One of the most striking elements of the Bowe Bergdahl affair is word that top Army officers were so anxious to keep the matter a secret that they directed Bergdahl's fellow soldiers to sign a pledge of silence about his 2009 decision to walk away from duty in Afghanistan. "Many of Bergdahl's fellow troops…signed nondisclosure agreements agreeing to never share any information about Bergdahl's disappearance and the efforts to recapture him," wrote CNN's Jake Tapper, who first reported the agreements last Sunday.
Now, with Bergdahl back in U.S. hands, many of those former soldiers are ignoring the agreement they signed. They feel strongly that they must give their first-hand accounts of Bergdahl's acts so the public will see him as the deserter they believe he is, and not as a hero.
In a conversation Wednesday afternoon, Josh Cornelison, who was the medic in Bergdahl's platoon, described how -- in the middle of an intense search for Bergdahl -- the Army brass approached his harried colleagues with the nondisclosure agreement.
"Once Bergdahl left, we were very busy for the following two and a half months chasing him around," Cornelison recalled. "We were driving around for 20 hours a day. We would get some sort of intel report, and we would have to go to that spot, and if it were a four hour drive, we would do that. When we got back to FOB [Forward Operating Base] Sharana, we were on very limited time frames. We would pull in, and we would have 90 minutes. So you wanted to take a shower, get hot food, go to the PX."
"In those times at Sharana, we were approached by the commander and people in CID [the Army Criminal Investigation Command], and they wanted us to sign documents basically saying that we wouldn't talk about Bergdahl's disappearance," Cornelison continued. Cornelison said he signed the agreement but doesn't remember its precise wording. "Basically, they would hand you the piece of paper and say if you sign this, you are agreeing not to talk to any media or any people back home about the circumstances regarding Bergdahl's disappearance," Cornelison recalled. "It said that you guys are not allowed to talk to anyone about this. Most of us signed it and went on. I signed it just so I could go on."
Cornelison was questioned several times by Army authorities. Since Cornelison was the platoon's medic, investigators wanted to know if Bergdahl had any mental or physical health problems that might explain his actions. "I ended up being questioned thoroughly by people at brigade level, questioned pretty in-depth about what Bergdahl's medical condition was," Cornelison said. "The three or four times we went back to FOB Sharana, every single time I was questioned." (Cornelison said he did not see any health issues that might have caused Bergdahl to leave.)
Other soldiers who knew Bergdahl well came in for even more frequent questioning. "There were a couple of other people who were closer to Bergdahl and had more specific information," Cornelison remembered. "In one case, they sent a helicopter to pick up [a soldier who knew Bergdahl]. We were in the middle of a mission, and they sent a helicopter to pick him up and bring him back to FOB Sharana to be questioned."
That suggests just how seriously top Army officers and criminal investigators took the case, and how thoroughly it has been investigated. But now, with even more investigations ahead, the circumstances of Bergdahl's reappearance have made the soldiers' promises of silence impossible to keep. After first hearing that Bergdahl was back, Cornelison then saw President Obama at the White House with Bergdahl's parents. Cornelison and several of his former colleagues sensed that some sort of heroic narrative might be forming -- and they knew it wasn't true.
"When the president was there with Bergdahl's parents, we got this feeling that the American people needed to be told the truth," Cornelison, who believes Bergdahl deserted his post, explained. "We were there, this is not hearsay, we were on the ground, the first ones to go looking for him. The American public needs to know the truth about Bergdahl before treating him like any kind of war hero, because that is completely false."
But for Cornelison and the others around Bergdahl, there are still those nondisclosure agreements. They promised not to talk, and now they're talking. Will speaking publicly now come back to hurt them later? So far, Cornelison has heard nothing from the Army. "I don't know if we're going to be approached by the Department of Defense or the State Department or the Army saying, hey, five years ago you said you weren't going to talk about it," Cornelison said. "That's not important to me now. Right now, the important thing is to get the truth out there about Bowe Bergdahl."