U.S. troops who served alongside Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl on the day he disappeared told CNN that the emerging "whistleblower" defense being prepared for him makes no sense.
Bergdahl's lawyer is making the case that Bergdahl left his post on foot to report his unit for troubling behavior, but his fellow troops say the platoon was already scheduled to drive back to their Forward Operating Base, or FOB, just hours after his disappearance.
"We were literally going back to the FOB Sharana the next day," then-Sgt. Evan Buetow, Bergdahl's team leader, told CNN. "If for whatever reason Bergdahl had complaints, he could have brought them to the attention of senior officers before our five-day mission, or easily could have waited a few more hours till we returned to the FOB."
Then-Specialist Josh Cornelison, the platoon medic, said the base was "a lengthy drive away from" Observation Post Mest, where Bergdahl was last seen by his fellow troops.
"And he wanted to walk back? Knowing full well how many times we'd been blown up on the way there and back? Everyone knew bad dudes were around and watching us move to and from OP Mest," Cornelison said.
The U.S. Army has yet to make public the investigative report into Bergdahl's disappearance, but on March 25 Bergdahl's defense attorney, Eugene Fidell, released a letter sent to Gen. Mark Milley, the commanding general at U.S. Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg. Milley last Wednesday announced his ruling that Bergdahl would face a potential court martial for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
Asking for leniency due to many circumstances, including a detailed description by Bergdahl as to his torture over several years by insurgents, Fidell wrote that the Army's report hedged its bets but "basically concludes that Sgt. Bergdahl did not intend to remain away from the Army permanently, as classic 'long' desertion requires. It also concludes that his specific intent was to bring what he thought were disturbing circumstances to the attention of the nearest general officer."
Sources familiar with the Army investigation told CNN's Barbara Starr that Bergdahl told the military he left his unit intending to walk to the nearest U.S. military outpost to report wrongdoing, believing he could not trust the commanders of his own unit to deal with his concerns. One senior official told Starr that Bergdahl intended to report what he believed to be problems with "order and discipline" in his unit. A second official said Bergdahl had "concerns about leadership issues at his base."
It is for the judicial process to decide if his claims are valid and even relevant to the charges against Bergdahl, the sources familiar with the investigation told CNN.
Those who were there, however, say that these claims are inexplicable.
Then-Private 1st Class Gerald Sutton, who once considered Bergdahl a friend, told CNN he was shocked and confused by these claims. Shocked because he didn't think Bergdahl would ever admit to leaving the observation post on his own free will; confused because "the nearest base he could report whatever he thought was wrong would be at FOB Sharana."
The platoon was scheduled to leave Sharana later on the very day Bergdahl's disappearance was realized, Sutton recalled. The platoon was to hand over responsibility for the Observation Post to the local Afghan National Police.
"It just doesn't make any sense," Sutton said.
If Bergdahl waited to return to FOB Sharana he could have used a computer at the Morale, Welfare and Recreation center at Sharana "to send out a mass email to whoever he wanted or he could have used to phones to call any news outlet about the misdeeds that we never committed," he said.
Buetow told CNN that "any person who has ever served in the military and been on a deployment knows how ridiculous this sounds."
There is still much the public does not know about the details of this case.
"Once the facts become known, perhaps those who were quick to condemn him will see him and his conduct in a different light," wrote Fidell, Bergdahl's lawyer.
Asked to respond to Bergdahl's fellow troops' confusion that he would leave his post on foot to reach the nearest U.S. base given that the platoon was prepared to drive there within hours, Fidell told CNN, "There's a time and place for all of this to be laid out so that the American public can make some sense of it."