The war in Afghanistan is the longest armed conflict in United States history. As it comes to a close, veterans will return to this country with wounds visible and invisible, and our Coalition partners will look to us for leadership on the care of those veterans. If there is one group of people that do not deserve to be subject to the whims of domestic politics, it is our nation’s veterans. Our men and women in uniform fight to keep our political process strong, not to be victims to its peculiarities at best, and its hypocrisies, at worst. Especially recently, our government has failed at this mission.
It has been a troubled few weeks for United States veterans. First, there were revelations that administrators at Veteran’s Affairs (VA) hospitals across the nation lied about wait times for treatment and cooked the record keeping books in order to make bonuses and meet performance quotas at the expense of providing healthcare to veterans. The scandal led to the resignation of General Erik Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Then, in a prisoner exchange on May 31, 2014, the Taliban released Bergdahl in exchange for five of their own incarcerated at Guantanamo under the condition that they remain in Qatar for one year. Nearly five years earlier, on June 30, 2009, Bergdahl walked off his military base in the dead of night – whether he intended to return remains a mystery – and was captured by the Taliban in the hours that followed. The Haqqani Network, a Taliban outlet created by the United States’ early mishandling of the war, help Bergdahl captive.
While veterans in Phoenix waited in pain for essential treatment, Bergdahl too languished in Taliban prison. Bergdahl was tortured and, in a proof of life video provided to the United States government in December, appeared to be drugged, non responsive and frail. The plight of Bowe Bergdahl is, in many ways, similar to the plight of veterans back home in the United States who waited weeks, even months, for healthcare from their country. Both Bergdahl and veterans denied coverage at the VA made incalculable sacrifices for their country. Both Bergdahl and the veterans back home found themselves at a moment when they needed their country most.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of American civil society has inexplicably failed to make this connection. The media and the public have expressed indignation at the failings of the VA to provide adequate healthcare to our veterans, while politicians in Congress have – in uncharacteristically fast fashion, for Congressional standards – passed legislation to overhaul the VA. Their bill would give veterans access to more providers, give the department secretary more power to fire employees and force more transparency to fix problems like fudged wait times before they become an epidemic.
This outrage is justified, and we should be proud of our leaders for taking steps to remedy the problem. But the question still remains: where is the equal outrage to the treatment of Bowe Bergdahl? Where too is the appreciation for his safe return?
Politicians and the media were quick to condemn Bergdahl’s release in a public relations blitz tantamount to character assassination. The objections – mostly from Congressional Republicans – were numerous. They included allegations that the Obama administration had released dangerous enemy prisoners, used vital resources to free an alleged deserter and broken a law requiring the administration to give Congress a 30-day notice before transferring any detainees from Guantanamo.
An article in the Washington Post, shamefully titled “Why the Bowe Bergdahl deal is a political loser,” cited a CBS news poll that revealed 49% of Americans think that the deal will increase the threat of terrorism against the United States, and 56% think that the price paid was “too high,” statistics likely borne out of the statements of politicians and pundits, and statistics that miserably fail a fact check. First, though the five Taliban officers released have been connected to al-Qaeda, there is no evidence that they supported its international jihad against the United States. Captured just weeks after the United States invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban five were actually fighting other Afghans in the country’s civil war, according to CIA director John Brennan. Second, the deal mandates that they stay in Qatar for a year—by the time they “return to the battlefield,” the US will be well on its way to a full withdrawal from Afghanistan. Taliban expert Anand Gopal has said that of the five – who haven’t been with the Taliban since 2001 – only two have the potential to impact the battle between Afghanistan and insurgents.
Articles like the one above are self-fulfilling prophesies, because their misinformation is to blame for the very statistics they cite. If anything, the Taliban five and their allies are more likely to pose a threat to the United States because of how they were treated and detained in Guantanamo, not because of the ties they had to an organization 13 years ago.
I don’t know if Bergdahl was a deserter. It is appalling that some would suggest an American soldier who fights to defend the right to be innocent until proven guilty is convicted of desertion in a trial by media, and not in a trial by a jury of his peers. Anyone who doesn’t wait for the facts to come in is making a terrible mistake.
The Taliban threatened to execute Bergdahl if news of the prisoner exchange leaked. This obviously does not absolve the Obama administration of breaking the law, but it does offer a compelling reason why they chose secrecy over transparency. This should be the sole source of outrage over the Bergdahl release, because it is completely isolated from Bergdahl’s character. Tragically, elected officials have mixed criticism of the Obama administration with criticism of Bergdahl and the deal that saved his life.
Both the swap for Bergdahl and the scandal over healthcare provisions at the VA have highlighted a dangerous misconception among politicians and the media that demands fixing. Our veterans have risked their lives to defend the principles of life and liberty that we hold dear. Some have made the ultimate sacrifice and all return scarred. For those who live on, it is the duty of the United States to honor their sacrifices, and every time we fall short of this goal is one time too many.
For politicians and pundits, it is unfortunately too easy to speak out in favor of domestic solutions to domestic veteran problems while treating the Bergdahl case with such a different eye. That needs to change. Our veterans have fought to defend the right of “all men to be created equal.” That means that all veterans, whether they are home or imprisoned abroad, deserve equal assistance when they are in their darkest hour of need. Whether we have to pass legislation or exchange the prisoners of the enemy, no price is too high to pay.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.