National media and congressmen have unleashed withering condemnation of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl before the facts in his case have been established. Compassion for one of our wounded warriors has been submerged beneath a wave of criticism regarding the circumstances of his recent release from captivity and why he was captured in the first place.
Bergdahl was 23 when he walked away from his Afghanistan base and was captured by Taliban fighters in June 2009. He was released on May 14 in exchange for five prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. Bergdahl has been tried and convicted in the media-driven court of public opinion. The circumstances of his release have been denounced by a number of congressmen and commentators. A timeout is needed so facts can be assembled.
Bergdahl’s medical and psychological evaluations must be carefully performed. Doctor-patient confidentiality must be respected. The health and welfare of this fellow American must be the primary concern for now. The circumstances of his capture and subsequent events can be addressed only when his health is restored.
My first contact with a former prisoner of war occurred in Oxford, England, where I became acquainted with Fred Wappner, a staff member at my college. He had been captured in World War II at Dunkirk, one of the British soldiers left behind to hold the perimeter against Nazi forces. He spent five years in captivity. Tuberculosis contracted during internment would resurface years later. He chose to treat his POW years as if they did not exist. He devoted his post-war energies to his family and his job.
During my military service, a group of soldiers released by their North Vietnamese captors were sent to our hospital for evaluation and extensive debriefing. In my limited contact with these men, they seemed constantly dazed and distracted. I was not privy to their psychological evaluations or debriefing.
During my years of civilian practice, I was involved for several years in the care of a former soldier who had been a POW for almost a year in Germany during WW II. His health remained frail. From time to time he volunteered insights into his captivity. Fear and malnutrition were constants. He suffered recurrent nightmares related to his ordeal and had an abiding fear of darkness.
Another patient, a Jewish lady from Lithuania, had been held and brutalized in a Nazi concentration camp. She fought valiantly against recurring bouts of severe depression. Flashbacks to former horrors could never be blotted out. Her wounds could be endured, not healed.
Heidi Kraft in her memoir “Rule #2: Lessons I Learned in a Combat Hospital,” provides valuable insights into the stresses affecting our military men and women in the post-9/11 wars. Kraft, a lieutenant commander in the Navy, is a clinical psychologist who served in Iraq in 2004. Her narrative personalizes the psychological toll of continual warfare on the Marines who were her patients.
Men fought while medicated with potent drugs for depression and anxiety. Her patients included medical staff, traumatized by the volume and severity of wounds they treated. Regular access to mental health professionals was very limited for men and women in the fields of battle. Kraft dealt with the invisible wounds.
“Redeployment,” a collection of short stories by Marine veteran Phil Klay, provides further comprehension of the impact on warriors and civilians of their time in the Iraqi war zones. Klay’s narrative spells out in stark, upsetting terms the human costs of our battles.
Congressmen and pundits who have not served in combat zones should read both books while giving Bergdahl time to recover from his ordeal. Only then should a respectful and sensitive inquiry, freed of political grandstanding, be conducted by military officials. Congressional hearings can wait as well.
Contact Clif Cleaveland at email@example.com.