By Sean Piccoli
The team leader who supervised Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan five years ago showed mixed emotions on Monday toward the homecoming of a freed captive and fellow soldier who he also considers a deserter.
“I’m definitely happy for his family,” Sgt. Evan Buetow said of Bergdahl in an interview with Newsmax TV. “I mean, he’s an American citizen; I’m happy that he’s back and that we can hopefully get closure to this whole incident.”
But Buetow, who now works in law enforcement, said on “America’s Forum” that he’s still mystified by his platoon-mate’s decision to “walk away” from his post, his mission and his fellow troops into the grasp of the Afghan insurgents they were fighting.
“I just want to ask him why,” said Buetow.
Buetow also echoed the charge made by other platoon members that Bergdahl’s actions cost the lives of soldiers sent to search for him.
“So yes, as a direct result of him leaving, several soldiers died,” said Buetow.
Bergdahl, captured in 2009, is returning home as part of a controversial prisoner swap disclosed by the Obama administration, which is sending five high-level Taliban detainees from the U.S.-run facility for terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to the Middle Eastern kingdom of Qatar.
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Buetow called the prospect of potential insurgents going free “frustrating,” but sounded more preoccupied with the questions still surrounding Bergdahl’s flight.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve struggled with it, but it’s something I’ve never forgot about,” he continued. “I need closure. I don’t think I’d be upset — it’s been many years, and that’s not the issue. I just want the truth. I want the truth to be out there.
“And I don’t want him regarded as a hero,” said Buetow. “I don’t want him regarded as the example that soldiers should look up to, because he is the exact opposite of that.”
Buetow gave his own account of what happened at their observation post in the remote, rugged Paktika province — “on the very front lines in Afghanistan,” he said. He also knocked down as “false” at least one rumor circulating about Bergdahl’s actions shortly after his disappearance.
“There were about 30 of us there and we just pulled guard out of our trucks and a couple bunkers,” he recalled, “and the morning of June 30th, when someone went to wake up Bergdahl for his guard shift, he wasn’t there.”
A search of the area and a patrol to nearest village confirmed it. “Immediately a couple of small boys came up to us and said, ‘Hey, we saw an American crawling through the weeds here this morning.’ We thought that was interesting. That was our first knowledge that he did just walk away and was going somewhere. … It all started to develop from there.”
What did not happen, according to Buetow, was Bergdahl calling back to the post on a cell phone and then destroying the handset so he couldn’t be tracked.
“Cell phones weren’t allowed in Afghanistan,” said Buetow. “Nobody had cell phones. … Unless, after he left, he acquired a phone. But there was never a phone call made back to us or anybody. It was just, he was gone and we were chasing a ghost at that point from village to village, trying to track him down.”
The same day that Bergdahl disappeared the platoon received a report that he had been spotted in a village called Yahyakehl, “which was a very dangerous place about two miles from the small OP we were at,” said Buetow.
“I was there when it came over the radio that he [Berghahl] was in Yahyakehl attempting to find someone who spoke English so he could speak to the Taliban,” he said, adding, “It was that quick that we realized that he’s trying to reach out to the Taliban somehow.”
Asked if anyone saw this coming, Buetow said, “Hindsight is 20/20.”
Buetow said Bergdahl mailed his computer home and at one point asked how to get cash on a debit card that soldiers carry on deployments. But he was hardly the first soldier to offload personal effects or wonder about money — or complain, which he also did, about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, according to Buetow.
Those words and deeds became more revealing once he’d left, said Buetow. And the idea that he was trying to engage the Taliban filled the soldiers with unease.
“As we’re all sitting there on this very small base, miles away from any major forward operating base, we’re … saying, ‘You know what? He knows where our bunkers are, he knows where our positions are, he knows where our trucks are parked, he knows how our guard shifts change, he knows what our sectors of fire are.’ ”
The search for Bergdahl, quite apart from the dangers, prompted some griping among troops. But Buetow said soldiers’ overriding sense of mission and solidarity — even toward a deserter — prevailed.
“We wanted to get him back, one, so that he wouldn’t be killed,” he said, “… but also we just wanted to get him back because he’s a solider.”