By Andy Sullivan and Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Robert Andrews believes his own son might still be alive if U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl had not gone missing from his Afghan guard post on June 30, 2009.
As Bergdahl emerges from five years of Taliban captivity, former comrades are accusing him of walking away from his unit and prompting a massive manhunt they say cost the lives of at least six fellow soldiers, including Andrews' 34-year-old son, Darryn, a second lieutenant.
“Basically, my son died unnecessarily, hunting for a guy that we shouldn’t even have been hunting for,” Andrews told Reuters.
The sense of pride expressed by Obama administration officials over Bergdahl’s release in exchange for five Taliban prisoners on Saturday is not shared by many of those who served alongside him in Afghanistan or the families of those said to have died trying to bring him back.
The U.S. military has not said how Bergdahl fell into the insurgents’ hands, but several of those from his unit say he became disillusioned with the war and abandoned his post during a nighttime guard shift, an act of desertion that would normally incur severe punishment.
"I think he wanted to get away from our side of the war," commented Greg Leatherman, who says he was in charge of Bergdahl’s unit the night he disappeared.
By contrast, Bergdahl's home town is treating him like a hero, planning a June 28 rally in support of him. Balloons, symbolic yellow ribbons and celebratory signs sprouted up in Hailey, Idaho, after the news of his release over the weekend.
Bob Bergdahl, fighting back tears as he appeared to address his son directly in a public appearance in Boise, Idaho, on Sunday, said he was proud of "your desire and your action to serve this country in a very difficult, long war."
Colonel Tim Marsano, of the Idaho National Guard, who acts as the Bergdahl family's media liaison, said they would have no comment on the accusations made by former soldiers and relatives of those who may have been killed in the hunt for him.
"The Bergdahls are aware of the current controversy, they have been for years, and they don't have anything to say about it," Marsano told Reuters on Monday.
Military officials have investigated Bergdahl’s disappearance but have never publicly offered an explanation, in part, they say, because they have not had a chance to question the man.
“We do not know the circumstances under which he left his base," Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said. "What we're focused on now is getting him the care he needs.”
Another Defense Department spokesman, Colonel Steve Warren, declined to confirm reports from former soldiers that at least six of their comrades were lost in the long hunt for Bergdahl.
Neighbors in rural Idaho said Bergdahl was a bookish loner known as a good athlete with a penchant for long mountain hikes.
When he disappeared in Afghanistan, he did so quietly and left behind his flak jacket and heavy fighting equipment, according to online accounts by soldiers who served with him.
After Bergdahl failed to show up for roll call, U.S. officials picked up radio communication between Taliban insurgents who said “an American soldier with a camera is looking for someone who speaks English,” according to U.S. diplomatic cables.
Military officials have indicated that Bergdahl, who was flown to a military hospital in Germany over the weekend to undergo a full physical and mental assessment, is unlikely to face charges, whatever the army finds about his capture, because they believe he has suffered enough.
Others say he should be held accountable.
While Leatherman says he is glad to see Bergdahl home safe, he is blunt about the need for an investigation. “If a military court finds him guilty, then he should be punished accordingly.”
The terms of Bergdahl’s freedom also irk parents and soldiers, who question whether the release of five senior Taliban commanders accused in deadly attacks on U.S. forces is too high a price to pay.
“How many guys were killed capturing these Taliban, and then we just throw them loose? What are we doing negotiating with terrorists in the first place?” Andrews asked.
Bergdahl’s disappearance unleashed a massive air and ground search that lasted for weeks, exposing U.S. forces to Taliban attack and disrupting other operations, his former comrades say.
The attention showered on Bergdahl since his release has compounded their resentment over those who died during the lengthy search.
On September 4, 2009, a little over two months after Bergdahl went missing, Darryn Andrews was part of a patrol searching for him when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb and a rocket-propelled grenade in a district of Afghanistan’s southeastern Paktika province, near the Pakistan border, according to accounts of soldiers and their families.
Private First Class Matthew Martinek, 20, died in the same attack.
“This opens up the wounds again,” said Kenneth Luccioni, Martinek’s stepfather. “There were a lot of people who risked their lives for this young man, and we want the truth.”
He said he learned that his stepson had died hunting for Bergdahl not from the Pentagon but by word of mouth from fellow soldiers months afterwards.
The Pentagon's spokesman Warren said: "It’s impossible for me to confirm those reports.” He added: "From Washington D.C. to discuss specific casualties a half a decade ago in Afghanistan, we’re just not in a position to do that right now. And as you know, every mission has its own parameters. So I know there’s some names out there. We’ll look into them. But at this point we can’t confirm anything."
The army encouraged soldiers in Bergdahl’s unit to sign a non-disclosure agreement on the grounds that it could endanger his safety while in captivity, several soldiers said, but now that he is free some have begun to speak out.
“He walked away from his guard post while on duty,” said former Private First Class Jose Baggett, who served in Bergdahl’s company. “Then we lost men looking for him. I’m not saying he should not be back in America but he has done nothing heroic. The people who died looking for his dumb ass – they are the heroes.’
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Laura Zuckerman, editing by Jason Szep and Peter Henderson)