As the nation’s top military officer indicated the Army could still pursue charges against Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier who disappeared from his unit in the mountains of Afghanistan, one of his fellow soldiers said this week it was common knowledge at the time that Bergdahl had deserted.
“Oh yeah, we all knew,” Jose Baggett told NBC5 Chicago. “Everybody knew.”
Pentagon officials say Bergdahl is a prisoner of war, and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday warned against early judgment about the circumstances of how he disappeared and was captured by the Taliban.
Baggett said he was among the members of Blackfoot Company who went on repeated patrols searching for Bergdahl, who would end up spending five years in captivity by the Taliban. He said he was replaced as radio operator on one of those patrols when it was attacked, and two soldiers were killed.
“Those operations and those missions to go find him wouldn’t have happened if he wouldn’t have left,” Baggett said.
Hagel said Wednesday he wasn't aware that any soldiers were killed while looking for Bergdahl.
Baggett, an “RTO” or radiotelephone operator, said he was replaced on a mission two months after Bergdahl’s disappearance by his friend, PFC Matthew Martinek. When the convoy was hit by a Taliban ambush, Martinek and Lt. Darren Andrews were killed.
“Every mission we were doing at that point, we were trying to find him,” Baggett said. “People who put their lives on the line and lost their lives to help find this guy and to conduct these missions in Afghanistan, they’re heroes.”
On Tuesday, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Associated Press that as criticism mounted in Congress about releasing five high-level Taliban detainees in exchange for Bergdahl, charges are still a possibility.
“This was the last, best opportunity to free a United States soldier in captivity,” Dempsey said. “My first instinct was gratitude for those who had searched for so long, and at risk for themselves.”
Writing later on his Facebook page, Dempsey said, “Our country’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred.”
Residents of Bergdahl’s hometown of Hailey, Idaho, had promised a lavish homecoming celebration, but it has since been canceled. The event, called “Bowe is Back,” was expected to draw 10,000 to 15,000 residents. Bergdahl was not expected to be in attendance.