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Platoon mate has ‘mixed feelings’ about Bergdahl’s desertion charges

Former Taliban captive U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, military officials said Wednesday, an outcome one of his platoon mates called “bittersweet.”

“It’s kind of mixed feelings,” said former U.S. Army Spc. Gerald Sutton, who served with Bergdahl in Afghanistan in 2nd Platoon, Blackfoot Company. Sutton, now a University of Michigan student, left the military in September 2012.

“He was my friend. Ultimately, it’s not for me to judge,” said Sutton. “It’s time for him to face the consequences of his actions.”

If convicted, Bergdahl faces the possibility of life in prison, along with a dishonorable discharge, reduction in rank and loss of past pay.

Several platoon members have long considered Bergdahl a deserter — someone who willfully left the outpost on his own accord — but couldn’t determine if he was a traitor or not, said Sutton. Bergdahl has not spoken publicly about his ordeal.

Five-and-a-half years ago, the men were stationed together in the remote and volatile Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan, along the border with Pakistan. Nearby was a village — they could see from the outpost — where Bergdahl would evidently go on his own the night of June 30, 2009, and get captured by the Taliban.

The next day, the platoon was supposed to leave the outpost for good, handing over control to the Afghan National Police, Sutton said in a PBS NewsHour interview in June, days after Bergdahl’s release as part of a Taliban prisoner swap. But they ended up staying more than a month longer on a widespread search for Bergdahl after he went missing.

Why would Bergdahl wander off the night before they were all supposed to leave? No one knows, Sutton said. “I don’t know why he picked that day. Everyone (in the platoon) has a different theory of what happened.”

A classified military report said it wasn’t the first time Bergdahl had left the outpost, but Sutton said if that were true, their platoon leader would have been reprimanded or even court martialed.

In June 2012, the magazine Rolling Stone published expletive-riddled emails that Idaho native Bergdahl purportedly sent his parents, criticizing the Army and saying, “I am ashamed to be an american [sic].”

Sutton said the emails gave him a completely different impression of Bergdahl, if he actually sent them. “The article said they haven’t been verified. I don’t know if those were really him,” he said.

“That’s not what he ever told me. He always acted happy to see me. We always talked and just did basic soldier stuff together.”

An Afghan National Army soldier patrols in the Yahya Khel district in Paktika province on Nov. 24, 2014. Photo by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

An Afghan National Army soldier patrols in the Yahya Khel district in Paktika province on Nov. 24, 2014. Photo by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

Sutton said, in retrospect, Bergdahl did ask some unusual things before he left, such as what would happen if a soldier lost his gun or other equipment.

And just days before his capture, Bergdahl asked Sutton what it would be like to get lost in the mountains. “Even up to the day before he left, he asked me if I thought he could make it through China or India on foot. And I just kind of laughed it off.”

Later, when Bergdahl disappeared, Sutton said villagers reported seeing a white man crawling along a ditch on the side of the road. Intercepted radio communications seemed to indicate he was looking for someone to speak English so he could talk to the Taliban.

Soon after he disappeared, Bergdahl was shown in a video being held by the Taliban. Sutton said when he learned of Bergdahl’s fate, he wasn’t surprised. “I didn’t expect him to get that far at all. If you leave without your weapon and nothing to protect your major organs, and you’ve got no helmet, only a little water and food and a pocket knife, you don’t have much of a chance against armed men with a wide variety of different weapons. So I wasn’t surprised that he was captured.”

After five years in captivity, Bergdahl was freed on May 31. The Obama administration’s decision to secure Bergdahl’s release by trading five Taliban detainees who were being held at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was met with praise and criticism.

President Obama defended his actions at a summit in Europe in June. “I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents and that the American people understand that this is somebody’s child and that we don’t condition whether or not we make the effort to try to get them back,” he said.

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