WASHINGTON -- The forceful backlash to the Obama administration's deal to return Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from captivity has placed prisoner-of-war advocacy groups in a fraught and politically delicate situation.
As a matter of personal sentiment and professional policy, officials with these groups praised the return of the lone American POW left in Afghanistan. But several were also critical of the contours of the deal and worried it might set a bad precedent.
These contradictory reactions have encouraged many organizations and advocates to keep a low profile even as a hyperkinetic political debate rages over Bergdahl's release after five years in captivity. Several officials declined to comment for this article; others would offer only the barest of reactions.
"We are glad that he was returned, but that is as far as we go with that," said Rolling Thunder national spokeswoman Nancy Regg. "Our mission is to have them returned. As far as the rest of it goes, that is really not our mission."
But there is also growing evidence that the emotional response to the Bergdahl debate has spread in ways that have made these groups uncomfortable. Ann Mills-Griffiths, chairwoman of the board of The National League of POW/MIA Families, said her organization has received “hostile emails and inquires” from people accusing them of “supporting a deserter or a traitor” simply because the group's insignia is often seen in the news in relation to Bergdahl.
Others seemed worried that the blowback to President Barack Obama’s decision could make him and his successors hesitant when the next opportunity to bring back a POW presents itself.
“I’m worried, quite honestly,” said Sgt. Les Brown, director of the POW MIA Elko Awareness Association and the Northern Nevada state coordinator for The National League of POW/MIA Families. “If this whole situation with Bergdahl makes them gun-shy in returning a live POW or the remains of a POW, that is wrong, absolutely wrong in my opinion. That is not the goal here. The goal is to bring them home.”
Around the world, there are more than 83,000 U.S. personnel unaccounted for, according to the Pentagon’s Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office. The vast majority of those, roughly 73,500, fought in World War II. Another 8,000 or so are from the Korean War, 1,642 from the Vietnam War and 126 from the Cold War. Recent conflicts, for a variety of reasons touched on by The Atlantic, have not produced many prisoners of war or personnel missing in action. There are just six from the Iraq War, three of whom are contractors.
Over the past five decades, a network has formed of advocacy groups committed to securing the return of these personnel or their remains and to working closely with the families of those affected. Washington, D.C., gets a close-up look at this on a yearly basis when Rolling Thunder hosts its Memorial Day demonstration, a crew of veterans on motorcycles who draw attention to veterans issues and the POW/MIA cause.
Victories in this world happen irregularly. At the National League of POW/MIA Families yearly meeting, officials read the names of people accounted for and returned from the Vietnam War. This year, only four names were listed –- "the smallest number I could remember," Mills-Griffiths said.
And so, when a POW is returned, it is cause for celebration.
But the case of Bergdahl has proved complicated. Leaders in the advocacy community are worried the exchange for five senior Taliban officials will motivate terrorist organizations to capture soldiers or U.S. citizens and hold them for ransom.
“The inclinations are good and that is a positive thing to want to do,” Mills-Griffiths said. “At the same time, we clearly have the same concerns as other Americans, which is does it set a precedent and does it cause the ante to go up.”
Because of this concern, some advocates believe that the White House should have considered other means to extract Bergdahl. Patricia Hopper, the chairwoman of the board of directors for Task Force Omega Inc., suggested a military rescue mission would have been a better option to pursue.
“I believe in my heart that President Obama did not necessarily think this through completely. Speaking for me as a POW/MIA family member from Vietnam, it is not, in my opinion, the best deal out there,” she said, speaking of the one the administration cut. “If they were negotiating for him, they knew where he was. Why not conduct a rescue raid or an extraction? Why not negotiate a different deal then they did, one that would not necessarily set these five ranking, hardcore Taliban free?”
Hopper pointed out, without prompting, that she had the benefit of hindsight. An Obama administration official told The Huffington Post earlier this week that a military rescue mission had, indeed, been considered. But it was deemed too risky for two reasons: It would have endangered U.S. military personnel, and there was no guarantee they could have gotten Bergdahl back alive.
Regardless of the disagreement over the methods, the POW/MIA community appears unified in the belief that the public and the media need to reserve judgment about Bergdahl's service, in the wake of reports that he might have deserted the military.
“Jumping the gun on this is entirely premature,” said Mills-Griffiths, noting that there will be plenty of time for a military or congressional investigation, if one is appropriate.
"I think we need to get a grip on everything that is going on right now and keep in mind that we got a prisoner of war. That's phenomenal in itself," Hopper said. "Now we need to wait until the system, the military system of justice, works. We need to let Bowe speak for himself. Right now, all of us are just spectators in the situation."