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Olson: Grieving families caught in spinning controversy

Published: Friday, June 6, 2014 11:40 p.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, June 9, 2014 8:15 a.m. CDT

The controversy surrounding the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from captivity in Afghanistan has taken on all the spin of a late-spring twister.

Among the people swept up in it are the loved ones of soldiers who died years ago, including those of Pfc. Matthew Martinek, who spent his formative years in Genoa and moved back to DeKalb before enlisting in the Army. Shortly after Bergdahl’s release in exchange for five Taliban officials a week ago, reports surfaced that Martinek was on a mission searching for Bergdahl when he suffered the injuries that ultimately led to his death.

“Why were we not told?” asked Cheryl Brandes, Martinek’s mother, told Daily Chronicle reporter Katie Dahlstrom in a story this week. “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.”

By all accounts, Martinek joined the Army with good intentions. They said he wanted to help people. He wound up in the same military unit as Bergdahl, was deployed to Afghanistan in March 2009, and was in the country when Bergdahl went missing.

Martinek died after an ambush in Paktika province in Afghanistan in September, 2009. He was one of six soldiers wounded that day. There is a plaque in his honor outside Genoa-Kingston Middle School.

Martinek’s death has been out of the headlines for years, and the family has largely been left alone to grieve. This story, as Brandes said this week, reopens a painful wound.  

If you’ve ever suffered the untimely death of someone dear to you, you know the pain of it never really goes away. Talking about it or thinking about it always brings a tinge of regret for the lost years, for family members they never met, things they never got to do. It hurts.

This week, in the aftermath of Bergdahl’s release, The Martinek family’s tragedy is in the national headlines. They, along with other families of service members who were killed about that time have to revisit those tragedies against the backdrop of national controversy, and question whether the military was truthful with them about the sacrifice of their loved ones.

Family members said they found out about Martinek’s connection to Bergdahl reading news reports.

Some people seem bent on using the loss of these soldiers for political gain, something that is aggravating in its baseness.

Members of Bergdahl’s platoon, including his squad leader, were rounded up by a PR firm with ties to top Republicans, have said that Bergdahl is a deserter, and some allege he was actively seeking out the Taliban.

Some also say that several people were killed while searching for Bergdahl. How many? Six, eight, 12, 14, anyone who was killed in that area after his disappearance. It depends on who you believe, if you believe it at all, bearing in mind that these are rank-and-file soldiers making the claims, not investigators, and some of their conclusions are based on second- and third-hand information.

But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Soldiers may well have been searching for Bergdahl when they were killed, even though their families were told that they were simply “on patrol” or looking for a high-value Taliban target?

No official source has confirmed that lives were lost in the search, although it seems probable that they were constantly on the lookout for him.

With the spin cycle we’ve already been put through with this story, and the inaccurate statements that have been made by some official sources, it’s no wonder people are angry.

It’s hard to know just what really did happen and why. The families who lost loved ones do deserve to know more, including from Bergdahl himself.

Working backward: We should agree on the principle that Bergdahl needed to come home.

He could not be left in the hands of the Taliban, whose fighters had held him captive for five years. Those who say “let him rot” should tell that to someone with one of those POW-MIA flags flying in their front yard. 

It doesn’t matter why he left or what he thought about the war. He is an American soldier, and if he’s guilty of desertion – or worse – we should be the ones to punish him, not the Taliban.

But we should also keep in mind that this man had never been interviewed about his side of the story, how he left his gear behind and disappeared five years ago.

In an in-depth account of the situation written by the late Michael Hastings for Rolling Stone magazine in 2012, Bergdahl was portrayed as an idealist with great confidence in his survival skills, who talked of just wandering off into the mountains of Pakistan if the deployment was “lame.”

But the public has not heard Bergdahl’s explanation from his own mouth – without being under duress – for what happened. “Letting him rot” would have been tantamount to trying him in absentia and sentencing him to captivity and likely death in Afghanistan.

Upholding the principle of securing Bergdahl’s release doesn’t mean it was done properly. President Barack Obama apparently didn’t notify Congress of the plan in advance as required, although it had been discussed for some time.

Maybe Obama knew that people would immediately use the situation for political gain anyway, saying we were negotiating with terrorists or releasing people who would attack us. The people released have been held as prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for about 12 years as “indefinite prisoners” without any kind of trial, but the ethics of that are a whole other column.

The Obama administration now says it didn’t give notice of the plan because the Taliban threatened to kill Bergdahl if the arrangement was made public, and apparently members of Congress couldn’t be trusted to keep such a secret. Of course, it’s difficult to verify that claim, which was only made several days after Bergdahl’s release.

But why did officials say Bergdahl had “served with honor and distinction” given what they knew about the accounts of his disappearance? And why have families including Martinek’s been dragged into this, without warning, five years later?

There isn’t a good answer. This story shouldn’t have unfolded this way, and it’s not fair to the soldiers’ families.

There are many other questions yet unanswered in this story, and it’s nuanced enough that there’s no solution that doesn’t feel like something’s been sacrificed.

That’s not even counting those such as Martinek, who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Now that Bergdahl is back with the Army, hopefully some real, untwisted truth will emerge.

Regrets: I was proud of the work we did on our “Made In DeKalb County” special section inserted into the weekend edition of the Daily Chronicle. If you missed it, you can also read it online at Daily-Chronicle.com.

Some people have voiced displeasure with the headline above the story about Opportunity House, which referenced how the nonprofit creates jobs for “disabled people.”

The headline should not have been cast in that way. The preferred construction in the United States is “people with disabilities.” This is to put people first, and emphasize that they are not defined by their disabilities, but rather the things that they do in spite of them.

We agree with this distinction, and it was a change I should have made. We did not mean to offend. As your editor, I apologize.

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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