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Father of Freed U.S. Soldier: “Nobody Can Relate to Guantánamo Prisoners More Than Our Family”

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Bowe Bergdahl, the last known American prisoner of war in Afghanistan, has been freed in a prison swap with the Taliban five years after his capture. Bergdahl was captured after reportedly walking off his base unarmed. He was said to have left a note claiming he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan, and was leaving to start a new life. Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, had first revealed their son was the subject of prisoner swap negotiations three years ago when U.S.-Taliban talks broke down. In the lead-up to his son’s release, Bob Bergdahl spoke to The Guardian’s Sean Smith in an exclusive interview filmed around the Idaho countryside where the family lives. “I don’t think anybody can relate to the prisoners in Guantánamo more than our family, because it’s the same thing,” Bob Bergdahl told Smith. “How could we have such a high standard of judicial process for horrible war criminals [during World War II] … and yet now we can go for 10-11 years without even having judicial process? It’s just wrong.”

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StoryMar 30, 2015Ex-U.S. Official on Bowe Bergdahl Charges: Why Are We Vilifying an Ex-POW Tortured by Taliban?
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: Today we spend much of the hour on the incredible story of Bowe Bergdahl, the last known American prisoner of war in Afghanistan, just freed in a prisoner swap with the Taliban. Bergdahl was held captive since June 2009, after he apparently walked off his base. He reportedly left a note saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, and was leaving to start a new life. In an email to his parents two days before he disappeared, Bergdahl said he was ashamed to be an American. Bowe Bergdahl was freed this weekend after five years in captivity. In a deal brokered by Qatar, the U.S. agreed to release five Taliban leaders from Guantánamo Bay. Bergdahl is now being treated at an American military hospital in Germany and will return to the U.S. at a later date.

AMY GOODMAN: The deal has been controversial. Some of Bergdahl’s former soldiers say he should face a court-martial for desertion. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers are accusing President Obama of failing to properly give Congress advance warning of the Guantánamo prisoner transfers. Obama addressed the controversy earlier today during a news conference in Poland.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: With respect to the circumstances of Sergeant Bergdahl’s capture by the Taliban, we obviously have not been interrogating Sergeant Bergdahl. He is recovering from five years of captivity with the Taliban. He is having to undergo a whole battery of tests, and he is going to have to undergo a significant transition back into life. He has not even met with his family yet, which indicates, I think, the degree to which we take this transition process seriously, something that we learned from the Vietnam era. But let me just make a very simple point here, and that is, regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that.

AARON MATÉ: Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, spoke to reporters in Boise, Idaho.

JANI BERGDAHL: I’m so looking forward to seeing your face after these last five-and-a-half years, long, long years, and to giving a great big bear hug and holding you in my arms again, never wanting to let you go. Our family, your family, is strong in faith and hope. You are from a strong tribe. You are even stronger now. Five years is a seemingly endless longtime, but you’ve made it. I imagine you’re more patient and compassionate than ever. You are free. Freedom is yours. I will see you soon, my beloved son. And I love you, Bowe.

BOB BERGDAHL: We’re talking like this because we haven’t talked to Bowe yet. We haven’t called him on the phone, although you all know we have the capability to do that with satellite technology. There is reason for that, and that’s because Bowe has been gone so long that it’s going to be very difficult to come back. It’s like a diver going deep on a dive and has to stage back up through recompression to get the nitrogen bubbles out of his system. If he comes up too fast, it could kill him. Now, we’re pretty resilient. Jani pointed out, Bowe is still very resilient. He has passed through all the checkpoints with flying colors.

So, Bowe, let me say to you—let me start over again now that I’ve explained the context of this. Bowe, I love you. I’m your father. [speaking Pashto] I’ve written to you, over and over. [speaking Pashto] “Can you speak English still?” I would write him. But now I hope that when you hear this and when you’re ready to hear this and when you see this, I hope your English is coming back. And I want you to know that I love you. I’m proud of you. I’m so proud of your character. I’m so proud of your patience and your perseverance. I am so proud of your cultural abilities to adapt, your language skills, your desire and your action to serve this country in a very difficult, long war. But most of all, I’m proud of how much you wanted to help the Afghan people and what you were willing to do to go to that length. I’ll say it again: I am so proud of how far you were willing to go to help the Afghan people. And I think you have succeeded.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Bowe’s parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, speaking Sunday in Boise, Idaho. Bob Bergdahl was also addressing his son in Pashto.

Well, in the lead-up to their son’s release, Bob Bergdahl talked to The Guardian’s Sean Smith in an exclusive interview. Smith first met Bowe while embedding with his unit in Afghanistan in 2009. Sean Smith will join us later in the program from London, but first we want to turn to the video that he made when he followed Bob Bergdahl around the Idaho countryside where the family lives.

BOB BERGDAHL: I don’t work for the military. I don’t work for the government. I don’t represent the American people. I’m a father who wants his son back.

My name is Bob Bergdahl. I’m the father of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. I’m 54 years old. I worked for UPS for 28 years. I’m retired. I wake up each morning, and my first thought is: My son is still a prisoner of war in Afghanistan. And I need to do something about that.

This is an aspen forest. So, Bowe played through here when he was growing up as a kid. He and his friends were all over these trees. And so, it’s nice to come up here and reminisce, and I guess it makes me feel good, gives me something to do. And it’s a nice place to take a break when you’re cutting wood.

We had this camp set up before the winter came, but now there’s a couple feet of snow out there, so it’s a pretty cozy place to be. This is what we used to do. Still do. But this is how Bowe grew up. And we set this up for him, hoping he’d get home this winter. Maybe he’d need a place to stay and kind of recover.

He was not there for national security. He was not there because he lost a personal friend on 9/11. He was there because the way he was raised forced him to have compassion. I know that was Bowe’s motivation, to help these people. That’s how the war is shaped in the minds of a lot of Americans, is that we are there as some kind of Peace Corps—with guns. And that is just an impossible mission. It’s a mission that we’re not very good at, I don’t believe. I think the last decade proves that.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: The time has come for America to hear the truth about this tragic war. In international conflicts, the truth is hard to come by.

BOB BERGDAHL: The reason I go back to 1967 and this sermon by Martin Luther King about why he’s opposed to the Vietnam War is to gain his inspired wisdom, in my opinion, and then work forward again, through time and through history, to where my son is, in Waziristan, and try to—try to make sense of that.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: There is something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, “Be nonviolent toward Jim Clark,” but will curse and damn you when you say, “Be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children.” There is something wrong with that press.

BOB BERGDAHL: I’m sorry, how can we teach two generations, at least, of children in this country that we have zero tolerance for violence, but we can occupy two countries in Asia for almost a decade? It’s schizophrenic. And no wonder this younger generation is struggling psychologically with the duplicity of this, the use of violence. The purpose of war is to destroy things. You can’t use it to govern.

First thing I do is feed the cat, who’s usually asking to be fed. And then I start a fire and warm this place up, and then… Not bad for Idaho, huh? I’m trying to learn a little Pashto so I can speak with people. I’m trying to write or read the language. I probably spend four hours a day reading on the region, on the history. I’m working to get Bowe home, and some days I get up and I’m so angry at some policy that’s just happened, that I got to research that. And then it all comes together. It’s all related somehow. Economics is related to foreign policy, and domestic politics is related to our foreign policy, and our foreign policy is related to Afghanistan. On and on we go. This has been an education, I’ll tell you that.

AMERICAN REPORTER: We have Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. He’s been at the center of negotiations now going on between our government and the Taliban. What they want in return is the release of five detainees from Guantánamo Bay. You know, we’ve heard a lot of U.S. lawmakers, despite the fact that this is an American life that’s involved here, say that—you know, that it’s not worth releasing these men, because they are dangerous. What’s your take?

ACQUAINTANCE OF BOB BERGDAHL: I’m in touch occasionally with Bowe’s father, Bob, who’s a good man who has stuck by his son all these years. The five that they’re referring to are not part of the group that are on the to-be-prosecuted list. So, if we can get rid of them, which is what we want to do, to begin with, and get Bowe back, it seems like a win-win. So, you get Guantánamo closed and Sergeant Bergdahl back home where he belongs.

BOB BERGDAHL: The chief prosecutor for the military in Guantánamo Bay is saying that the five Afghans should be traded for Bowe Bergdahl. The chief prosecutor.

I don’t think anybody can relate to the prisoners in Guantánamo more, I don’t think, than our family, because it’s the same thing. My son is a prisoner of war. And wars end with reconciliation and negotiations with the enemy, and prisoners of war should be part of that dialogue. And I insist—I insist that it will be.

The Supreme Court justice that was sent to Nuremberg for the Nuremberg trials, he has a just absolutely fantastic statement of what American justice stood for at the end of World War II. How could we have such a high standard of judicial process for horrible war criminals and, without a doubt, people who were guilty of crimes against humanity, and yet now we can go for 10 years, 11 years, without even having judicial process? It’s just wrong. Bowe had judicial process. The military shura in Miramshah tried Bowe and found him guilty of war crimes. Very quickly, very early on, he was given his fate. Wasn’t given a sentence, but he was given his judicial determination. And there’s something humane about that. Something inhumane about keeping somebody in limbo for 10 years. Yes, it makes me angry. I’m thankful that Bowe is most likely in a house somewhere. At least it’s not chain-link and cement and barbed wire. I hope that’s the way it is.

Every day, it just doesn’t go away. You just carry this empty, unsatisfied, empty place in your heart every day for four-and-a-half years. We’re torn as a family. I can read that in his letters. I can see that he was torn, as well. But he was in the midst of harm’s way, as all these other young men and women are. I think this is the darkening of the American soul. It’s where the guilt comes from, because you’re being told you’re helping, but you know on the inside that you’re not.

AMY GOODMAN: That exclusive video featuring Bob Bergdahl, the father of Bowe Bergdahl, was produced by The Guardian. When we come back, we’ll be joined by The Guardian's Sean Smith, the reporter who interviewed Bob Bergdahl in Idaho and who met Bowe when embedding with his unit in Afghanistan in 2009. We'll also speak with Colonel Morris Davis, the former chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo Bay. This is Democracy Now! Back in a moment.

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