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Thursday 18 September 2014

Letter shows US soldier planned for a 'new start' as desertion row grows

Philip Sherwell in New York

Published 04/06/2014 | 02:30

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Jani and Bob Bergdahl, parents of US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Reuters
Jani and Bob Bergdahl, parents of US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Reuters
US Army Sergeant Bowe Berghdal is pictured in this undated handout photo provided by the US Army. Reuters
US Army Sergeant Bowe Berghdal is pictured in this undated handout photo provided by the US Army. Reuters
US Senator John McCain speaks about the release of US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, imprisoned by the Taliban in Pakistan since 2009, while on Capitol Hill in Washington. Reuters
US Senator John McCain speaks about the release of US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, imprisoned by the Taliban in Pakistan since 2009, while on Capitol Hill in Washington. Reuters

Bowe Bergdahl left a note in his tent saying he was abandoning his remote army base to "start a new life" before he vanished from the outpost in Afghanistan in July 2009, it emerged yesterday.

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As President Barack Obama defended the deal to swap five Taliban prisoners for the US soldier, who was held captive for five years, the revelation strengthened claims by Sgt Bergdahl's former comrades that he was a deserter.

The country's top military officer indicated that the released prisoner of war may yet face desertion charges as the US army prepared to open an investigation into his disappearance and capture.

Soldiers serving with the then army private discovered the note after he failed to show up for morning roll call, according to an account in 'The New York Times' provided by a former senior military officer briefed on earlier investigations.

Sgt Bergdahl (28), who was promoted during his captivity, wrote that he was disenchanted with the army, did not support the US mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life.

He walked away without his body armour and weapons, taking just a backpack, water, knives, pens and a notebook.

Several former members of his unit and military officials have called for him to be court martialed for desertion and blamed him for the deaths of six soldiers whom they said died during search operations.

There were also claims that US special operations commanders chose not to begin further rescue missions, despite receiving intelligence about his location and captors, because they did not want to risk casualties for a "deserter".

As the controversy over Mr Obama's prisoner swap continued to grow, Gen Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, noted that Sgt Bergdahl was "innocent until proven guilty", and that the first priority was his recovery in a US military hospital in Germany.

But he insisted: "Our army's leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred. In the meantime, we will continue to care for him and his family."

Gen Dempsey said that questions about conduct had no impact on American efforts to "recover any US service member in enemy captivity".

However, Gen Dempsey yesterday left open the possibility of desertion charges against Bergdahl.

Amid the debate about whether the sergeant is a hero or deserter, the Obama administration has come under fire for the release of five Taliban figures from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

But Mr Obama defended the principle behind the swap in his first comments since announcing the deal. "We don't leave men and women in uniform behind," he said. "This is what happens at the end of wars."

But he also acknowledged the released Afghan Taliban leaders could still pose a security risk and said the US would "go after them" if needed.

Complex

They include a former rebel chief wanted by the United Nations for possible war crimes, and a close associate of Mullah Omar, the Taliban spiritual leader, and Osama bin Laden.

Bergdahl is emerging as an increasingly complex character. Home-schooled, he performed in a ballet. He joined a fencing club, dabbled in foreign languages, including working his way through tomes written in Russian.

It may have been that curiosity, combined with his tendency to gravitate toward disciplines like martial arts, that led him to join the military in June 2008, recalled his former ballet teacher, Sherry Horton.

Now, even as his hometown celebrates his release, the army is contemplating pursuing an investigation that could lead to desertion or other charges against him.

The Pentagon concluded in 2010 that Bergdahl had walked away from his unit before he was captured by the Taliban.

His hometown has been inundated with emails and phone calls criticising its celebration plans.

Hailey, Idaho Mayor Fritz Haemmerle said in a statement the city believed in due process, urging outsiders not to pre-judge Bergdahl. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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