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Historical perspective: Deserters or prisoners of war?

Vietnam era case similar to Bergdahl's; 2 men faced questions, doubts after release from captivity

POSTED: June 22, 2014 1:00 a.m.
/IntelCenter, File/Associated Press

This image made from video released by the Taliban and obtained by IntelCenter on Dec. 8, 2010, shows a man believed to be Bowe Bergdahl at left. Bergdahl, a U.S. Army soldier, went missing from his outpost in Afghanistan in June 2009. He was released from Taliban captivity May 31 as part of a negotiated deal in exchange for five enemy combatants held in the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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The recent return to U.S. military control of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is curiously similar to the case of another American serviceman who spent years either as a collaborator with, or a prisoner of, enemy forces before being released, that of Marine Pfc. Robert Garwood.

It was 35 years ago that Garwood emerged from the jungles of Vietnam after 14 years of either captivity or aiding and abetting the enemy, depending on whose version of the story is to be believed. The Bergdahl case is likely to become as confusing, complex and contradictory as was the Garwood case because only those two men know what really happened.

By all accounts Garwood was less-than-stellar Marine assigned as a driver to the 3rd Marine Division in Da Nang, South Vietnam, in 1965, the year the Marines began beefing up their presence in the country. The circumstances of his capture, like Bergdahl’s, are much in dispute.

In the book “Conversations With the Enemy: The Controversial Story of Vietnam POW Bobby Garwood,” authors Winston Groom (a Vietnam veteran who later wrote “Forrest Gump”) and Duncan Spencer rely heavily on interviews with Garwood for their account of his captivity. In those interviews Garwood claims he was captured after being ambushed while alone in his vehicle and wounded in a vicious gun battle with Viet Cong guerrillas, after which he was taken prisoner.

Official Marine Corps records indicate that subsequent patrols into the area where Garwood was captured found no evidence that there had been a firefight or that the vehicle he was driving had been torched as he later claimed. When Garwood did not return to base as scheduled, his command listed him as UA, or unauthorized absence, the designation given a Marine for the first 30 days of his absence before he is listed as a deserter. Despite these regulations, the Marine Corps carried Garwood as UA until mid-December 1965, when it changed his status to “presumed captured.”

Bergdahl’s status initially was listed by the bizarre acronym DUSTWUN, meaning Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown. He was not considered a POW by the U.S. government then, nor was he considered a POW when three days after his capture on June 30, 2009 a video emerged showing Bergdahl in Taliban hands. After the video his status was changed to “Missing-Captured,” which it remained until his release.

Bergdahl was considered a hostage of the Taliban because the U.S. did not recognize the group as a legitimate military force. The Pentagon and the Obama administration went to extraordinary measures to avoid using the term “prisoner of war” in reference to Bergdahl, even though by any measure of the Geneva Conventions’ General Provisions Article 4 that is exactly what he was. It was not until Bergdahl’s release that both President Barack Obama and outgoing White House press secretary Jay Carney referred to him as a POW.

Garwood was considered to be a POW by the U.S. military shortly after it was learned he was in enemy hands, although the Defense Intelligence Agency later referred to him as a “stay-behind.” That POW designation remained even after Americans who emerged from POW camps in North and South Vietnam in 1973 told tales of Garwood acting as a guard, carrying a weapon and on occasion assisting in the interrogation of other Americans. Those returnees seemed to indicate that Garwood was something more than a prisoner.

To what extent Bergdahl may have aided or abetted the enemy, or if he even did so, likely will not be known for some time. And even then what role he may have played will be greatly questioned, as was Garwood’s role with his captors.

Two years after Garwood returned home, he was found guilty in a general court-martial of collaborating with the enemy. He was not found guilty of desertion. He was given a dishonorable discharge, reduced in rank to private and forfeited all the pay and allowances he might have received for 14 years of captivity. He was not given any jail time.

The Garwood case is now largely forgotten, remembered only by those old enough to remember the Vietnam War and how unpopular it was. Bergdahl’s case is likely to resonate for much longer, not only because we are still fighting the nation’s longest war in Afghanistan, but because the nation’s attitude toward its fighting men and women has changed drastically since them. We honor them more, even as we expect more out of them physically, emotionally and ethically.

But as the Bergdahl case plays out in the months to come, it may once again redefine how we look at combat in undeclared wars and those who fight them, just as the Garwood case did more than 30 years ago.

Ron Martz is a former Marine who teaches journalism and military history at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega. He has been writing about America’s prisoners of war and missing in action since 1979.


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