The Penn State assistant football coach will likely spend the rest of his life in prison, but that's not the end of the story.
A new video out from the Taliban shows his release to American special forces on Saturday, as the debate continues over whether Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is a deserter, defector or hero.
Here & Now’s Robin Young speaks with Matthew Farwell, a former infantry soldier in Afghanistan who helped write a 2012 Rolling Stone profile of Bowe Bergdahl.
On the criticism Bergdahl has received from members of his unit
“The unit itself appeared to have discipline and morale problems. You can review footage from Sean Smith of the Guardian, who embedded with them for a month. And when reviewing that footage, as a former infantryman, I looked at the way those soldiers were conducting operations, and I was stunned with the lack of professionalism.”
“So you’ve got soldiers who have come back from a pretty hellish deployment, had to shut up about it for five years, and now, the bubble’s burst and they can finally talk about it, and they’re directing a lot of the anger that is natural for any soldier to feel after a war directly at Bergdahl, which I think is unfair.”
On allegations that soldiers died looking for Bergdahl
“Applying any direct causal relationship — you know, Bowe Bergdahl and those soldiers dying — and I have the greatest sympathy for those families and those soldiers. I have a brother who was killed serving his country. I know how horrible that feels. But, you know, I don’t think it’s fair to lay that directly at Bergdahl’s feet, and the fact is, it’s a bad area. Any time that you flood that zone with soldiers, there are going to be fatalities. So I think it’s kind of a weak link, and it’s an emotional argument that resonates with people, but isn’t necessarily factual.”
On the “PR campaign” surrounding Bergdahl’s release
“I think it’s fairly interesting and somewhat disgusting how politicized this has been.”
“The political game being, you know, playing typical Washington games of using U.S. soldiers as pawns and props to make a political argument. Also, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, the parents of Bowe, are lovely people, they are good Americans, and they have been through hell in the past five years, and I think the amount of disrespect they’ve been getting from all sides has been absolutely disgusting.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. And we'll start this hour with Bowe Bergdahl. In a few minutes, we'll go to his hometown of Hailey, Idaho.
YOUNG: But first to calls for him to be tried as a traitor and reports that a PR firm run by a former Republican strategist is behind those calls. Matthew Farwell is a former soldier who helped write the 2012 Rolling Stone profile of Bergdahl. Matt, what do you make of this criticism from his unit?
MATTHEW FARWELL: Well, so I didn't serve with Bowe Bergdahl, but I served in the exact same area two years prior. So I've got a personal, visceral connection with that land and with that area and how difficult it is to operate as an infantryman there. And so I have sympathy for the soldiers. I have great empathy for them. You know, that sounded like they went through hell in the months after he left trying to find him.
But on the other hand, they had to sign a blanket nondisclosure agreement threatened with, you know, having a career ended, possibly going to prison. We weren't able to actually review the nondisclosure agreement. But we had it described to us by several of the soldiers we talked to on background.
YOUNG: Meaning what? In other words, they weren't allowed to talk about what happened? Or...
FARWELL: Nothing. They basically had to - it was a gag order on basically their entire deployment.
YOUNG: And not Bowe Bergdahl, but where they were and what it was like.
FARWELL: Well - and it was all related to the Bowe Bergdahl thing in an attempt to, I guess, cover it up or suppress it or not veer from the official narrative.
YOUNG: Well, it's interesting. So you're saying that it was a hellish place before Bowe Bergdahl walked out of it. And...
FARWELL: Oh, absolutely. It was a hellish place when I was there.
YOUNG: Yeah, and we're hearing that from members of Bergdahl's unit. One was on our sister show, On Point, this morning - Nathan Bethea. He says this was not like a base. People shouldn't picture a base. The unit, he said, was undermanned and under a great deal of stress. Here's a little more of what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
NATHAN BETHEA: It was a tower made of concrete reinforced with sandbags on a hill. Aside from that, they had a watershed and they parked their vehicles and had strong concertina wire around them with some cement barriers.
It was - they slept in ponchos. It was as austere as anything I've ever seen in the 13 months I spent deployed or anywhere else I've been in the military.
YOUNG: So, Matthew Farwell, what are you saying because I've heard you speak about this? Are you saying that this might have been a unit that, as we've heard in the past in these outposts, maybe turned on each other? Or that maybe you also have sympathy for Bergdahl that he walked away from it? I mean, what are you saying?
FARWELL: No, I'm saying that the unit itself appeared to have discipline and morale problems. You can review footage from Sean Smith of the Guardian who imbedded with them for a month. And when reviewing the footage as a former infantryman, I looked at the way those soldiers were conducting operations, and I was stunned with the lack of professionalism.
YOUNG: Take me from that to what is happening today.
FARWELL: Well, I mean, I think - so you've got soldiers that have come back from a pretty hellish deployment, had to shut up about it for five years. And now the bubble's burst, and they can finally talk about it. And they're directing a lot of the anger that is natural for any soldier to feel after a war directly Bergdahl, which I think is unfair.
YOUNG: Well, others are also questioning some of the claims including that six to eight people died searching for him. The New York Times has done an in-depth look. They say that the claims are murky at best.
Two, for instance, two of the soldiers that were said to have died in the search for Bowe Bergdahl actually died on the post. Do you have any thoughts on that - on the claims of people dying looking for him?
FARWELL: Look, applying any direct causal relationship between, you know, Bowe Bergdahl and those soldiers dying - and I have the greatest sympathy for the families and for those soldiers. I have a brother who was killed serving this country.
YOUNG: Oh, I'm so sorry.
FARWELL: I know how horrible that feels. But, you know, I don't think it's fair to lay that directly at Bergdahl's feet. And the fact is, it's a bad area. Any time that you flood that zone with so many U.S. soldiers, there are going to be fatalities. So I think it's kind of a weak link and it's an emotional argument that resonates with people but isn't necessarily factual.
YOUNG: Well, and I don't want to let that slide by. Coming from you who, as you just said, lost a brother.
YOUNG: Again, I'm so sorry to hear that. But even you feel that that's maybe too much being loaded on one soldier. Well, just - we know you also want to address what we're hearing today about how many of these troops - again, they have their own sincere beliefs and you're also sounding like you're forgiving some of them because you know what they went through - a bubble bursting, as you said.
FARWELL: Well, and I've interviewed many of them, and I've talked to many of them. A lot of them are my friends, you know.
YOUNG: Yeah. Well, but you said you want to address how some of them were coming to the media. Many of them were offered to the media through this PR campaign, which has been acknowledged. Your thoughts about that?
FARWELL: Right. I think it's fairly interesting and somewhat disgusting how politicized this has been. If I can find it here, I will get an email that I had from one of my sources within the platoon. On June 1, he wrote me a note that said, absolutely f-ing nuts in the last few hours. This is going to be huge in a few days.
And I believe that that was right around the same time that this PR flack - you know, D.C. bottom feeder was, you know, trying to gather these guys up and use them as a pawn in a political game, which I think is entirely disgusting.
YOUNG: And the political game being?
FARWELL: The political game being - you know, playing typical Washington games of using U.S. soldiers as pawns and props to make a political argument. Also, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, the parents of Bowe, are lovely people.
They are good Americans, and they've been through hell in the past five years. And I think the amount of disrespect they've been getting from all sides has been absolutely disgusting.
YOUNG: Matthew, thanks for talking to us. Thank you.
FARWELL: Thank you, ma'am.
YOUNG: Former soldier and journalist, Matthew Farwell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.