Finding Bergdahl: Inside the Search for the Last Prisoner of America’s Longest War
Private Bowe Bergdahl is the personification of America’s lack of purpose and clarity in its decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The narrative thus far is this: An introverted but adventurous 23-year-old neophyte soldier becomes disenchanted with the war he has eagerly signed up to fight. Then, within weeks, he wanders off base and ends up kidnapped by the Taliban. He becomes our singular POW, a soldier held against his will for five years—at some points in a cage. According to the kangaroo court of public opinion, though, he is a deserter.
The overall tone of the saga is overwhelmingly negative. Bergdahl is victimizer, responsible for the deaths of solders who never even set foot in Pakistan, the country in which the government and military knew he was being held. Yet this once idealistic, sensitive young man has emerged from five years in captivity in a foreign land to a cycle of social brutalization that has the potential to be even more crushing to his psyche. He has faced accusations that he is a traitor, deserter, Taliban-lover, turncoat, and perhaps even one ofthem.
The other side of this bifurcated stream of white-hot hate is caused by the anger of the American public suddenly discovering that five senior members of the inner circle of Taliban leader Mullah Omar were kidnapped and held for more than 13 years without charges in Guantánamo Bay and are now on their own recognizance in a luxury villa in Qatar. As we will learn, however, all five had surrendered or were working with the Americans before they were kidnapped. The concern is that they are “terrorists” and will be “recidivists.” The Taliban have never been labeled as a terrorist group, but there is clear evidence of men released from Gitmo returning to their violent ways.
Coiled inside, around, and throughout this story is the truth and, even more curiously, my involvement with some elements of that truth in the early days of Bergdahl’s disappearance. A truth obfuscated by a topic that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention or analysis as its byproducts: the actual criminal act committed by Bergdahl’s kidnappers.
In 2009 I was in Afghanistan and was involved in the search for Bergdahl from that first June morning he went missing. Tasked by a secretive military group to provide minute-by-minute information on his location using my network of local contacts, I quickly pinpointed Bergdahl’s whereabouts. We then predicted which routes Bergdahl would be taken along, knowing full well he would be sold to the Haqqanis in Miranshah, Pakistan, and whisked across the Pakistani border. Thankfully, the military’s Task Force was able to put a spy plane on target and monitor two phone calls made by Bergdahl’s kidnappers.
Yeon J. Yue
is an NYC-based photographer born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1979. After serving alongside US Air Force troops while in the Korean Air Force stationed at Osan Air Base, in the city of Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Yue became interested in documenting the lives of American military families. He came to America to attend Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and went on to receive an MFA in photography from Columbia University. We talked with him about the family album as an art form, life on military bases, and the sometimes sad, ironic beauty of soldiers’ domestic lives.
How the Military Collects Data on Millions of High School Students
Schools have long been used as military recruitment centers—as training grounds, in fact, with “hundreds of thousands of secondary students” undergoing military instruction on high school campuses well before they can legally consent to enlist.
With the help of schools across the country, the US military is exploiting a loophole in the law to gather personal information on millions of Americans.
Can You Spot the German Army Snipers in These Photos?
If you’ve ever played Call of Duty Online, you’ll know that snipers are very sneaky bastards. But that’s the point. They hide in the distance, camouflaged in their surroundings, and pick you off before you’ve even realised they’re there. In real life, these highly trained marksmen are capable of surviving alone in the wilderness for weeks on end. They diglittle holes—or “nests,” as they call them—and hang out there for a bit before popping up and putting a bullet through someone’s skull from more than a mile away.
Artist Simon Menner was recently granted permission to spend some time with the German Army and its snipers. During the two occasions he visited, he captured the soldiers’ remarkable ability to blend into their environment, producing images that appear to be simple landscape shots until you look close enough to spot the barrel of a gun.
This is a common theme in Menner’s work, which often focuses on information and the ways in which it can be restricted and revealed. Other similar works include minefields in Bosnia, and the more recent book Top Secret (Hatje Cantz, 2013), an extraordinary collection of both ridiculous and shocking images from the Stasi archives.
Have a look through the images and try to find the snipers. There are tips to help you out.
The US Military Recruited at San Francisco Gay Pride
This year, San Francisco’s Pride celebration fell on the absolute hottest fucking day of the year. Despite the sweltering heat, it was nice to be able to wear my Mickey Mouse tank top with a pair of running shorts without being called a fag for once. A loud, feverish energy dominated the Castro and Civic Center, calling all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and straight residents, along with thousands of out-of-towners into the streets to remind the world what this city is all about: tolerance, community, compassion, and queers. However, in recent weeks, the talk surrounding Pride has largely centered around the military. Bradley Manning was named honorary Grand Marshal of the parade, then quickly relieved of his duties; the Defense Of Marriage Act was struck down; and for the first time since the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the National Guard made plans to set up a recruitment booth in the heart of Pride.
Historically, the military has left as much of a stain on LGBTQ rights as any other oppressive majority in America (I’m looking at us, white males). But in the past two years, we’ve seen a rapid increase in the awareness of the military to the LGBTQ community, amidst an understandable animosity. Could they recruit from the very same group they’ve spent generations undermining? I wanted to find out, so I enlisted the help of my friend Misha Aziz, a particularly knowledgeable LGBTQ guy, to come to the parade with me and investigate.
'Magic Wand' Bomb Detector Creator Found Guilty of Fraud
The bomb detector that 56-year-old British millionaire James McCormick peddled sounded too good to be true. It could sense C-4 at a range of 600 yards. And it could be programmed to root out other contraband, too. The pistol-sized device’s simple metal antenna would magically point to where explosives, ivory, even $100 bills were hidden. Authorities in countries like Georgia, Romania, Niger, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, where McCormick was able to sell the detector, could, with a flick of the wrist, stop smuggling, organized crime, and deadly terrorist attacks.
Guess what? McCormick was full of shit. His device, dubbed the ADE-651, was bogus. Earlier incarnations of the detector, produced under the brand name ATSC, were based on $20 novelty golf ball detectors, the kind of plastic gag gift you’d give your argyle-wearing uncle whose slice off the tee is worse than he’d ever admit.
Sadly, it turns out the joke was on the Iraqi people. McGormick sold over 6,000 of these “detectors” to Iraqi government officials (after bribing them) to the tune of over $45,000 PER DETECTOR. And they were used at checkpoints throughout the country—actually scanning vehicles for explosives during the height of the insurgency that would see an average of 30 attacks a day.
“They hid the guns when they saw an army helicopter,” the interpreter says. “They say they need the guns to protect the remaining tower. They knew we’d take their guns if they told us they had them. They are sorry for this. They want to know if they can keep the IED and show it to their employer.”
“What the fuck kind of question is that?” the lieutenant says. “No they fucking can’t keep it.”
KILLING UP CLOSE -
THE DEATH OF WILLIAM WOLD
Below is an excerpt of TheThings They Cannot Say’s opening chapter, which chronicles the tragic demise of Marine William Wold. Kevin Sites first interviewed William while covering the Iraq war in 2004, only minutes after the 21-year-old corporal and his fire team gunned down six insurgents inside a mosque in Fallujah. Back then, William was wired for combat, calloused from killing and watching friends die. This excerpt picks up with William’s story seven years after meeting Kevin in Iraq and explains how the decorated Marine’s life was irreparably broken by the things he saw and did in the name of his country.
We’ve paired the text with photos from artist Nina Berman’s Purple Hearts series, which is comprised of portraits and interviews with American soldiers who were seriously wounded in the Iraq War, focusing on their struggle to find identity and purpose after returning home. For more information about the project, visitNoorImages.com.
William Wold seemed fine initially when he came home from Iraq, according to his mother, Sandi Wold, when I speak to her by telephone seven years after my conversation with her son in Fallujah. Wold had begged his mother to sign a parental-approval form when he wanted to join the Marines at 17, taking extra online classes to graduate a year early in order to do so. But after four years of service, he had had enough.
“They were going to promote him to sergeant, but he didn’t want to reenlist. He just wanted to be normal,” she says, echoing his own words from our videotaped interview. His much-anticipated separation from the Marine Corps would come in March 2004, but in the interim, she had promised to treat him and a couple of Marine buddies to a trip to Las Vegas as a coming-home present. She and her second husband, John Wold (William’s stepfather, whose last name William took), met the three Marines at the MGM Grand and got them adjoining rooms next to their own. Sandi was elated to see her son home safe and in one piece, and she wanted to see him leave the war in Iraq behind as quickly as possible.
“There’s no way I can show you how much I appreciate your willingness to die for me,” she remembers telling the three. But she tried her best anyway, going so far as to hire in-room strippers for them through an ad in the Yellow Pages.
“They talked me into buying them suits and renting a stretch limo. These guys show up and they go out partying that night, these guys are pimped out, I’m spending so much money it’s stupid,” she says, laughing at the memory. “Those Marines swam down some drinks, just the three of them. The hotel called my room—‘Do these Marines belong to you?’—as they’re stumbling down the hallways.”
When the strippers show up at the Marines’ room, Sandi says the sound of partying was like its own war zone. Then around midnight there’s a loud banging on the adjoining door.
“The door swings open and it’s Silly Billy, drunk and laughing, and he introduces us to them [the strippers]… I could’ve gone a lifetime without meeting them,” Sandi says.
“He says, ‘Mom, I’m going to need an extra $1,200.’ ‘Dude,’” she remembers telling him, “‘you gotta be fucking shitting me.’ But I’m counting the money out, he’s dancing around, happy as can be.”
The whole trip, she says, was indicative of the closeness of their relationship. He would always stay in touch with his mom even while he was in Iraq.
“He would hang out with the snipers at night,” Sandi says, “because they always had satellite phones, and he would make sure to try and call me almost every week. It would just be, ‘Hey, I’m fine, can’t talk long, love you. Bye.’”
“He was through and through a mama’s boy. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t share with me,” she says. “Sometimes I had to tell him I just don’t want to know.”
But Sandi says she began to sense something was wrong after William made a trip back East to see a woman he had met while doing presidential-protection duty at Camp David. He had called her his fiancée and said he planned to marry her, but the relationship ended after his visit.
“He flies back there and doesn’t last 24 hours,” Sandi says. “He lost it. He calls me and tells me to find him a flight home. ‘I can’t close my eyes, I can’t sleep,’ he tells me, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ I think he knew he was so unstable he was going to end up hurting her.”
The extent of his post-traumatic stress became clear to Sandi that summer after his discharge.
Like Vietnam All Over Again
Over the last 50 years war reenactment has gone from something guys at the Elks Club did on the weekend to get away from their wives to a full-blown obsession among history buffs with enough free time to make the experience as true to life as possible. Along with the increased intensity has come more demand for variety. The Vietnam War has typically been forbidden territory, but reenactment groups around the country have begun collecting their rice hats and period-appropriate M16s for pretend skirmishes with fake Viet Cong.
Thomas Morton embeds with the Virginia-Carolina Military History Association as they embark on their first tour through Vietnam… in North Carolina. WATCH IT HERE