The platoon was, a U.S. military official would assert years later, “raggedy.”
On their tiny, remote base, in a restive sector of eastern Afghanistan at an increasingly violent time of the war, they were known to wear bandannas and cutoff T-shirts. Their crude observation post was inadequately secured, a military review later found. Their first platoon leader, and then their first platoon sergeant, were replaced relatively early in the deployment because of problems.
But the unit — Second Platoon, Blackfoot Company in the First Battalion, 501st Regiment — might well have remained indistinguishable from scores of other Army platoons in Afghanistan had it not been for one salient fact: This was the team from which Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl disappeared June 30, 2009.
In the years since Bergdahl’s capture by the Taliban, and even more since his release last week in a contentious prisoner exchange for five Taliban fighters, much has been written suggesting that he was a misfit soldier in something of a misfit platoon that stumbled through its first months in Afghanistan and may have made it too easy for him to walk away, as his fellow soldiers say he did.
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Indeed, an internal Army investigation into the episode concluded that the platoon suffered from lapses in discipline and security in the period before Bergdahl — a private first class at the time who was later promoted while in captivity — disappeared into Paktika province, two officials briefed on the report said.
But their problems in many ways reflected those of the Pentagon’s strategy writ large across Afghanistan at that moment of the war. The platoon was sent to a remote location with too few troops to seriously confront an increasingly aggressive insurgency, which controlled many villages in the region.
The river beds they used as roads were often mined with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs; simply getting supplies or traveling back to their home operating base could be a nerve-racking ordeal.
American combat fatalities in Afghanistan in 2009, the year the Second Platoon arrived, would double from the year before. By year’s end, President Obama would tear up the military strategy that had spread U.S. troops thin across the rugged country and order a buildup of troops.
As they settled into their wartime routines in the spring of 2009, the soldiers of Second Platoon knew that they controlled little more than what they could survey from their outposts, several members of the platoon said. Their heavily armored trucks, known as MRAPs, protected them from the buried explosives they encountered, but the fear those mines instilled was real.
To pass the time on long trips outside the wire, some in the platoon would make wagers on when a roadside-bomb attack might come. “We’d take bets on this one stretch of road, how many IEDs are we going to hit, or who is going to get hit,” said Josh Cornelison, the platoon’s medic, describing it as the sort of humor that came only from soldiers who have already been through a bomb blast.
Cornelison was one of several members of the platoon who spoke about the deployment. He and another soldier who spoke on the record have been discussing Bergdahl widely in the news media. But other members of the unit who spoke on the condition of anonymity offered similar accounts.
His former platoon mates gave sharply contradictory accounts of how Bergdahl viewed the war, and America’s proper role in it.
To many of those soldiers, Bergdahl was viewed as standoffish or eccentric, smoking a pipe instead of spitting tobacco, as so many soldiers do, and reading voraciously when others napped or watched videos. But he was not isolated from his platoon mates, some said.
And while he was, like other soldiers in the platoon, often disappointed or confused by their mission in Paktika, some of his peers also said that Bergdahl seemed enthusiastic about fighting, particularly after the platoon was ambushed several weeks before his disappearance.
“He’d complain about not being able to go on the offensive and being attacked and not being able to return fire,” said Gerald Sutton, who knew Bergdahl from spending time together on their tiny outpost, Observation Post Mest Malak, near the village of Yahya Khel, about 50 miles west of the Pakistani border.
Sutton said he had struggled to square the popular portrayal of Bergdahl as brooding and disenchanted with the soldier he knew. “He wanted to take the fight to the enemy and do the mission of the infantry,” he said, adding, “He was a good soldier, and whenever he was told to do something, he would do it.”
Cornelison made it his job to get to know the men he might someday have to save. He said Bergdahl was cagey, never telling anyone his full personal story, sharing a snippet with one soldier, another snippet with someone else.
“He got excited during certain parts of fighting, but for the vast majority of the time, he was disillusioned when we had to be boots-on-the-ground infantrymen,” Cornelison said.
However, he said, Bergdahl showed more interest in humanitarian activities, like passing out food or medical supplies to Afghan villagers or helping Afghan soldiers repair their building and seemed disappointed that the Army was not more like “a kind of Peace Corps.”
At the time Bergdahl disappeared, the platoon was straddling a moment of changing U.S. military strategy and intensifying Taliban violence. The United States had fewer than 60,000 troops in the country at the time, with units like Blackfoot Company stretched across some of Afghanistan’s most dangerous and unforgiving terrain. By the end of 2009, Obama would acknowledge the shortcomings of the strategy and call for a “surge” in U.S. forces that, by 2011, would number about 100,000.
The one major firefight that Bergdahl experienced happened in May 2009, after his platoon was marooned several days on a mission near the village of Omna, his fellow soldiers said. As they traveled down a mountain, the lone route they could use, Taliban fighters unleashed what soldiers call a “complex attack,” blowing up an IED within the column of trucks, then firing on it with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and automatic weapons.
For more than half an hour, turret gunners returned fire, while the rest of the platoon took shelter inside armored vehicles. To their surprise, no soldier suffered significant injuries.
Cornelison, the medic, recalled watching as three militants were killed during that fight. “When you see a human being almost split in half from a .50-cal, it’s one of those things you are going to remember,” he said, referring to the machine guns on their trucks.
Over the course of its yearlong deployment, the platoon would lose none of its two dozen soldiers. But their battalion lost men, and many soldiers have blamed the search for Bergdahl for some of those deaths.
Yet two of the biggest dramas the platoon faced in the short time before Bergdahl disappeared had nothing to do with combat, according to several members of the platoon.
Their platoon commander, who some described as less than inspiring, was relieved weeks into the deployment, replaced by the platoon’s sergeant first class, who was popular and respected by the troops.
Then, a few months later, the sergeant found himself in trouble after pictures appeared online showing some in the platoon wearing bandannas and cutoff T-shirts. Such garb was not uncommon at remote combat outposts, but it angered and embarrassed commanders, and it helped lead to the sergeant’s dismissal soon after Bergdahl disappeared.
Just how and why Bergdahl disappeared remains a mystery to his fellow soldiers.
They say they do not remember him leaving behind any sort of note or explanation. They said they were unaware that he had previously wandered off the base, as the internal Army review reported.
And they vehemently disputed reports that implied he had seen a vehicle from his unit run over an Afghan child, which Bergdahl had apparently told his parents in an email before his disappearance. That never happened, his fellow soldiers said.
Sutton said the one time he remembered Bergdahl talking about leaving, it seemed clear — at least then — that he was joking.
“He said, ‘What would it look like if I got lost in the mountains?’ ” Sutton recalled him saying. “ ‘Do you think I could make it to China or India on foot?’ I genuinely thought he was just kidding.”
How he slipped of the base is another matter of debate. The observation post was rectangular, shaped like a horseshoe, perhaps 150 yards long by 100 yards wide. One end backed up to a hill near where a contingent of Afghan National Police was staying and was not fully encircled with concertina razor wire; Bergdahl had been increasingly spending time with the Afghan policemen, who helped provide security for the back of the outpost.
Six soldiers were supposed to be keeping watch throughout the night — one each in the platoon’s five MRAPs, and one in a post up the hill.
Bergdahl spent his last night inside the main part of the outpost, and some soldiers have theorized that he could have left the base through the rear section that was not covered with razor wire, walking past the Afghan police officers he had befriended.
The outpost, one soldier said, “was meant to keep people out, not to keep people in.”