THE BLOG

Leave Nobody Behind

06/10/2014 06:26 pm ET | Updated Aug 10, 2014

We're beginning to learn some of the details of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's five-year imprisonment by the Taliban, but these revelations don't seem to be tamping down the fiery bellows of outrage and condemnation bursting forth from congressional Republicans and their media cheerleaders in the wake of President Obama's decision to recover him in exchange for five Taliban fighters imprisoned at Guantanamo.

Now not only is Sgt. Bergdahl being pilloried as a deserter and even a Taliban accomplice (though no such charges have been leveled nor has any evidence been presented) but his father, whose chief transgression seems to have been to grow a beard that exceeds the most flamboyant Red Sox player's shrubbery of a year ago (or on one of the shaggy Duck Dynasty rednecks on television), is being labeled a suspected terrorist as well. Clearly no one in the Bergdahl family (perhaps the mother looks suspiciously like a Hippie too) has passed muster with the rabble that has seized upon yet another reason to decry President Obama's humane and courageous action.

Never mind -- for a moment, anyway -- the hypocrisy behind the bellowing of so many critics who only weeks ago were calling for just such a release, or who applauded the actions of their fellow Republicans who regularly dealt with hostage-takers, as far back as their patron saint Ronald Reagan. And who of an age to remember the Vietnam War can forget the years of media and political agonizing over "the longest-held Vietnam POW," John McCain, now Senator McCain, in the forefront of the wolfpack attacking Sgt. Bergdahl's patriotism and alleged desertion?

Whether or not those charges of desertion turn out to be justified, the fact remains that Bergdahl was a captive of the Taliban for five years. As details of his confinement begin to come out, the justification for negotiating his release becomes all the clearer. But whatever his circumstances, the basic, decent fact remains: American soldiers must not be abandoned, for whatever reason -- a principle that has been upheld throughout history, war after war after war.

Early in my own military career, I had an experience that brought this principle home to me, albeit in a different form. In 1955 I was a newly minted infantry second lieutenant, stationed in what was then the Panama Canal Zone, a platoon leader in a combat regiment assigned to guard vital installations around the Panama Canal and to train men in jungle warfare, should the United States Army ever need those skills (as indeed it did a decade later, in Vietnam).

One Saturday I was assigned to lead a motley group of soldiers into the jungle near our base at Fort Kobbe, up over Cerro Galera, a nearby low mountain, down the other side and back to the base -- a day-long exercise that was more a rigorous hike than a combat maneuver. But we did wear steel helmets and carry our packs and M1 rifles. And of course water, indispensable in the tropics. Every man carried two canteens on his belt, along with a government-issued machete.

The day, like every day in Panama, was hot and humid, the trails (where there were trails) were slick, red mud, the mosquitos were voracious, and we had to keep on the lookout for venomous snakes and other biting creatures.

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Barracks at Fort Kobbe. Cerro Galera in the Distance

There were 15 men in the patrol, most of them draftees just out of basic training and sent to Panama to serve out their two years. I was the only officer, assisted by a sergeant and a corporal.

They were a mixed group from different squads and platoons, mostly soldiers who had committed some minor infraction earlier in the week and were denied a pass to go off-base, but were given the choice of either cleaning latrines or taking a hike up Cerro Galera. Most of them had not worked with each other or served under me or the two NCOs on the patrol.

As the junior officer in my company, and a bachelor to boot, I was on duty that weekend, and given the choice of a stroll up the mountain and back or sitting at a desk at Company headquarters, I cheerfully volunteered for the hike, leaving another officer in charge. My platoon sergeant and one of my squad leaders opted to join me.

Many of the soldiers were Hispanic or African-Americans, drafted from the mean streets of New York and New Jersey. Tough guys at home, they were out of their element in the real jungle, surprisingly unsettled by the unfamiliar environment (on maneuvers a few weeks earlier, in a training exercise to teach these new recruits how to live off the land, the men were divided into small teams, each given a bag of rice and a live chicken, along with instructions on how to kill it; the inner-city tough guys all ate their rice and made pets of their chickens. The farm boys among them had no problem with the assignment).

But one of the group was a loner and a misfit. Friendless and nearly impossible to befriend, Private Billy Boggs (not his real name) was the classic sad sack. Unable or unwilling to learn even the most basic tasks, clumsy, late for everything, he was a constant trial for his fellow soldiers, endlessly exasperating his squad leader and platoon sergeant, and certainly me, his platoon leader. He really didn't belong in the Army, certainly not in the infantry, where we all knew that if we ever faced combat we could be in situations where we would have to depend on each other for our safety, perhaps for our lives. Nobody had the slightest confidence that Boggs would be there when anyone needed him.

Thirty minutes after our column had set off up the mountainside, I heard a crash and a clatter of falling equipment behind me and called a halt. Near the end of the column, Boggs had collapsed by the side of the trail, his equipment all around him, and gasped that he could go no further. His squad leader tried to drag him to his feet, and he fell back to the ground, rubber-legged, his face ashen, and his fatigues soaked with sweat. His helmet and rifle lay in the mud beside him.

"C'mon, Boggs," I ordered. "Get up and get going; we have a little hill to climb and then it will be all downhill the rest of the way back."

"Can't, Lieutenant," he groaned. "I'm sick."

He certainly looked it. "Did you go on sick call this morning?" I asked, knowing already that he had and had been sent back to duty, with no signs of any illness. And that the same had happened the day before. And the day before that.

"Oh, Lieutenant, they just don't know how sick I am," he whined. "They just don't believe me."

"Have you taken your salt tablets? Have you been drinking your water?" He obviously had; both his canteens were empty.

Boggs just lay there and groaned, waiting for someone, something, to end his misery, though he clearly had no idea what that should be. The soldiers around him all rolled their eyes and looked away. It was clear he hadn't any friends to back him up. Everyone who knew him was fed up with Boggs, and nobody knew how to help him, even if they wanted to -- which none of them did.

Here we were, nearly halfway through the hike, nearing the top of the mountain. There was only one thing left to do. I called out, "Saddle up," handed my carbine and pack to my platoon sergeant, lifted Boggs off the ground, slung him over my shoulder, and set off up the hill.

For a slight man, he was surprisingly heavy. I was 21 years old, not long out of six months of rigorous training at Officer Candidate School in Georgia, and in fairly good physical shape, but I found it hard to keep this soggy, uncooperative burden in place on my back. Furthermore, he stank -- of sweat, of urine, of who knew what. And he wouldn't stop groaning. Or sweating. At least he wasn't wetting his pants anymore. I hoped.

Half an hour later we reached the peak -- a flat area with a lookout tower. I called a halt for lunch, dropped my sorry burden to the ground, and sought a nonexistent breeze to cool me off. Boggs lay groaning piteously.

The troops broke out their K rations (this was long before MREs; thanks to an overenthusiastic regimental S-4's insistence on supply economy, we were issued 10-year-old World War II surplus C and K rations when we were in the field, even though newer supplies were available). These were barely edible, but there was some faint sustenance left in the dry biscuits, tinned jam, and synthetic cheese. The cigarettes (two per packet, filterless Camels) were dry and stale; we all smoked them anyway). I saw to it that someone tried to get Boggs to eat something.

Then it was time to head down the mountain. I stood up and ordered the men to their feet. All but Boggs complied.

I looked down at the soggy, smelly heap and started to bend down to pick him up.

"I'll take him a while, Lieutenant," said a voice. It was Pvt. Jackson, the biggest, meanest-looking of the Harlem street toughs. He picked up Boggs like a sack of onions, effortlessly slung him over his shoulder, and headed down the trail. Fifteen minutes later another soldier stepped forward to take over; and so it went for the rest of the afternoon, until we were back at the barracks and I dismissed the troops. Boggs slipped off his latest porter's shoulders and, amazingly rejuvenated, almost trotted back to his quarters.

Obviously, there's a world of difference between the stories of Bowe Bergdahl, five years a prisoner of war, and Billy Boggs. And many years -- and wars -- have passed since that peacetime hike up Cerro Galera and back. But there is one constant between the two events: you just don't leave anyone behind. Neither a hero, or a man with an alleged habit of "walking away from his post," or a sorry, sweat-stained malingerer. You just bring them all back.