Why I Felt I Had to Go to Bowe Bergdahl’s Hearing

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is wearing a dress uniform, appears in the photo below leaving the courtroom facility in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. By: Andrew Craft/The Fayetteville Observer, via Associated Press

In February 2010, in southeastern Idaho, I buried my eldest son: Chief Warrant Officer 4 Gary Marc Farwell, who died in a U.S. Army helicopter crash in Germany. Among the guests at the funeral was a couple from central Idaho named Bob and Jani Bergdahl. The Bergdahls didn’t know my son or me, but they still drove two and a half hours to pay their respects, a gesture I never forgot. The Bergdahls wanted to show their support for other military families in the midst of their tragedy. The previous June, their own eldest son, Bowe Robert Bergdahl, had disappeared from his outpost near Yaya Kheyl, a village in Paktika Province, a remote area near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

After nearly five years of captivity, Bergdahl was released to Army forces on May 31, 2014, in a controversial prisoner exchange along with reports that Bergdahl had deserted his post, and that as many as eight soldiers died in the efforts to recover him. Since then the family has been subject to a great deal of ridicule within the military and the media. Last month, Bowe Bergdahl finally pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, and in the previous week of October, I drove to Fort Bragg, N.C., for his sentencing hearings, to repay the Bergdahls’ gesture in a way.

On a Monday morning the hearings began, I was the first person in the courtroom. Whatever my intentions had been, it felt a bit ghoulish to be there, to watch a person sitting within earshot of a roomful of soldiers and civilians revisiting in great detail the worst decision of his life. In the courtroom, Bergdahl stood visibly tense, flanked by his military and civilian lawyers, his eyebrows deeply furrowed. When the judge asked if he wished to withdraw his guilty plea, Bergdahl said “no” so softly I could barely hear it.

After a motion from the defense to dismiss the case was considered — along with President Trump’s comments about Bergdahl, and whether they would affect the fairness of his treatment by the courts — the judge recessed the hearings until Wednesday at 10 a.m. That morning I was waiting in the courtroom once again for the proceedings to begin, when a man who looked to be in his 70s or 80s, dressed in a fresh digital camouflage uniform and with insignia indicating that he was a colonel, sat down right next to me. He wore a green beret and a gold Special Forces ring and had Ranger and Special Forces tabs along with airborne wings and a combat infantryman’s badge with one star on top, which meant he’d fought in at least two wars for this country. “I’ll be glad when this crap is over,” he told me. “I got my firing squad standing by.” The country and the army were “going to pot,” he complained, lacking discipline and values. I nodded.

On the witness stand, Bergdahl’s squad leader, Sergeant Evan Beautow, was describing how he and his soldiers would drive in Humvees out to their outpost from Forwarding Operating Base Sharana for five-day rotations. “That’s the problem,” the Colonel whispered. “Not there long enough to know what the [expletive] they are doing.” At the outpost, Beautow went on, there was a bunker in the middle of an old graveyard, with bones sticking out of the ground. After Bergdahl walked off, Beautow and two other soldiers spent ten (10) miserable days guarding the bunker as the rest of the squad looked for him. “My guy was gone,” Beautow said. He started crying on the witness stand.

“Unbelievable!” the colonel hissed. “What kind of soldiers do we have now?”

I found myself wondering the same thing at times during the hearings — even if I was less quick to judge than the colonel. During Vietnam, I avoided the draft into the Army by joining the Navy and served almost four years on a submarine. After graduating from college and veterinary school, I accepted a commission in the Air Force as an officer in their veterinary corps, and then again years later as a public health officer in Turkey and Germany. Those adventures, I think, helped inspire two of my sons to join the Army.  The first to sign was Marc, who enlisted and became a helicopter pilot after we came back from Germany, then a few years later Matthew, my youngest son, who left college to join the Army as a combat infantryman, against my reservations. He was assigned to a unit with the 10th Mountain Division and was sent to Afghanistan, serving in the same general area as Bowe Bergdahl, although two years earlier.

When Matthew came back from Afghanistan, I noticed a tension in his demeanor that wasn’t there before. A year later, he called us from the psychiatric unit at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital and said he had been in there for ten days after trying to drive his brother’s pickup off a freeway overpass. A year after that, Marc died in Germany. Matthew still winces when someone says “Thank you for your service.” We both now realize serving your country is a complex and sometimes unforgiving undertaking that may have done nothing for those who are thanking us.

The colonel’s uniform said his name was Marecek; before he left, he gave me his phone number. Later that evening, after we had told the family the friendly goodbyes, I learned that a reporter who sat behind me at the hearing had done some digging and found that Marecek received a sentence of up to  30 years in prison for murdering his wife in 1991 after he had retired from the Army. (He served three and was released in 2003.) The phone number he gave me turned out to belong to a law office that knew nothing about him. I thought about him as I drove back to Virginia. He still has his rank, his retirement pension, the right to put on a uniform that commanded respect. Bergdahl lost all that, and he didn’t kill anyone.

On Wednesday at Fort Bragg, as the hearing wound down for the afternoon, I lingered in my seat as the crowd thinned, then leaned against the bar separating me from the defense. I caught Bergdahl’s eye and extended my hand. Two days later, I was back at the veterinary hospital where I work, finishing my last surgery of the day, when I saw the news: The judge had ordered Bergdahl dishonorably discharged but gave him no prison time. Many people I know and respect, who consider Bergdahl, a traitor, were furious. But many of those people never walked into a recruiter’s office.

Gary Farwell is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and practicing veterinarian in Arkansas.

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