On a June morning in 2009, an infantry platoon with the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division realized that one of its soldiers was missing from their small combat outpost in Paktika, Afghanistan. The soldier's name was Bowe Bergdahl, and the discovery quickly set off a sweeping rescue operation that ultimately cost the lives of several U.S. military personnel. Almost immediately, rumors began to swirl: Bergdahl had been abducted from the outpost by the Taliban under the cover of night; Bergdahl was snatched up after he lagged behind on a patrol; Bergdahl was disillusioned with the savage way his fellow soldiers treated the local population. Meanwhile, the men who served with Bergdahl in Afghanistan have maintained a much different story all along: Bergdahl intentionally deserted his platoon, and for selfish reasons.
Former U.S. Army Specialist Cody Full - then an infantryman serving in Bergdahl's fire team, who has since been honorably discharged - knew Bowe Bergdahl well. They had been roommates before the deployment back at Ft. Richardson, Alaska. In Afghanistan - before Bergdahl vanished - they were members of the same three-man fire team. In May 2014, after almost five years in Taliban captivity, Bergdahl was released in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detainees. Since then, Full has been one of the chief voices advocating for Bergdahl to be charged with desertion. On Wednesday, after nearly a year of deliberation, the Army decided to charge Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with both desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, a charge that carries a potential sentence of life in prison.
Maxim spoke with Cody Full to hear his side of the story. Here is the conversation in its entirety.
You deployed to Paktika Province with Bowe Bergdahl in 2009?
Yeah, in 2009. We did 2009 through '10. I was in his fire team, so we were in the same team, squad, platoon, company, the whole nine yards. I was his roommate, too.
Were you his fire team leader?
No, Evan (Sgt. Evan Buetow) was our fire team leader. We were short one man. Our platoon was short two guys, but our team was short so we just had Evan and then me as a grenadier and then Bergdahl was a SAW gunner and that was our team.
When you guys got to Afghanistan, what was your primary mission?
Observation missions, typical airborne infantry, you know, just standard stuff. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. We deployed February, but Bergdahl didn’t even get there until May because he had a staph infection. He was actually only in the country for like six weeks before he popped smoke.
Ok, so he shows up in May, and one of the stories goes that he starts getting disgruntled with the kind of missions that you guys are running…
Our platoon went to Omna, and they got ambushed in Omna. It was a pretty good ambush. I think two trucks got blown up. There was RPGs, RPK, small arms fire, the whole nine yards. People in his truck had said that he was pretty angry that he didn’t get to shoot because he was in the back of the truck. He wasn’t a gunner. From everybody that was in his vehicle when this happened, they said he was pretty upset he didn’t get to shoot during that ambush and ensuing fire fight.
We started doing the COIN [counter-insurgency] operations out there, and I guess he was like, ”Why are we not SEAL Team Six?” Well, because we’re not SEAL Team Six. We do our jobs. We get orders. We follow them. We do them to the best of our ability and then we come home. You know, I guess he was just displeased with that. I always thought that was kind of strange because, I don’t know the authenticity of the e-mails in that Rolling Stone article, but the e-mails that were released, what he was saying to his parents about what we should do, was what we were actually doing in real life. What he was saying that we were doing in the article - you know we were being savages and doing all this crazy stuff - we weren’t doing that at all. But that’s what he wanted to do in real life. That’s what he told everybody else. Then what he told his parents - like “Oh, we should help these people,” - that’s what we were doing in real life. It was weird to me when I read that. It was backwards, if that makes sense.
Was that kind of the general sentiment in the platoon? Did other guys want to get after it like that? Or did he kind of stand out with that mentality?
No. I mean, personally I would think there wasn’t a lot of that. Mainly it was just, we’re here in Afghanistan, we’re going to do what we’re told. We’re all E-4's, E-3's, you know, that’s the military. You follow orders. You do what you’re told. You know, just living the deployed life as an infantry man.
Was he a black sheep within the platoon?
I lived with him and he was kind of an introvert. He wasn’t a jerk or anything, not by any means. He was intelligent. The Army is a melting pot. You’ve got guys from New York, Texas, Louisiana, Delaware, white, black, Indian, Asian, Mormon, Baptist, Agnostic - so everybody’s different in a sense. I wouldn’t say…he wasn’t like crazy or anything like that at that point.
Was he getting smoked a lot? Was he ever hazed?
Uh uh, no. Our platoon, me and Bergdahl’s team leader was one of the best NCOs I ever served under. He treated you like a man, you know? We’re adults here. We’re going to do an adult job. There’s no time for games. If you make a mistake I’m going to show you how to fix it. Don’t do it again. I expect you to not do it again. We never got hazed. We never got smoked. I mean occasionally the whole platoon would have to do push-ups for an E-6 or E-7 because somebody didn’t sweep the floor. But he was never hazed, he was never smoked out of control. He was a pretty good soldier in garrison. There were some things that I always thought were out of character. Like something’s just a little bit off with this guy, but it was nothing until he disappeared that all the dots connected in an instant. I looked at the details and said “Man, he’s gone.” What’s left? We started going through his stuff and all his weapons and everything were there, and everything was there except for his compass.
It wasn’t a single event, where it was like you know…we had a guy walk off our outpost when I was in Afghanistan and we found him immediately, but he had just got scuffed up pretty bad for falling asleep on guard, and then he left. There wasn't a moment like that?
No, no, nothing like that. He never walked off or did any that. There’s so much misinformation out there. He never walked off at NTC [National Training Center] or anything like that. It’s been five years so I don’t remember if his guard shift was at five or six in the morning but it was right before dawn. I think he left after his shift or during his shift because the guy he was supposed to wake up, woke up and it was like daylight. He was like, "Holy shit, I never got woken up."
I know you mentioned the ambush, but were you guys getting hit a lot around the outpost?
Mainly just IED's. It wasn’t anything…you know, the military is a hard job. Being an infantryman is a hard job. Being in an airborne infantry is even harder. Deploying to a foreign country is a hard job, but at the same time, we’re not in a draft. Everybody volunteered. They know that with that job you’re going to deploy and you’re going to face combat. So everybody else didn’t desert. Everybody else served honorably. There’s no justification to me that he was justified in deserting. He mailed all his stuff home - when we were told we’re going out there for the last time - he mailed all his stuff home and then he walked off.
You guys were going to the outpost for the last time. He mails all his stuff home and then he disappears. Do you guys wake up, and everybody’s like "where’s Bergdahl," - what happens at that point?
We didn’t know about his stuff [getting mailed home] until after the fact when we got back. Operations kicked off and all of Afghanistan from JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] to the special cool guys in beards down to us stopped what they were doing and started looking for him for the next three months.
And you were part of those operations?
Yeah, everybody - literally everybody - in Afghanistan was looking for him. Drones, Rangers, SEALS, guys I don’t even know about were looking for him.
And guys lost their lives in search of him...
You can’t tell me that if you’re going to desert that you don’t think you’re going to put anybody at risk. You’re an American. What do we do as Americans? We’re going to get you. The only thing you can count on is we’re all in this together and if it comes to it, we’ll all die for each other. So you can’t tell me that you didn’t think, “Oh, I’m just going to walk off and nobody’s going to come and find me. Nobody’s going to look for me really hard. Nobody’s going to go to X on the map, but they wouldn’t have been at X, they would’ve been at Y if I didn’t put them in this danger.”
Some people think that he was lured off base and then abducted. When I first read that it didn’t make sense to me - how a soldier could be lured off base by anyone in the middle Afghanistan. How does that narrative register with you?
Well two things. The observational posts are very small. Perimeters are meant to keep people out, not keep people in. When you’re on patrol, you’re constantly looking around every two seconds, turning left and right making sure everybody is still there. The Taliban, Al Qaeda, whoever’s over there, they’re not built for force. It’s impossible for me to imagine that they tiptoed through the perimeter and nobody saw them, and then ninja’d this guy out of the small outpost without anybody seeing anything, and then they didn’t drop a grenade or bore somebody up on their way out. That was completely out of the realm of possibilities to me.
I think it’s hard for civilians who have never been in that situation to understand that. They think about it more in cinematic terms where things like that happen. For anyone who’s been over there it’s pretty unrealistic. So you’ve been one of the main voices saying he needs to be charged with desertion, and now he’s been charged with desertion, how do you want this to play out? People are going as far as to say the punishment for desertion should be death…
America hasn’t killed a guy for desertion since I think like the 1930's, so I think that’s an unrealistic expectation. I said it somewhere else, he doesn’t deserve an honorable discharge. He deserves a dishonorable discharge. He doesn’t deserve any of his rank. He deserves to be stripped to E-1. Nothing. He deserves to be a Private. He deserves no benefits. He deserves no back pay. He deserves a dishonorable discharge. Now, if they want to convict him of prison time, I’m not a judge and I have no idea. It’s not fair to the guys, and you know this, for the guys who go and serve multiple deployments for this country honorably. They’re battling PTSD, TBI, maybe they’re missing an arm, a leg, you know, and they have a few too many drinks, and I’m not condoning this behavior at all, but they have a few too many drinks and they drive home and they get popped for a DWI, and then they get a dishonorable discharge. How is that fair, this guy who served this country honorably, didn’t desert, paid a price for their buddies, made a mistake and they’re punished for that mistake. They don’t get an honorable discharge. They’re not entitled to the benefits that they earned, but he knowingly turned his back on America and on his American comrades. I don’t see that there’s any other way for that to go down.
How frustrating was it, during the time that he was gone when everyone was saying POW, knowing what you know and nobody really listening?
It’s very frustrating, but at the same time we all knew the truth. The military knew the truth. The facts haven’t changed in five years. When you have the Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen in 2009 tell you to your face, “Oh yeah we know he deserted we’re trying to get him back though.” Everybody knew in the military. It’s like the worst kept secret. The facts haven’t changed in five years and that’s the bottom line. The facts remain the same. The sworn statements remain the same, and that’s all I got.