The platoon was, an American military official would assert years later, “raggedy.”
On their tiny, remote base, in a restive sector of eastern Afghanistan at an increasingly violent time of the war, they were known to wear bandannas and cutoff T-shirts. Their crude observation post was inadequately secured, a military review later found. Their first platoon leader, and then their first platoon sergeant, were replaced relatively early in the deployment because of problems.
But the unit — Second Platoon, Blackfoot Company in the First Battalion, 501st Regiment — might well have remained indistinguishable from scores of other Army platoons in Afghanistan had it not been for one salient fact: This was the team from which Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl disappeared on June 30, 2009.
Mohammad Nabi Omari, one of the Taliban militants released in the exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, in Qatar on Sunday.P.O.W. Deal Gives Qatar a Victory, and a New TestJUNE 6, 2014
In the years since Sergeant Bergdahl’s capture by the Taliban, and even more since his release last week in a contentious prisoner exchange for five Taliban fighters, much has been written suggesting that he was a misfit soldier in something of a misfit platoon that stumbled through its first months in Afghanistan and might have made it too easy for him to walk away, as his fellow soldiers say he did.
Indeed, an internal Army investigation into the episode concluded that the platoon suffered from lapses in discipline and security in the period before Sergeant Bergdahl — a private first class at the time who was promoted while in captivity — disappeared into Paktika Province, two officials briefed on the report said.
But their problems in many ways reflected those of the Pentagon’s strategy writ large across Afghanistan at that moment of the war. The platoon was sent to a remote location with too few troops to seriously confront an increasingly aggressive insurgency, which controlled many villages in the region. The riverbeds they used as roads were often mined with improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.s; simply getting supplies or traveling back to their home operating base could be a nerve-racking ordeal.
American combat fatalities in Afghanistan in 2009, the year the Second Platoon arrived, would double from the year before. By year’s end, President Obama would tear up the military strategy that had spread American troops thin across the rugged country and order a major surge of troops.
As they settled into their wartime routines in the spring of 2009, the soldiers of Second Platoon knew that they controlled little more than what they could survey from their outposts, several members of the platoon said. Their heavily armored trucks, known as MRAPs, protected them from the buried explosives they encountered, but the fear those mines instilled was real.
To pass the time on long trips outside the wire, some in the platoon would make wagers on when a roadside-bomb attack might come. “We’d take bets on this one stretch of road, how many I.E.D.s are we going to hit, or who is going to get hit,” said Josh Cornelison, the platoon’s medic, describing it as the sort of humor that came only from soldiers who have already been through a bomb blast. Mr. Cornelison was one of several members of the platoon who spoke about the deployment. He and another soldier who spoke on the record have been discussing Sergeant Bergdahl widely in the news media. But other members of the unit who spoke on the condition of anonymity offered similar accounts.
His former platoon mates gave sharply contradictory accounts of how Sergeant Bergdahl viewed the war, and America’s proper role in it.
To many of those soldiers, Sergeant Bergdahl was viewed as standoffish or eccentric, smoking a pipe instead of spitting tobacco, as so many soldiers do, and reading voraciously when others napped or watched videos. But he was not isolated from his platoon mates, some said. And while he was, like other soldiers in the platoon, often disappointed or confused by their mission in Paktika, some of his peers also said that Sergeant Bergdahl seemed enthusiastic about fighting, particularly after the platoon was ambushed several weeks before his disappearance.
“He’d complain about not being able to go on the offensive, and being attacked and not being able to return fire,” said Gerald Sutton, who knew Sergeant Bergdahl from spending time together on their tiny outpost, Observation Post Mest Malak, near the village of Yahya Khel, about 50 miles west of the Pakistani border.
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