Much attention has been given to the claim made by the former platoonmates of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl that he is partly to blame for the deaths of six soldiers who were killed in the months after Bergdahl disappeared.
Some soldiers have gone so far as to say the six died while searching for Bergdahl. Others say he is indirectly to blame — after Bergdahl vanished, essentially every operation became a mission to find their lost colleague in one way or another, they say.
“I can’t really say I blame Bergdahl to the fullest extent,” former Staff Sgt. Justin Gerleve, Bergdahl’s squad leader, told CNN last week, “but if he wouldn’t have deserted us, these soldiers very well could have been in a different place at a different time, rather than the place at the time of their death.”
Interviews with soldiers familiar with the specific missions in which the six died suggest the charge is complicated — but not without merit given how much the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment became focused on “PR” — personnel recovery — after Bergdahl vanished from his guard post on June 30, 2009.
“The fact of the matter is, when those soldiers were killed, they would not have been where they were at if Bergdahl had not have left,” said former Sgt. Evan Buetow, Bergdahl’s former team leader. “Bergdahl leaving changed the mission.”
Those charges were repeated by a noncommissioned officer who requested anonymity because he is still in the Army, one who described himself as a two-time voter for President Obama, lest anyone think his comments were political in any way.
“If Bergdahl hadn’t left it’s entirely plausible that they wouldn’t have had those follow-on missions or been where they were,” said the officer, who served in the 501st.
Some also argue that the personnel recovery mission angered the local population, and created patterns in troops’ movement that made insurgent attacks easier.
None of that has been enough to quell critics who accuse the soldiers of smearing Bergdahl and exaggerating the role his disappearance played in the deaths of the six men.
A New York Times story cited by critics of the soldiers from the 501st now calling Bergdahl a deserter doesn’t go into much detail about the six men from Bergdahl’s platoon, instead focusing on a separate attack that killed two mortarmen.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he didn’t “know of circumstances or details of U.S. soldiers dying as a result of efforts to find and rescue Sgt. Bergdahl.”
A U.S. official told CNN last week that Pentagon and Army officials have looked at the claims, and “right now there is no evidence to back that up.”
The six men killed were in the 501st Infantry. All of them were killed in Pakitika Province between August 18 and September 6, 2009, after the intense initial search for Bergdahl concluded but within the two- to three-month period when, by accounts from more than 20 members of the 501st, essentially every mission in the province had a PR component to it. One of those killed was from Comanche Company, two of those killed were in Bergdahl’s Blackfoot Company, three were from Headquarters Company.
Here are the circumstances and details, gleaned from interviews with more than a dozen troops in the 501st, all of whom said they were motivated entirely by getting the truth out, regardless of the politics.
1) August 18, 2009 — Staff Sgt. Clayton Bowen and Pfc. Morris Walker were killed by an IED
Bowen and Morris were part of Headquarters Company, but attached to Comanche Company, which “was conducting a recon of polling sites in order to prepare for the election on August 20,” recalls a former officer from the 501st, one of whom describes his politics as left of center but who asked not to be named because of the rhetoric and accusations being leveled against troops who served with Bergdahl.
In the aftermath of the initial search for Bergdahl, called DUSTWUN (for DUTY STATUS: WHEREABOUTS UNKNOWN), the officer recalls, “there were numerous polling sites that had to be closed because security was so poor. Their platoon slept overnight at a remote site, and when they started rolling again the next morning, an IED detonated.
A 501st soldier with Comanche Company recalled the device “had been located right under their right back tire.”
The mission was not specifically focused on personnel recovery but the officer said he believes Bergdahl’s disappearance played something of a role in the attack since this “was the absolute worst part of western Paktika Province, and it was the subject of numerous air assaults in July” that were directly focused on Bergdahl. “I believe those contributed to the worsening security situation.”
Bowen, 29, was from San Antonio, Texas. Walker, 23, was from Fayetteville, North Carolina.
2) August 26, 2009 — Staff Sgt. Kurt Curtiss is killed by small arms fire
This incident occurred after the battalion received information that the Taliban shadow sub-governor of Sar Hawza district in Paktika Province — a man who went by the name “Muslim” — had effectively taken a local clinic hostage as he received medical treatment for wounds he received during the election, according to the former officer from the 501st.
To the leadership of the 501st, the name “Muslim” prompted an immediate response as he was supposedly connected to Bergdahl’s captors, the former officer said.
“The relation to Bergdahl made him a priority target,” the former officer told CNN.
The 4th Platoon from Delaware Company was sent to seize the Taliban official. Some from the insurgent group surrendered, but “Muslim” was nowhere to be found.
“Curtiss took his squad to search an empty building adjacent to the clinic that the Afghan National Police had supposedly cleared,” the officer recalled. “It was empty, but a storage room door was wedged shut. He and his squad kicked in the door, and Curtiss was the first guy in.”
Troops there that day say “Muslim” had been in the room hiding with three bodyguards. They shot Curtiss, grabbed his weapon, then killed him with his weapon, the soldiers say.
Additionally, 501st sources say, the insurgents threw Curtiss’ grenades at the squad, after which a two-hour firefight ensued — one that ended with Apache helicopters strafing the building. The building caught fire and killed all the insurgents except for one bodyguard, who was severely wounded. Curtiss’ body was recovered before the fire.
Curtiss, 27, was from Salt Lake City, and had already done two deployments in Iraq. He left behind a wife, son and daughter.
3) September 4, 2009 — 2nd Lt. Darryn Andrews and Pfc. Matthew Michael Martinek are attacked by an IED and a rocket-propelled grenade
Andrews and Martinek were in Bergdahl’s company, Blackfoot, and were in the village of Palau, just outside of Yaya Kayhl, one of the last places where Bergdahl was believed to have gone. After Bergdahl disappeared, local Afghans and intercepted Internet chatter placed him in that area, according to multiple sources with the 501st.
Andrews and Martinek were there to conduct atmospherics — basically check anything and everything around Palau.
According to several sources in Blackfoot Company, among the many questions those soldiers wanted answered was: where is Bergdahl? Where are the guys who have him? Was Palau connected with the insurgents — who by then it was believed — had transported Bergdahl to Pakistan?
But the platoon hit an IED. In the aftermath, a cluster of soldiers tried to hook the vehicle up to chains for the wrecker and were stuck out there for hours on end. In the midst of the effort, an RPG hit them and an insurgent ambush began, according to multiple soldiers with Blackfoot company.
Andrews yelled that the RPG was coming and knocked a bunch of guys out of the way. “Jason watch out,” were said to have been his last words, soldiers told Andrews’ father. He was killed instantly.
The ambush brought relentless amounts of RPG and heavy artillery fire on the platoon. Martinek was trying to call for air support when he took a severely debilitating artillery round. He lived long enough to get to Landstuhl in Germany where he was taken off life support and died on September 11.
Other members of the platoon faced severe wounds, from a jaw blown off, to deafness, to severe psychological issues from that day, according to sources in Blackfoot company and the 501st. It wasn’t a formal DUSTWUN mission, but it wasn’t unrelated, the former 501st officer said.
Moreover, says Buetow, Blackfoot Company’s mission tasking was about to change.
“We were told we were moving south to start focusing on another area of the province,” Buetow says. “Our four-day mission to Observation Post Mest was going to be our last trip out there before moving south. Bowe Bergdahl left, so we then stayed in that area for several more months. We stayed in the area because Bergdahl was last known to be in that area. If he has never deserted, Andrews and Martinek would not have been on patrol in that area.”
Andrews, 34, was from Dallas. He and his wife had a 2-year-old son and were expecting their second child when he was killed. Martinek, 20, was from Dekalb, Illinois.
Andrews’ heroism eats at former Spc. Jose Baggett, a member of Blackfoot Company. “He pushed a sergeant out of the way” of the RPG, “and now I’m stuck watching” Bergdahl get attention from politicians, the military and the media “and they’re dead and he’s alive.”
4) September 5, 2009 — Staff Sgt. Michael Murphrey is hit by an IED
Da Dila Panegir village was part of an area that had been subject to searches during the DUSTWUN, and Comanche Company was charged with trying to win the locals back. That day they conducted a foot patrol to hand out supplies and meet with the leaders. In the course of the mission, Murphrey stepped on a pressurized plate that unleashed an IED and was severely wounded; he died at Forward Operating Base Sharana’s hospital the next day.
That mission “wasn’t an exact search, it was a ‘Keep your eyes out for Bowe Bergdahl while you’re there,'” said former Spc. Joseph Cox of Comanche Company, who calls Murphrey his best friend and squad leader.
And yet, the intensity of the DUSTWUN search had also enraged Afghans, soldiers said.
“Our platoon alone conducted more than 20 inserted missions operations within three days. There were massive insertions to find him,” Cox said.
“This mission was probably the least related to Bergdahl” of the four missions, the former officer said, “but it was definitely in an area previously targeted — an area where they already hated us before, but hated us more because of the search.”
Murphrey, 25, left behind a wife, son, and daughter.
Asked for comment about each of these incidents, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the Pentagon is in the process of reviewing each one and had no specific comment about the four operations.
“Each death in war is tragic in its own right,” Kirby said. “We will always keep in our thoughts and prayers those we have lost, as well as their families. The Army will review the circumstances surrounding Sgt. Bergdahl’s disappearance and captivity. Our focus right now is on making sure Sgt. Bergdahl gets the care he needs to recover and reunite with his family.”