Exactly why Bergdahl left is subject to intense scrutiny. But
accounts by two Taliban sources as well as several U.S. officials
and fellow soldiers raise doubt over media reports that he had
sought to join the Taliban, and over suggestions that the deaths
later that year of six soldiers in his battalion were related to the
search for him.
His dramatic release on May 31 after five years in captivity in
return for five Taliban commanders sparked a national controversy
over whether President Barack Obama paid too high a price for his
freedom. That was fueled by allegations by some in his battalion
that he was a deserter, and that soldiers died because they were
looking for him after his disappearance in the early hours of June
While many questions remain, a Reuters reconstruction of his
disappearance indicates that at the time when Bergdahlís six
comrades in the 1st Battalion of the 501st Parachute Infantry
Regiment were killed in August and September 2009, his fallen
comrades were on other missions like securing the Afghan elections
and, according to one U.S. military official, the period of
intensive ground searches had already ended.
But several soldiers in his unit say the quest to locate him never
really ended, and that it was an element of every mission they
undertook, prompting some to blame the deaths on him.
The U.S. Army has declined to give an account of those fraught weeks
saying a new investigation will be conducted when Bergdahl, now
being treated at a U.S. military hospital in Germany, is able to
An initial investigation noted that Bergdahl had slipped away from
his base in the past, once during training in California, only to
return a short while later, according to people familiar with its
His disappearance in June 2009 came at a time of increasing attacks
on U.S. forces from a resurgent Taliban: there were nearly 200 U.S.
combat deaths in Afghanistan between the time of his disappearance
and the end of 2009.
He had been on guard duty in one of the armored trucks parked in a
circle on a dry riverbed to form a crude outpost in one of the most
hostile corners of Afghanistan, in Paktika province along the border
with Pakistan, according to several of his fellow soldiers.
They described him as a bookish loner who would rather learn Pashto
than drink beer. Bergdahl, they said, had few close friends in the
unit. "He definitely was very reserved, an introvert," said former
Sergeant Matt Vierkant, a team leader in Bergdahl's platoon.
At roll call that morning, it became quickly apparent that he was
missing - though his gun, ammunition and body armor had been left
After searching the trucks, latrines, bunkers and quarters of Afghan
National Police stationed with them, the platoon radioed in a
missing-person report and immediately set out to search for him.
Within two and a half hours, infantry units had fanned out to set up
roadblocks and search nearby villages.
The area was tense. Three days earlier, Pakistani warplanes had
launched a new offensive against the Taliban just across the border
in South Waziristan, killing at least a dozen Taliban fighters in a
rugged region known for heavily armed tribesmen and camps harboring
al Qaeda and Taliban leaders.
As the search got under way, Vierkant, Bergdahl's fellow platoon
member, encountered two village children who said they had seen an
American in Army clothes crawling through the weeds.
At about 2:30 p.m., a U.S. listening post picked up radio chatter
indicating that an American soldier with a camera was looking for
someone who could speak English, according to U.S. military records
published by anti-secrecy group Wikileaks. Three hours later, they
heard a U.S. soldier had been captured.
Taliban sources say they found Bergdahl walking alone after
receiving a tip from local villagers.
"Our people didn't understand what he was saying at first because
they donít speak English. But later when they took him to a safe
location, we realized that he wasn't happy with his people and
that's why he left them," a Taliban commander based in the Pakistani
city of Quetta told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The next night, Afghan National Police at the outpost where Bergdahl
had disappeared received a radio call from the Taliban saying they
wanted to trade 15 prisoners for the American, the military reports
Four days after that, the Army received a tantalizing tip - Bergdahl
had been spotted in a black Toyota Corolla, flanked by men on
motorcycles. He was wearing dark khaki clothing with a bag over his
That was the closest they would get for another five years.
Taliban fighters moved Bergdahl to Angoor Adda, a border town
between South Waziristan in Pakistan and Afghanistan's Paktika
province. He was then taken to South Waziristan and later to the
Shawal valley, a forested, mountainous area between North and South
Waziristan, a Taliban commander based in Helmand province told
Bergdahl did not show any interest in converting to Islam or joining
the Taliban during those early weeks of his captivity, the commander
"We didn't trust him as he could have been a spy. There were
frequent drone strikes in the tribal areas and that's why we were
afraid of him," he said.
Bergdahl has told U.S. authorities he was held in solitary
confinement for long periods. The New York Times reported that he
told medical officials in Germany he was kept in a metal cage in the
dark for weeks after he tried to escape.
[to top of second column]
FRANTIC GROUND SEARCH
Bergdahl's regiment searched for him at a frantic pace for several
weeks. Where before troops might have had several days of down time
to recharge between missions, now they would only return to their
base for four to six hours - just enough time to gather more
equipment and take a shower. Then it was back to the desert for
"When he walked off, everything changed throughout the whole
province of Paktika. The mission for us and for everybody else was
find Bergdahl as fast as you can," Vierkant said.
Soldiers had to
cope with temperatures that regularly climbed above 100 degrees
Farenheit (38 C) and fine sand - known as "moon dust" - that worked
its way into eyes, ears, and lungs, causing respiratory infections.
"It looked like I walked through a big bag of baby powder," said
former Specialist Billy Rentiers, who participated in the search as
part of Easy Company, a support unit in the 501st regiment.
The increased number of missions at that time left troops vulnerable
to attack more often, forcing them to step beyond the security of
their outposts into hostile terrain, said several soldiers involved
in the search.
Ambushes appeared to become more frequent and sophisticated during
this time, the soldiers said.
In mid-July, military officials called off the dedicated ground
search and gave soldiers other primary missions after concluding
that Bergdahl had been taken to Pakistan, according to a U.S.
military official speaking on condition of anonymity. The official
said some Bergdahl-related surveillance continued for about another
month, and soldiers were also told to keep an eye out and to ask
about Bergdahl while carrying out primary missions.
It was in mid-August that the battalion, still in Paktika province,
started taking casualties. On Aug. 18, a roadside bomb killed Staff
Sergeant Clayton Bowen, 29, and Private First Class Morris Walker,
Bowen's mother, Reesa Doebbler, says she was told by her son's
former comrades that he was on a mission to provide election
security, an account confirmed by other sources, including a U.S.
military official. Reuters was unable to contact Walker's family.
Staff Sergeant Michael Murphrey, 25, died on Sept. 6 while setting
up a security camp after a day spent distributing humanitarian aid,
said Jack Kessna, a former member of Bergdahl's Blackfoot Company
who has worked with other former soldiers to determine the cause of
the deaths. Kessna said Murphrey's death could not be linked
directly to the search.
Murphrey's sister, Krisa, said she was never given official
information about his mission after his death and had to rely on
accounts by her brother's comrades.
"Some say that he was not on a rescue mission, that he was on a
humanitarian mission. And then some say that, sure it wasnít a
rescue mission, per se, but Bergdahl was always the secondary
mission," she told Reuters.
Staff Sergeant Kurt Curtiss, 27, was shot on Aug. 26 while his unit
was supporting Afghan security forces during an enemy attack.
Reuters was not able to contact Curtiss' family.
On Sept. 4, Second Lieutenant Darryn Andrews, 34, died when enemy
forces attacked his vehicle with a roadside bomb and a
rocket-propelled grenade. Private First Class Matthew Martinek, 20,
died a week later from wounds sustained in the same attack. The
parents of both Andrews and Martinek told Reuters last week they
believe their sons died searching for Bergdahl, saying they were
told this by other soldiers in the platoon.
Former Private First Class Jose Baggett, who normally sat next to
Andrews on every mission as driver and radio telephone operator, had
been injured when a roadside bomb hit his truck on a previous
mission. Martinek took his place.
"I even remember helping him pack his gear for the mission," Baggett
said. "Worst day of my life to date."
Baggett says he doesn't think the death of the two soldiers, or
anybody else, can be directly linked to the search. Even if Bergdahl
had not walked off, the battalion still could have taken casualties
during its 12-month tour of Afghanistan, he says.
A U.S. military official said that, like the other casualties, the
two men were not engaged in a search for Bergdahl but were on a
Vierkant believes otherwise.
"It was what every mission was, every day: find Bergdahl," he said.
(Additional reporting by Warren Strobel, David Alexander; Editing by
David Storey, Peter Henderson and Frances Kerry)
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