It's a phrase many know to be true, but none know better the cost of honoring "no man left behind" than those who paid the price in blood to bring a lost soldier home.
For Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the cost of one man's safe return may have been greater than anyone could have expected. Deployed to Afghanistan with the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division out of Fort Richardson, Alaska, his regiment saw the loss of six men in the two months following his disappearance, as DUSTWUN (duty status-whereabouts unknown) protocols were initiated in an attempt to find him, according to Bergdahl's fellow soldiers.
In the early hours of June 30, 2009, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan was placed on high alert as the news of a missing soldier began to circulate. Search teams with tracking dogs, unmanned drones, and checkpoints were implemented, and soldiers in Bergdahl's battalion report many sleepless nights as every man worked to find him and bring him home safely.
"Once he came up missing, we did a big 30-day push, maybe longer, and it was every day all day," says Pfc. Ryan McNeely, a former infantryman with the 501st. "After the second or third week, guys were falling asleep driving or standing up, we were just go-go-go."
McNeely was just one of many soldiers wounded by increased IEDs and insurgent attacks in the area, which many serving in Afghanistan attributed to the sudden turn of tables between the local Taliban forces and American military. Another soldier wounded during the DUSTWUN operations says the concern for Bergdahl forced U.S. militant forces into a defensive position.
"[The Taliban] knew we were looking for him, knew we'd be heading in whatever direction we thought he might be," Spc. Joseph Cox, another 501st member, said in a phone interview Sunday. "This allowed them to plan, gave them the upper hand in setting traps for us, which obviously worked."
Officials in the U.S. and Afghanistan received evidence of Bergdahl’s health after an initial proof-of-life video surfaced on the Internet July 18, 2009, in which Bergdahl says he was captured while lagging behind the rest of his patrol on duty the night before he was discovered missing. Several more videos appeared in the months and years to follow, renewing the hope of his family that he would be returned to them.
For the families of others in the 501st, though, their grief was just beginning.
The 501st’s first casualties in the search were Pfc. Morris Walker and Staff Sgt. Clayton Bowen, who are listed by the Army as dying from “wounds sustained when an improvised explosive device detonated” near their vehicle near Dila on Aug. 18, 2009.
Little more than a week later, a mission at a medical unit near Sharana on Aug. 26 claimed the life of Staff Sgt. Kurt Curtiss, who was shot in the head by an insurgent when he entered a room. Soldiers with him claim the insurgent who killed Curtiss had information on Bergdahl’s whereabouts.
“There was no legitimate reason for him to be the one to kick down the door, being that he was the most senior ranking person in that stack,” recalls Spc. Sam Masamitsu, who was with Curtiss the day he died. “But you know, that was just kinda Kurt. He was a cowboy of sorts, and he definitely wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty.”
Curtiss is survived by his young children and his wife, who says his death changed everything for their family.
“I had to be strong," said Curtiss’s wife Liz Ivory, who has since remarried. “ I had to continue with life to try and give my kids a childhood they deserved. It was a struggle some days to have the motivation to do anything. I wanted them to grow up with a parent who was present, with the intent of the two of them becoming healthy, happy, successful, driven people. It was a struggle those first few years for all of us.”
Another 501st wife recalled the frightening knock on her door one early morning after Bergdahl's disappearance, bringing with it the news of her husband's critical injuries, and the loss of a dear friend, Pfc. Matthew Martinek.
While returning to their forward operating base from a search and rescue mission, her husband's convoy was attacked.
"Their convoy got ambushed, with over the head fire," the wife relayed to KTUU from her husband, both of whom have asked to remain anonymous for the privacy of their family. "Martinek was shooting back and firing, and [a rocket propelled grenade] came over. My husband saw it, grabbed him, and would have taken the RPG, but [Sgt. Clint] Baxley pushed both my husband and Martinek out of the way."
All three men sustained life threatening injuries, from which the other men still suffer every day, but unlike his comrades, Martinek did not survive. He died at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany on Sept. 11.
A week before Martinek's death, the regiment sent two more of its men home for the last time. On Sep. 4, 2009, 2nd Lt. Darryn Andrews was killed after the vehicle he was driving was struck by an IED. Staff Sgt. Michael Murphrey was also killed by an IED during an ambush while on patrol with his platoon two days later on Sept. 6.
"It was like a week of ambushes and hell," McNeely said. "In that week, we lost Martinek, Andrews, Baxley was wounded, and another guy, and that was just in [our] company."
It's been nearly five years since their deaths, but with the news of Bergdahl's return, the memories and emotions of those weeks have come back anew for their family, friends, and brothers in the 501st.
" I had to call into work yesterday when I found out he made it home," Masamitsu said. "It's like, on the one hand, no time has passed at all between it, and it's just as fresh as it was. And on the other hand, five years have gone by. It opened up a lot of hurt, a lot of wounds, a lot of things that I thought were over."
"My anger and my frustration come from it because Martinek was a kid, Andrews' wife was at home with a baby, and so many lives were changed," an anonymous 501st wife said. "And it feels like all the work these guys had put in looking for him is going unrecognized. Everyone is praising [Bergdahl], when they all died and were hurt."
President Barack Obama, together with Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani, spoke to the press on the reintegration process still ahead for the former captive. While noting the assistance of the Amir of Qatar, the search efforts of U.S. Armed Forces in Afghanistan were also recognized in returning Bergdahl home.
"He wasn't forgotten by his community in Idaho," Obama said in a statement Friday. "Or the military, which rallied to support the Bergdahl's through thick and thin. And he wasn't forgotten by his country, because the United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind."
While an official report on Bergdahl's missing status has yet to be released, several members of the 501st who were with him in the months leading up to his disappearance believe he intentionally abandoned his post, and abandoned the men he served with.
"Six of my best friends are dead," Cox said. "This man is now being acclaimed a national hero by the President of the United States, and he is not. He deserted his unit in a combat zone, and because of that, six men lost their lives, six families will never see their sons ever again."
"I know people are saying his time over there is payment enough," McNeely explained. "It might be enough payment for the actual desertion, but what his desertion did actually cost a lot of lives. I think he should go through the medical process, go through counselors, but once he's healthy enough to stand trial, I think he should."
A special thank you to the families and friends who contributed to this story.