questions about this particular soldier’s conduct are separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity.” 

When Bergdahl is questioned “we’ll learn the facts,” Dempsey wrote. Desertion charges are possible but, like any other American, “he is innocent until proven guilty.”

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