Here’s Where the U.S. Military Failed Bergdahl and Many Recruits

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Bowe Bergdahl has made headlines nationwide as the American prisoner in Afghanistan recently traded for five Taliban members after five years of captivity. Accusations that he had plans to desert, or was attempting to desert when he was captured, have made the trade controversial, even resulting in death threats to his father, who recently spoke at the White House to thank those who helped bring his son home. Bob Bergdahl spoke in Pashto to his son, who he noted is struggling to speak English at present, and who has not yet chosen to be reunited with his family — something officials say can be normal for returning prisoners of war.

The controversy surrounding his capture has led some, such as Michael Mukasey, former Attorney General under the Bush administration, to demand that Bergdahl be court-martialed. “We know what he did. You can’t wait to try a case until you know absolutely everything about everything,” said Mukasey in a Fox News interview. Others, like National Security Adviser Susan Rice, take a far more cautious and lenient view. “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 an enormously traumatic five years of captivity,” said Rice, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Now, information provided by a close friend of Bergdahl’s, Kim Harrison, on his mental state before, during, and after his entrance into the military has shed new light on the issue. Prior to joining the army, Bergdahl was in the U.S. Coast Guard, where he was discharged for psychological reasons, according to The Washington Post. His friend Harrison, to whom he sent personal items to just prior to his disappearance, and whom he had chosen to receive his remains if he should die, said she was releasing the journal and computer files to The Washington Post because she was worried about how Bergdahl was being viewed, as a scheming deserter rather than how she felt he actually was. “He is the perfect example of a person who should not have gone” to war, Harrison told The Post. “The only person worse would be someone with a low IQ. In my mind, they didn’t care,” she said.

Harrison and other close friends spoke on Bergdahl’s discharge from the Coast Guard , saying that while he claimed he faked a psychological disorder to get out, they did not believe it. “I said ‘You don’t fake a psychological discharge, you have to become unfit.’ I told him that,” she said. “The reality was it wasn’t okay. I saw it in the letters, the way the writing was changing, the anger,” said Harrison. Later was accepted into the Army, she’d said, “‘Why and how did you even get in? How did they let you?’ I was furious.”

The written entries provided by Harrison do indeed suggest a degree of instability and internal struggle, things like “I’m the lone wolf of deadly nothingness,” some say are evidence Bergdahl should never have passed the screening process to be sent overseas in the first place. “I’m worried,” he wrote in his journal prior to deployment. “The closer I get to ship day, the calmer the voices are. I’m reverting. I’m getting colder. My feelings are being flushed with the frozen logic and the training, all the unfeeling cold judgment of the darkness,” he said. Later he wrote, “Trying to keep my self togeather … I’m so tired of the blackness, but what will happen to me without it. Bloody hell why do I keep thinking of this over and over,” he wrote. “I’m worried … Remember. REMEMBER. Imagination. Realness. To dream. The Universes. REMEMBER. Cold. Swift. Clear. Calm. Logic. Nothingness. Die here. Become empty here.”

For any American, walking off into Paktika province in 2009 was a stupid and dangerous move, basically suicidal … Second, Berghdahl had gone AWOL before, probably more than once. He had a history of this kind of behavior,” wrote Vikram J. Singh, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, in a piece for Think Progress. He pointed out that there are ways that the Army is trained to deal with “combat stress and PTSD” and that “no such intervention was taken for Bergdahl.” He noted that evidence points to a possible plan to escape into the nearby mountains, a plan in part backed up by an emails referencing plans of escape sent to Harrison. “The Army needs to try to understand why a soldier with a history of going AWOL was allowed to stay in the fight without adequate intervention,” wrote Singh. “Something was not right with Bowe Bergdahl at the time he disappeared … As of now, no one can say whether Bergdahl wandered off because he was delusional or suffering form some mental health issue.”

Previously the main question was, did Bergdahl desert or defect? Now the army has a few questions of its own to answer, including why they allowed him to enlist, and why nothing was done when he showed signs of instability overseas. The first question brings up a relevant body of research published earlier this year on prevalence of mental illness in army soldiers before they join the military. The study, conducted by JAMA Psychiatry, showed that almost one in five members of the Army had some sort of mental disorder prior to enlistment, and that 12.8 percent of total respondents before or after enlistment, “reported severe role impairment.” The report, which looked at a sample of 5,428 soldiers. The study also examined suicidal thoughts, planning and attempts, concluding that “The fact that approximately one-third of post-enlistment suicide attempts are associated with pre-enlistment mental disorders suggests that pre-enlistment mental disorders might be targets for early screening and intervention.”

The study also saw a high prevalence of a disorder called intermittent explosive disorder as the most common, and seen in the pre-enlistment group six times as often as a civilian population. This is particularly notable because it has a marked affect on suicide stats, according to Harvard University psychologist Matthew Nock. “Depression might get a person thinking about suicide, but it’s really this history of aggressive, angry outbursts that predicts who acts on their suicidal thoughts,” he said, according to The Guardian.

Ronald Kessler, a sociologist at Harvard University, makes his own point on the difficulty in avoiding mental illness completely though. “If I said to your news organization, what you should do is just have people who have never been ill, you wouldn’t have anybody to hire,” said Kessler to Aljazeera America. “The kinds of disorders that are the very common ones, you just can’t have a business and say I’m not going to take anybody like that. … Already, close to one third of the population is ineligible to enlist in the army. Now go into that two thirds and take the half who have had a mental illness — there’s nobody left.”

Even so, there has been a large increase in the number of soldiers who have had to leave the Army for mental illness reasons, at least according to My Army Benefits, the U.S. Army’s official benefits site, which reports that there has been a 64 percent increase between 2005 to 2009. One in nine medical discharges are a result of mental disorders, it states. Ultimately, the need for improved military screening and care once members show worsening signs of psychological problems is clear, and Bergdahl may very well be an ideal example of where the Army has failed in this.

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