I was working late that night, when the first reports about Bowe Bergdahl’s release in exchange for five Taliban leaders streamed on the television. Just a few blocks from me on my base in Afghanistan, Bergdahl processed through the hospital and onto the jet bound for Germany. Only those directly involved in the operation had any idea.
The military is good about keeping things quiet, especially the actions of special operations and other government agencies. Countless bureaucratic and physical barriers veil these groups from conventional forces. Warzone bases aren’t open like bases in the U.S. Most units within the perimeter of my base in Afghanistan work and reside within private compounds, surrounded by their own security and fences.
Some have wondered about the timing of the events here over the past two weeks: President Obama’s visit, an announcement on post-2014 U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Bergdahl, and Secretary Hagel’s visit all in just one week. For many this seems more like a well-planned campaign than mere coincidence.
Despite all this, life remains largely unchanged for those of us still here. The day-to-day mission continues. Coalition forces still patrol, convoy, fly, bomb, support, analyze, train, advise, shoot, heal, and kill. The fighting endures. People still die. In the past few days, we’ve honored several fallen service members as their friends transferred them to airplanes to take them home. Maybe we should pause a moment from the Bergdahl debate to honor them: U.S. Army Pfc. Jacob H. Wykstra, 21, of Thornton, Colorado, U.S. Army Capt. Jason B. Jones, 29, of Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania, and U.S. Army Pfc. Matthew H. Walker, 20 of Hillsboro, Missouri. I haven’t seen any of these names appear on the news network crawlers.
News reports after Secretary Hagel’s visit here noted the military crowd was silent after he mentioned Bergdahl. The account said, “It was unclear whether the absence of cheers and applause came from a reluctance to display emotion in front of the Pentagon chief or from any doubts among the troops about Bergdahl.” I was there with a couple hundred other service members. I’m not sure the silence was symbolic of anything.
The overall silence about Bergdahl reminds me of the time in Iraq after we’d heard SEALs killed Osama bin Laden. I didn’t see anyone on U.S. bases in Baghdad celebrate his death as thousands did in the U.S. The public celebration was embarrassing to try to explain to the Iraqis we were working with. The only reaction to bin Laden’s death I heard was a conversation with an Army captain on his third deployment after two tours in Afghanistan: “Fuck that mother fucker, he cost me my first wife!”
A friend of mine with multiple Iraq and Afghanistan deployments said about Bergdahl, “As a nation, we do not break faith with our own, regardless of whether they have allegedly broken faith with us. We bring them home, then we determine the truth,” and everyone I’ve spoken with agrees with this sentiment.
Some here now were here when the Bergdahl story began. Many in the military today either served, or knows someone who served in his unit or participated in the ensuing search. The conversation will continue.
Commanders here have said little about the Bergdahl exchange. Perhaps they feel the senior leaders have said enough.
Now, our leaders here ask us to focus on today, to not worry about the run-up to December 31. They say we’re at a historic moment. One commander reminded us of the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Before we can look too far ahead, we have to get through the June 14 presidential runoff and the summer fighting first. A bilateral agreement still needs signatures. They say the next few weeks are crucial.
Bergdahl is a reminder that war is messy. If nothing else, at least people in the U.S. are talking about Afghanistan. For those of us here, we still have work to do before we can go home.
Nick Willard is the pseudonym of a military officer serving in Afghanistan. He’s previously served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or United States government.