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Colorado Springs veterans voice concern over deal to free POW Bergdahl

June 3, 2014 Updated: June 3, 2014 at 10:09 am
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They're happy that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is back in friendly hands after five years in apparent Taliban captivity, but some Pikes Peak region veterans say they're worried about the deal the U.S. cut in trading five prisoners to secure one soldier's freedom.

Bergdahl was freed Saturday after the Defense Department sent five Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar. Bergdahl was being treated at an American hospital in Germany on Monday, and the Pentagon said it is investigating how he fell into Taliban hands amid claims that he deserted while deployed in 2009.

Swapping prisoners with the Taliban irks retired Command Sgt. Maj. Terrance McWilliams.

"We violated our cardinal rule that we would never trade with our enemy," said McWilliams, who last served as Fort Carson's top enlisted soldier.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Ed Anderson, who heads the National Homeland Defense Foundation in Colorado Springs, voiced a similar concern.

"We have a stated policy and once again it appears we are moving away from what was a stated policy," Anderson said.

No law forbids the administration from cutting deals with the Taliban or other groups, but a tough line against trading with terrorist groups has been an American political staple for more than 30 years.

President Ronald Reagan rode to the White House in 1980 on a pledge amid the Iran hostage crisis that his administration wouldn't make deals with terrorist groups.

"I believe it is high time that the civilized countries of the world made it plain that there is no room worldwide for terrorism; there will be no negotiation with terrorists of any kind," he said in an October 1980 debate, according to a transcript from his presidential library.

Even the Reagan White House, though, wound up bending the rules with the arms-for-hostages deal that grew into the Iran Contra scandal.

Prisoner swaps were commonplace in earlier American wars. During the Cold War, captured spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers was traded in 1962 for a KGB colonel jailed in the United States on espionage charges.

But several veterans said working with enemies can hamper the work of deployed troops.

"Anytime you can get a U.S. service member back, that's a good thing," said state Rep. Mark Waller, a Colorado Springs Republican and an Air Force veteran. "The trade-off is how you go about doing it."

Colorado's Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall said Monday that the deal for Bergdahl should show soldiers that they won't be forgotten if captured.

"Sgt. Bergdahl's return is proof that our armed forces will always stand by their ironclad promise to leave no one behind, no matter the circumstances," Udall said in a statement. "As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I expect a full accounting of the exchange. In the meantime, every American service member should rest absolutely assured that, should they fall into enemy hands, their country will not rest until they are home."

McWilliams said he's concerned that more American troops could be targeted for capture because Taliban fighters believe that future deals are possible. And releasing enemy prisoners can put them back on the battlefield, he said.

"Taliban activity will probably increase with attacks against our military interests because of the five boneheads we released," he said.

Another concern for some is whether Bergdahl intentionally left a U.S. base, effectively deserting.

Retired Army 1st Sgt. Ed Beck of Colorado Springs spent five months in German captivity after he was taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.

"It's kind of hairy how he (Bergdahl) got captured," Beck said. "I read he wandered away and didn't have his weapon. It gives you something to doubt."

Beck wonders whether Bergdahl kept true to what he saw as top priorities of an American prisoner: Don't give information to aid the enemy and always try to escape.

"They kept on interrogating me all the damn time," Beck said.

In April 1945, Beck used wire cutters to cut through a prison camp fence and made his way to advancing American forces.

McWilliams said Bergdahl's conduct merits investigation.

Anderson said another result of the Bergdahl case is the politicizing of war prisoners. "The whole issue of repatriating a POW is now absolutely completely blinded by the political repercussions of what happened."

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