Prisoner Swap

Recently released prisoner of war Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is a man I can identify with. On April 20, 1965 I was flying a night combat mission in an A4C Skyhawk over what was then called North Vietnam. My own bombs malfunctioned upon release while in a run on enemy trucks, exploding just below my airplane, blowing the wings and tail section off. Instantly I was in a whirling cockpit hurtling towards earth, over enemy territory, but managed to eject and parachute to the ground. I spent the next four days on the run through the jungle before being captured. I then spent the next two thousand eight hundred and fifty five days as a captive POW in North Vietnam. During those years I and other POWs endured terrible conditions and periodic torture sessions for political propaganda, public display and false confessions. We resisted to our individual upmost but ultimately our captors extracted written confessions, which we made as improbable and silly as possible, from everyone.

I’ve been asked if I was a POW with John McCain. The answer is no – John McCain was a POW with me. You see he got there 2 ½ years after I was captured. John and I were in the same company at the Naval Academy so I had a prior personal relationship with him. I say this because I can’t understand his hawkish attitude towards getting involved in more wars, let alone his attitude toward the BerghdaI prisoner exchange. I heard John say the price of exchange for Sgt Bergdahl, five of our Guantanamo Taliban prisoners, was too high because they might be dangerous when released. Maybe he has forgotten that in 1973 our country made an exchange to bring 801 of us back home. The price of that exchange? A country! We agreed to give up and withdraw our troops in exchange for Vietnam. Could anyone dispute that there were dangerous people in North Vietnam (maybe 30 million of them) at that time? Well in fact they could and did harm American soldiers for the next two years before we completely withdrew in 1975. So I don’t hear Senator McCain complaining about that prisoner swap. Speaking for myself, I’m pretty happy with both of them.

No one could possibly believe the Taliban treated Sgt. Bergdahl well. Reports so far indicate the Taliban confined him to total darkness in a small metal cage for weeks at a time. They also suggest that he was beaten and otherwise tortured during his nearly 5 years as a POW and that he was extremely ill when he was finally released. Yet there is a clatter of nonsense coming from right-wing pundits and multiple armchair warriors, writing and appearing on national TV, arguing that we should have left Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American POW, in Taliban hands,

It’s easy for political hacks and chicken hawk commentators to discount the value of one American solider – especially when there is a perceived partisan political benefit to doing so.  Since he was rescued, Sgt. Bergdahl has been the target of constant attacks. There have been suggestions that he deserted, that he did not deserve to be rescued, and that he was somehow worth less than five Taliban. Even his family has had to endure violent threats and his hometown canceled a parade in his honor because of the vitriol it inspired. In my opinion this is simply un-American, un-patriotic and unconscionable.

The circumstances of Sgt. Bergdahl’s departure from his unit and capture are still being investigated. And he might very well have had the same popular political views now held by a majority of Americans – that we can’t win a war in Afghanistan and should get out as soon as possible. It’s true that if he did hold those views he should not have acted on them while involved in active combat duty. And tragically, some of his fellow soldiers may have faced Taliban attacks during the search for him. But none of that obviates our country’s sacred obligation not to leave its fighting men and women in enemy hands. The Taliban held Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for nearly five years – five years of brutality at the hands of our enemies

There are real costs to war. I know that in a way that most of our politicians never will. And there are real risks; make no mistake that releasing five Taliban was a risk. But to suggest that because there is a risk to trading five Taliban for our own soldier we should not have done so is cowardly and un-American. Moreover, following that line would put our men and women in uniform at further risk. Why would the enemy keep captured soldiers alive if they knew we didn’t value them enough to exchange enemy prisoners for them? So I believe this prisoner swap for Sgt. Bergdahl was brave and honorable. I am disgusted and sickened by the armchair warriors and political hacks that have come out of the woodwork to attack Sgt. Bergdahl’s release from captivity. The majority of them are political partisans who oppose everything the President does and they are using this young soldier as a means to attack the President.

My hope in all this is that Americans will eventually understand the truth underlying this incident – that we can never give up on our young men and women whom we send into harm’s way. Of course the broader lesson is that we shouldn’t be getting into all these needless wars, wars that we can’t win or benefit from to begin with. We should use better judgment and diplomacy to avoid the terrible costs in blood and treasure. But who knows? Maybe this incident with Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will create a greater national discussion that will bring sensibility and humanity back to our country.

To that end, I’d like to offer a personal and heartfelt note – Welcome home Bowe.

Published: 07/20/2014