Last week, the Bowe Bergdahl saga came to an end and many of us watched it with great interest.
One of those people was Tom Mulhall, a 50-year-old Harris County resident who owns Chattahoochee Paddle Company in Phenix City. Mulhall was a Columbus Police officer for eight years before resigning to take a position as an analyst for the FBI. An Army Reservist, Mulhall left the FBI and went active duty for about 10 years beginning in 2000.
When Bergdahl made the news again last week, Mulhall was one of the first Americans to understand the gravity of the situation. Mulhall was a major in the 82nd Airborne Joint Operations Center in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009.
That day, Bergdahl, then a U.S. Army private first class serving in Afghanistan, walked off his post and into a nearby village. He spent nearly five years in captivity, being held by the Taliban and then released only when a deal was made by then President Obama to swap him for five detainees at Guantanamo Bay in 2014. This month, Bergdhal received a dishonorable discharge and will avoid time in a military prison.
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Mulhall, who has long since retired, remembers the first time he heard Bergdahl’s name. It was in the command center and he was in a chair reserved for one of the generals.
“One of the liaisons for one of the brigades came up and said, ‘Look, we got a guy who’s missing,’” Mulhall said this week during an interview in a downtown coffee shop.
That triggered one hell of a manhunt and a chapter in U.S. history that Mulhall viewed from the front row.
“In that first couple of days, there was operation after operation after operation,” Mulhull said. “We were right behind him for days. We were going where he was. If you wanted to die, and you were in the Taliban, the quickest thing you could have done was invite Bowe Bergdahl into your home to be held for a couple of hours.”
But after Bergdahl went missing, six U.S. soldiers from his unit were killed. A lot of the resentment against Bergdahl stems from that fact.
Mulhall has a little different way of looking at it.
“We were killing folks,” Mulhall said. “No one gives him credit for that. If you are going to blame him for the deaths, you should give him credit for the kills.”
Time and again, U.S. forces got close to finding Bergdahl, Mulhall said.
“There were a lot of missed opportunities there,” he said. “It was a foot race to see if we could get him before the Taliban got him that first day. If we had gotten him back that first day, you would have never known who he was. The talk of jail time, like, forget it. He would have gotten two weeks in brig and a dishonorable discharge.”
But that’s not how it played out. Bowe Bergdahl became a household name, the definition of what you should not be if you are an American soldier.
Mulhall sees what became a very complex situation in far simpler terms that sound a little strange coming from a man who is very conservative in many of his views.
“I just think of a dumb kid — a really dumb kid who made a really stupid mistake,” Mulhall said. “I think one of two things happened: either he broke from the stress or he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol when he walked off. Or the third, he could be extremely stupid. When it comes down to it, he was a PFC. He was just a kid.”
When you work in a command center, you see young soldiers make bad decisions, Mulhall said.
“You deal with stupid crap all the time,” Mulhall said. “And stupid kids do stupid things. You don’t hear about it back home very often. ... This was just one stupid thing and it just ballooned. When things like that happen, we are able to nip it in the bud before it becomes a national problem.”
Not this time.
By the time the military justice was handed down a week ago, Mulhall was OK with how it ended.
“I never expected Bowe Bergdahl to come back alive,” Mulhall said. “I always thought he was going to die. I felt like he did his part. ... “
Mulhall then took an exaggerated pause and sighed before finishing his thought.
“We would have never known who some of these (bad) guys were without the intel,” Mulhall said. “Think about the lives he might have saved because we found out who these guys were. He may have saved lives.”