A sign June 2 announces the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl outside Zaney's coffee shop, where Bergdahl worked as a teenager in Hailey, Idaho. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)
The chairwoman of an advocacy group formed in response to the Vietnam-era prisoner-of-war crisis said the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will answer the most important question his family has faced for the last five years, but sets a troubling precedent.
Ann Mills-Griffiths, who served as executive director of the National League of POW/MIA Families from 1978 to 2001 and has continued as chairman of the board since then, said the thread that unites all families of captured or missing service members is “having to deal with the uncertainty of not knowing about your child, your family member — not knowing whether they are alive or dead. It’s the worst of all circumstances you can deal with.”
The POW/MIA community’s support for Bergdahl’s safe return has been unanimous, she said, but not without what she called “a universal concern about negotiating. ... The kind of concession that would release known terrorists on an equivalency basis with a U.S. serviceman is repugnant to many.”
The release of five terrorist detainees in exchange for Bergdahl may create a situation that could “maximize the danger to people still there, as well as other places around the world,” she said.
The Bergdahls approached the league about three years ago, she said Monday, to “sit down with us so they could learn some things we’d done and tried, and what they could expect.” And while the group’s energy goes toward programs involving previous wars — it was incorporated in 1970 — it’s not far out of the loop: Mills-Griffiths said she and representatives from several similar organizations had been on a conference call on the matter earlier Monday with Michael Lumpkin, the acting Defense Department undersecretary for policy who has been charged with making major changes to DoD’s agencies that identify the remains of POWs and missing troops.
Berghdal reportedly has had trouble speaking English since his return, a condition Mills-Griffiths said she was unfamiliar with seeing from POWs in the Vietnam era despite the fact that “many of them spent years and years and years in solitary confinement,” she said.
Another POW group, the American Ex-Prisoners of War, sent out a statement Sunday on Bergdahl’s release, calling it “proof of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield.”
The group, which traces its lineage to a group founded in 1942 to support U.S. prisoners taken by the Japanese on the Bataan Peninsula, also offered to assist the Bergdahl. In the statement, the group said it “will not engage in the divisive political arguments over the details of his release.” The group declined an interview request via email.