Like many of you, I have been following with rapt attention the story of US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release from five years of Taliban captivity in exchange for five Afghan detainees from Guantanamo Bay. In particular, I am drawn to the multiplicity of reactions from all corners of the political spectrum. There are those who support the decision of President Obama and his advisors for making a quick decision in the face of evidence that pointed to a rapid decline in Sgt. Bergdahl’s health – while others are critical due to the fact that US law states that congress must be notified in advance of a prisoner exchange.
Others are focusing on the fact that Bergdahl’s capture 5 years ago was preceded by what appears to have been an act of disobedience. Many reports state that he had previously expressed concern about the Afghan war. He left his post and walked into the hands of his captors. Some are calling his actions desertion. They blame him for placing other soldiers’ lives in danger – especially those who were sent to rescue him after he was discovered missing[i].
Still others question whether the release of five dangerous terrorists was a fair trade for the release of one POW. Add to this the fact that he may have broken a sacred code of military conduct prior to his imprisonment and the negative rhetoric only increases.
As a Rabbi, a Jew and a Zionist, I cannot help but compare this situation to that which the State of Israel faces on a daily basis. How many times have the leaders of the Israeli Government and the Israel Defense Forces found themselves in the difficult position of having to release convicted murderers in exchange for the lives – or even the dead bodies – of Israeli soldiers? When Gilad Shalit was freed after 5 years of captivity, the Israeli Government released 1,027 prisoners who were directly responsible for the deaths of over 569 Israelis[ii]. The policies expressed by President Obama and his cabinet reaffirm a shared principle with the State of Israel that not one soldier will ever be left behind.
Most of us have never met Sgt. Bergdahl. But we can understand the pain of his parents and family as they waited for five tortuous years to hear some positive news about their son. In Israel, there is no family that has not been touched by the reality of war. The anguish of Gilad Shalit’s parents was shared by an entire nation. While the decision to free him in exchange for over a thousand murderous terrorists was controversial – everyone understood that there was no other way.
Another concern I have about this unfolding story is in regards to the many Ad Hominum attacks that have been levied on Sgt. Bergdahl. If, as some claim, he deserted his post, why did he do so? Was it an act of political defiance or the result of an emotional breakdown? What was his mental state in Afghanistan? Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that he was a broken man – a soldier who could no longer fight – whose repeated exposure to the horror of war and the constant fear that it instilled in him caused him to act irrationally. Does this mean that he deserves to be abused by others in the court of public opinion?
I do not know the current physical or mental state of Sgt. Bergdahl or what he experienced five years ago when he walked into the hands of the enemy. I cannot imagine what he must have endured in captivity. I pray that he will find a path toward a renewal of body and spirit and that he will be provided with the best care possible. And yet, there are many other Military Veterans who walk the streets of our cities and towns and who, effectively, are still on the battlefield. They relive their experiences on a daily basis. We see their haunted eyes on the street corners as they beg for change and a modicum of compassion. The recent scandal revolving around the Veteran’s Administration has shown us that access to quality health care – whether for mental or physical ailments – is scandalously lacking in many of our VA facilities. Unless and until mental illness is perceived as a condition that befits compassion, not condemnation, action and not alienation, our nation is not living up to its commitment to honor and take care of those brave men and women who risked their lives so that we could live in freedom.
But, of course, Veterans are not the only ones who lack access to basic mental healthcare. The stigma attached to mental illness is a main reason that it occupies such a lowly place on the priorities of both Federal and State legislatures.
I write this article the day before the Festival of Shavuot. In a few hours, we will gather together and give thanks for the gift of Torah. Shavuot teaches us to value learning. The revelation at Mt Sinai taught us an entirely new way to view the world around us. Torah opens our eyes to new truths every day. May we never stop learning – may we never stop growing and may there soon come a time when we will be able to see the Divine Spark implanted within every human being. Welcome home Sgt. Bergdahl! You, like every one of us, are a gift from God.
Chag Sameach – Shavuot, 5774