Cheryl Brandes wants answers about the death of her son, Genoa native Army Pfc. Matthew Martinek, who she says was killed in an ambush while searching for missing Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Martinek, 20, was one of two soldiers who died after an attack in Afghanistan's Paktika province on Sept. 4, 2009. Taliban forces ambushed their vehicle with an improvised explosive device, then attacked with a rocket-propelled grenade and small-arms fire, the U.S. Department of Defense has said.
Critics say as many as six soldiers killed in Afghanistan's eastern Paktika province in August and September were searching for Bergdahl.
Bargdahl's release on Saturday in exchange for five high-ranking Taliban officials, who had been in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has sparked a number of questions for Brandes, who moved to California after Martinek died.
“Why were we not told?” Brandes said. “Why was there a disclosure signed by our soldiers not to talk about this? Trying to think about all the questions right now is impossible.”
Martinek, who grew up in Genoa and moved to Bartlett after his freshman year at Genoa-Kingston High School, died at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany a week after the attack. He had moved back to DeKalb after graduating high school and briefly attended Northern Illinois University before enlisting.
Brandes said her family heard rumblings from fellow soldiers in 2012 that Martinek and 2nd Lt. Darryn Andrews, 34, of Dallas, were killed while on a mission to search for Bergdahl.
“There were whispers from some of the soldiers that they had been looking for Bergdahl,” Brandes said. “At the time it was just a rumor, but I thought to myself if [Bergdahl] does come back alive, he will have some questions to answer.”
Brandes said she's been numb since she saw her son's picture connected with news stories about Bergdahl after Bergdahl's release.
“This has been really hard to take,” Brandes said. “It's opened up a wound that had a soft shell on it to begin with.”
Martinek and Andrews were deployed with 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. Then-Pfc. Bergdahl was, too, before he was separated from his unit in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in June 2009, before spending five years in captivity by the Taliban.
Those who served with Bergdahl say he left his gear behind and walked away one night.
Former members of Bergdahl's platoon spoke to The Associated Press on Tuesday about Bergdahl's disappearance, his freedom and how he should be treated now that he's out. The interviews were facilitated by a public relations firm, Capitol Media Partners, co-owned by Republican strategist Richard Grenell. All said Bergdahl should be investigated for desertion. Army Chief of Staff Gen. John McHugh said Tuesday that after Bergdahl has recovered, the Army will "review" the circumstances of his disappearance.
Evan Buetow, 27, who was a sergeant in the platoon, said he feels strongly that Bergdahl should face trial for desertion, but he said it is less clear that he should be blamed for the deaths of all soldiers killed during months of trying to find him.
Buetow said he knows of at least one death on an intelligence-directed infantry patrol to a village in search of Bergdahl. More broadly, the mission of his entire unit changed after Bergdahl's disappearance because it began to incorporate efforts to pursue clues to his whereabouts.
"Those soldiers who died on those missions, they would not have been where they were ... if Bergdahl had never walked away," he said. "At the same time I do believe it is somewhat unfair for people to say, 'It is Bergdahl's fault that these people are dead.' I think that's a little harsh."
Ken Luccioni, Matthew Martinek's stepfather, wants a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding his stepson's death completed and to see Bergdahl held responsible. Luccioni described his stepson as a kind and helpful person who would have been the first to volunteer to search for Bergdahl.
“We can't change history, but our biggest concern is not letting this get swept under the rug,” Luccioni said.
Luccioni also is not happy with the government's decision to release five prisoners from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bergdahl's freedom because of the many people who might have died for their capture. The men, including one who had direct ties to Osama bin Laden, have been transferred to Qatar, where they will be monitored for a year.
Martinek's uncle, Mark Martinek Sr., of Genoa, said more than anything, he wants the truth to come out about his nephew's death.
“I would like to think he didn't die in vain,” Mark Martinek said. “I hate to think he died for something that wasn't his country.”
• The Associated Press contributed to this story.