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Did Bergdahl serve the U.S. 'with honor and distinction'?
National Security Adviser Susan Rice appears on ABC's "This Week" to discuss the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. National Security Adviser Susan Rice appears on ABC's "This Week" to discuss the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

National Security Adviser Susan Rice appears on ABC's "This Week" to discuss the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson June 4, 2014

The return of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held for about five years by the Taliban, has become something less than triumphant for the White House that engineered it.

Not only has President Barack Obama taken criticism for exchanging five potentially dangerous Taliban detainees for Bergdahl, but some of his fellow soldiers have taken to the airwaves to talk about the questionable circumstances of how Bergdahl left his base before falling into enemy hands.

The growing controversy over Bergdahl’s actions in 2009 has drawn critics’ attention to a comment made by National Security Adviser Susan Rice on ABC’s This Week.

Host George Stephanopoulos said to Rice that "there are a lot of questions about how he originally was captured and whether or not he had deserted, had left his post. Is that going to be investigated? And if it's found that he did, indeed, leave his post, will he be disciplined or has he already paid the price?"

Rice responded, "Certainly anybody who has been held in those conditions, in captivity for five years, has paid an extraordinary price. But that is really not the point. The point is that he is back. He is going to be safely reunited with his family. He served the United States with honor and distinction. And we'll have the opportunity eventually to learn what has transpired in the past years."

Critics have held up Rice’s claim that Bergdahl "served the United States with honor and distinction" as evidence that the administration was glossing over the more problematic elements of Bergdahl’s service record. We wondered whether Rice’s comment was appropriate given the context of his disappearance.

We won’t be putting Rice’s comment to the Truth-O-Meter, because the full details of Bergdahl’s service record aren’t out yet, and will presumably be forthcoming as investigations proceed. Still, we decided to review what we know so far about Bergdahl’s service.  

Bergdahl in Afghanistan

Here’s how the late journalist Michael Hastings, in a 2012 Rolling Stone magazine, described Bergdahl’s departure.

"In the early-morning hours of June 30th, according to soldiers in the unit, Bowe approached his team leader not long after he got off guard duty and asked his superior a simple question: If I were to leave the base, would it cause problems if I took my sensitive equipment? Yes, his team leader responded – if you took your rifle and night-vision goggles, that would cause problems. Bowe returned to his barracks, a roughly built bunker of plywood and sandbags. He gathered up water, a knife, his digital camera and his diary. Then he slipped off the outpost."

After his release from captivity was announced, several soldiers who fought alongside Bergdahl or in his proximity decried his actions.

"Yes, I’m angry," Joshua Cornelison, a former medic in Sergeant Bergdahl’s platoon, told the New York Times. "Everything that we did in those days was to advance the search for Bergdahl. If we were doing some mission and there was a reliable report that Bergdahl was somewhere, our orders were that we were to quit that mission and follow that report."

In a Daily Beast column, Nathan Bradley Bethea, who served in the same battalion in Afghanistan as Bergdahl, flatly called him "a deserter." So did Sgt. Matt Vierkant, who was in Bergdahl’s platoon at the time of his disappearance, in an interview with CNN.

A Pentagon investigation concluded in 2010 that the evidence was "incontrovertible" that he walked away from his unit, a former Pentagon official who has read it told the Associated Press.

On June 3, NBC reported that the Army is preparing "a full, high-level inquiry" into the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance and his personal conduct. The inquiry would determine whether a formal investigation into possible criminal charges is warranted, with punishments possible ranging from administrative disciplinary action to a court-martial, NBC reported. (Because the Pentagon report cited by the AP is not public, we aren’t considering it here.)

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, posted on his Facebook page, "As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we’ll learn the facts. Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty."

‘With honor and distinction’

To avoid having to speculate about what Bergdahl did or didn’t do in 2009, we’re going to analyze Rice’s comment in the context of two facts that seem well-established.

The first is that there are allegations that Bergdahl may have walked away from duty -- but that these allegations have not yet been publicly adjudicated by the Pentagon. The second is that, during his captivity, Bergdahl was promoted to the rank of specialist in June 2010 and then sergeant in June 2011.

We asked several experts whether, given military law and tradition, they thought it was proper for a senior government official to say that Bergdahl had "served the United States with honor and distinction."

The experts said it’s a tricky question to apply to someone whose background is as murky as Bergdahl’s is, but they added that Rice’s accolade shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, at least on technical grounds.

"The word ‘honor,’ when used in the context of ‘honorable service’ or an ‘honorable discharge’ generally means honest and faithful service according to the standards of conduct, courage, and duty required by law and customs of the service of a member of the grade to whom the standard is applied," said Richard D. Rosen, a retired Army colonel who now directs the Center for Military Law and Policy at Texas Tech University. The word "distinction," meanwhile, "indicates that the soldier did something above what is expected of a soldier of the same grade and rank," Rosen said.

The lack of an official judgment against Bergdahl, combined with his five years in captivity, could be justification for saying he served with "honor and distinction." From what we know of his official records, "Bergdahl served honorably, competently, and with recognized potential for service at the higher ranks," Rosen said.

Still, while Bergdahl’s official record appears to be clean for now, it may not stay that way indefinitely. Using the "honor and distinction" accolade relies heavily on the assumption that "none of the allegations about Sgt. Bergdahl's misconduct are true -- a rather large assumption since, at least to me, the facts are very unclear at this time," Rosen said.

And what about Bergdahl’s two promotions while in captivity? Can they be used as evidence that Bergdahl served "with honor and distinction"?

The short answer is no, said James C. Bradford, a history professor at Texas A&M University who specializes in the military.

"Military personnel missing in action or held as prisoners of war are automatically promoted at the time as other service personnel with similar time in grade," Bradford said "There are no reviews done -- they are simply promoted. This policy has been in effect since World War II."

Indeed, Dempsey told the Associated Press that Bergdahl would not automatically get another promotion -- to staff sergeant -- that had been scheduled for this month until he met certain criteria, including job performance standards.

It’s worth noting that on June 3 -- after criticism of Bergdahl’s actions had begun to emerge -- White House spokesman Jay Carney cast the "honor and distinction" comment as reflecting Bergdahl’s decision to sign up for the military.

"Sgt. Bergdahl put on the uniform of the United States voluntarily and went to war for the United States voluntarily," Carney said in an interview with CNN. "That takes honor and is a mark of distinction."

And speaking in Poland on June 3, Obama didn’t mention Bergdahl’s service record but instead justified the exchange on the grounds that America has a "sacred" obligation not to leave soldiers behind.

Military historians told us it’s possible that future investigations may prove Rice’s description to be factually wrong.

"Rice's comments were premature and not at all politically wise, as it's possible and probably even likely that as we learn more about Bergdahl's disappearance we're going to find that it was in less than honorable circumstances," said Lance Janda, a military historian at Cameron University. The words Rice used "have specific meanings within the context of the armed services that no civilian can convincingly spin for political purposes, and she should not have used them given what we know already. There's a chance he could still be court-martialed for desertion, and if that happens her comments will seem particularly premature and inflammatory."

"It's too early to tell, but what has been asserted so far certainly makes Rice's comment puzzling," agreed William W. Stueck, a historian at the University of Georgia who specializes in the military. "Why would Rice make such a comment if it could be demonstrated to be wrong?"

Update, June 6, 2014: Five days after making her "honor and distinction comments," Rice publicly defended them for the first time on June 6. In an interview with CNN, Rice said, "I realize there has been a lot of discussion and controversy around this. What I was referring to is the fact that this was a young man who volunteered to serve his country in uniform at a time of war. That in itself is a very honorable thing."

"But ‘honor and distinction?’" CNN's Jim Acosta asked.

"Jim, really," Rice said. "This is a young man whose circumstances we are still going to learn about.... He is, as all Americans, innocent until proven guilty. He is now being tried in the court of public opinion after having gone through enormously traumatic five years of captivity. His parents, the same."

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Our Sources

Susan Rice, interview on ABC’s This Week, June 1, 2014

Nathan Bradley Bethea, "We Lost Soldiers in the Hunt for Bergdahl, a Guy Who Walked Off in the Dead of Night," (Daily Beast column), June 2, 2014

Rolling Stone, "America's Last Prisoner of War," June 7, 2012

CNN, "Fellow soldiers call Bowe Bergdahl a deserter, not a hero," June 3, 2014

Politico, "Gen. Martin Dempsey: Bergdahl is ‘innocent until proven guilty,'" June 3, 2014

Politico, "Carney: Bergdahl deal separate from desertion question," June 3, 2014

New York Times, "Bowe Bergdahl’s Vanishing Before Capture Angered His Unit," June 2, 2014

NBC News, "Bergdahl faces desertion probe, Obama defends swap," June 3, 2014

CBS News, "Report: Bergdahl Scheduled For Promotion," June 2, 2014

CBS News, "US Joint Chiefs Chairman: Army May Still Pursue Desertion Charges Against Bergdahl," June 3, 2014

Fox News, "Pentagon inquiry in 2010 found Bergdahl walked away from unit, report claims," June 3, 2014

Washington Free Beacon, "The Left’s Reaction to Bowe Bergdahl’s Release Is Outrageous," June 3, 2014

PolitiFact, "John McCain says five Taliban detainees freed in Bowe Bergdahl exchange 'are the hardest of the hard-core,'" June 2, 2014

Email interview with William W. Stueck, historian at the University of Georgia, June 3, 2014

Email interview with Richard D. Rosen, director of the Center for Military Law and Policy at Texas Tech University, June 3, 2014

Email interview with James C. Bradford, history professor at Texas A&M University , June 3, 2014

Email interview with Lance Janda, historian at Cameron University, June 3, 2014

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Did Bergdahl serve the U.S. 'with honor and distinction'?