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Veterans Community 'Completely Furious' Over Bergdahl Sentence

Nov 3, 2017
Originally published on November 3, 2017 6:41 pm

NPR's Ari Shapiro checks in with Jon Thurman, one of Bowe Bergdahl's company-mates, about Bergdahl's sentencing on Friday. The Army sergeant walked off his base in 2009 and was captured by a Taliban affiliate, which triggered a manhunt that resulted in several seriously injured service members. He will receive a dishonorable discharge but no prison time.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We also wanted to get a veteran's reaction to the fact that Bowe Bergdahl's sentence for abandoning his post in 2009 includes no prison time, so we went back to Jon Thurman. He's a former paratrooper who was serving in Afghanistan in the same company as Bergdahl at the time Bergdahl disappeared.

JON THURMAN: I think I can speak not only for myself and the men and women of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. We're all a little disappointed that he's not going to see prison time. But a dishonorable discharge is a pretty tough sentence as it is.

SHAPIRO: For those of us who are not in the military, elaborate on why that is a tough sentence.

THURMAN: From when we were in basic training, obviously, they'd talk a lot about, like, what can happen if you screw something up and - or if you do the wrong thing is kind of the ethos of the infantry. Do the right thing. Don't be that guy. A dishonorable discharge is really going to limit the rest of his life. It's going to be pretty tough to get a job. It's going to be pretty tough to enroll in a university. It's going to be pretty tough to have access to medical benefits, at least those that are provided by the VA. The other thing is, you know, people know his face. And people know who he is. It's going to be a pretty tough go out in public if people recognize him. People aren't going to be too hyped on that idea.

SHAPIRO: When he testified, he broke down on the witness stand and begged for forgiveness. Do you forgive him for deserting his post? Do you accept his apology?

THURMAN: I don't. You know, when all of us deploy to combat, you know, politics kind of go out the window when we eventually figure out that we're not really fighting for Afghanistan or for the freedom of the United States. We're just all fighting for each other. And to turn your back on that and betray us in that - the way that he did - can't really accept your apology ever.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about what you're hearing today from some of the other people who you served with, the conversations that are held.

THURMAN: Well, my phone has kind of been blowing up all morning, like, nonstop to where I had to put it on do not disturb mode. The vet community is furious. And I can say that with full confidence, that the vet community is completely furious. The vast majority of the people that are in my community of veterans wanted to see him face jail time. Again, going back to, OK, well, we get that you were imprisoned by the Taliban, but that was a consequence of your action. Now it's time to face the consequences of what you did against us and the United States. But, yeah, people are pretty pissed.

SHAPIRO: Some people who've watched this case closely say the military shares some responsibility here. Before Bowe Bergdahl went to Afghanistan, he was dismissed during Coast Guard basic training for psychological reasons. And still, despite established mental health issues, the Army sent him into a very dangerous area. Do you think the Army is at all accountable here?

THURMAN: No, I don't think the Army is accountable whatsoever. You know, when Bergdahl enlisted, the surges were starting to ramp up in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we needed more troops. And a lot of things were getting waived. He passed through quite a filter system, whether it was the recruiter or basic. You know, I've got friends that I served with that also have some mental issues, some of which I think were pre-existing and have sort of shown their faces more dramatically since being home. But when it all comes down to it, Ari, he still walked off under his own accord. He made it that far. And then he made that choice.

SHAPIRO: Jon Thurman, former paratrooper who served with Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan when Bergdahl abandoned his station, we appreciate your joining us again. Thanks a lot.

THURMAN: Hey, thanks, Ari.

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