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Insights: War of words on Bowe Bergdahl leaves collateral damage

Author: Joey Bunch - October 18, 2017 - Updated: October 18, 2017

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Bowe BergdahlIn this Jan. 12, 2016, file photo, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl arrives for a pretrial hearing at Fort Bragg, N.C. Bergdahl, who was held captive by the Taliban for half a decade after walking away from his Afghanistan post, is expected to plead guilty this month rather than face trial for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. (AP Photo/Ted Richardson, File)

If you love America it’s easy to hate Bowe Bergdahl.

He was a 23-year-old private first class in the Army when he deserted his remote infantry post in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. His court-martial hearing is Oct. 23. Reports are that Bergdahl will plead guilty. He faces life behind bars.

That should be enough to satisfy justice.

But it’s not nearly enough for Facebook and friends.

A friend of mine, who retired from the Army a few months ago, had a Saturday morning post last week about his hatred for Bergdahl. He invited anyone who disagreed to unfriend him. I disagreed and said so, but I didn’t unfriend him. I watched my friend grow up. I was thrilled to see him become a high school football star, and I’m proud as a poppa about his accomplished military career.

I could understand his point of view, even if I don’t agree. He served and didn’t run away. Bergdahl laid down his arms in the din of war.

He walked away from his post guarding trucks parked in a dry creek bed. He left his gun and body armor behind in a hostile corner of Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. The next morning he was captured, so predictably, by the Taliban.

During the search to find him, Army National Guard Sgt. Mark Allen was shot in the head. The next day, Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Jimmy Hatch was shot in the leg. Both are expected to testify at Bergdahl’s sentencing.

My friend’s Army buddies lit up his Facebook post in agreement. One used an emoji of a pile of excrement. Another recommended “a short rope and a tall tree.” Execution was a recurring theme.

The Taliban held Bergdahl for five years. He was caged in darkness, chained and regularly beaten. Execution surely crossed his mind as a better option, as well. He never should have been there.

Two years before he joined the Army, Bergdahl was discharged from the Coast Guard, reportedly for psychological reasons. The Army’s Sanity Board Evaluation determined after his release that he exhibited schizotypal personality disorder even then. He had deserted before, but returned, but none of the red flags registered enough to kick him out.

He was a virtual unknown, even as a captive, until 2014 when President Obama traded five Taliban fighters held at Guantanamo Bay prison for his release, which touched off a political firestorm. Obama stood in the White House Rose Garden with Bergdahl’s parents and said, “Whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity — period.”

On the campaign trail, Bergdhahl’s name was an applause line for Donald Trump. At a rally in Las Vegas in 2015, Trump called the soldier “a no-good traitor, who should have been executed.”

My friend and Trump said Bergdahl, but I heard my name.

In 2012 I covered the immediate aftermath of the Aurora theater shooting and the Sandy Hook massacre in with a series of wildfires. It got the best of me, and then some. I interviewed victims, friends and families. I owed them the respect of looking them in the eye and trying to understand their pain. I’ve done this enough to know that people need and deserve that.

Nobody shot at me, and I wasn’t ordered to kill anybody. I know I could not do a soldier’s job. I paid a high price for doing my own.

In 2013 I was diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. Episodes came from nowhere and came from everywhere. I would wake up drenched in sweat every night I stayed in a hotel room — the only time I was alone in Newtown after days spent at children’s funerals. I stopped eating and lost 30 pounds. I struggled with my thoughts about a world so unquestionably wicked and cruel.

I did irrational things, and what people would think of me constantly occupied a place in my mind with my irrational thoughts. On a Tuesday morning in March, I held back jagged breaths in a restroom stall at the office whenever anyone else came in. There was no way to explain why a disaster journalist with decades of experience was crying over strangers’ children months later. I went to the sink, threw cold water on my face and returned to the stall until I looked sane enough to walk across the newsroom to my cubicle. It was an unseen bear that shook my life like a rag doll.

In 2012 — the year mad men killed 28 in Connecticut and 12 in Aurora — 5,000 suicides were linked to current or former service members with a history of PTSD, the Department of Veterans Affairs said. The VA said more than 27,000 American suicides that year were veterans. The numbers were overwhelmingly men.

It might feel like a rush of patriotism to execute Bowe Bergdahl with your words, but you don’t know where you’re leaving unintended land mines. You don’t know who is hearing their name.

If any of my readers need to, please e-mail me at Joey.Bunch@coloradopolitics.com. We’ll talk. The Department of Veteran’s Affairs encourages anyone feeling lost to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. The state also offers a free 24-hour crisis line and peer support. The number is 1-844-493-8255, or you can text “TALK” to 38255.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.


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