Some World War II survivors say ex-POW deserves welcome home

| Tuesday, June 3, 2014, 11:00 p.m.

Veterans say there's no easy answer about how to treat Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only American prisoner of war in Afghanistan.

Some said he should be welcomed home. Others contend he is a deserter who should face the consequences.

Larry Kushner, one of nine World War II veterans receiving the French Legion of Honor medal on Tuesday afternoon at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland, said he was taken prisoner by the Nazis, and for him, there is no question about what Bergdahl's fate should be.

“We should acknowledge how hard it was and welcome the returning,” said Kushner, 89, of Monroeville.

News of Bergdahl's release broke on Saturday, when it was announced that the United States would conduct a prisoner swap of five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo for Bergdahl's freedom. Within days, members of Bergdahl's unit told the media that in 2009, the soldier intentionally left the remote base in Paktika province.

If he did go AWOL — absent without leave — he could be charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

August Pace, 90, of Bethel Park, another of the veterans honored, said Bergdahl should be treated as a deserter.

Pace said he hopes that the federal government will pursue disciplinary action against Bergdahl.

“His commanding officer should've known better than to send his guys out” to search for him, he said. “Men gave their lives up to rescue him. What good was it?”

Political rivalries are driving much of the public criticism of the prisoner swap, said Thomas Sanderson, co-director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“If Bergdahl had died in captivity, (the criticism) would have been: The president had an opportunity to get him out and he let a U.S. soldier die. And the same guys who are screaming at him now — (Arizona Sen. John) McCain and others — would say, ‘You let a soldier die,' ” Sanderson said during a meeting on Tuesday with Tribune-Review editors and reporters.

But politics don't negate the real concerns about potential fallout from the deal, Arnaud de Borchgrave, a veteran foreign correspondent and director of CSIS's Transnational Threats Project, said during the meeting with the Trib.

“I'm not a supporter of McCain, but he is bringing up a very important point. One deserter, (several) Americans killed looking for him. And then we trade this deserter for (five) very important people in the al-Qaida movement,” de Borchgrave said.

Korean War veteran Earl Aussenberg, 81, of Oakland, Kushner's cousin, said his opinion about Bergdahl is mixed.

“I believe we should never leave a soldier behind,” said Aussenberg, who clearly remembers Kushner — underweight and suffering from bleeding ulcers — returning home.

Critics have called the prisoner exchange a negotiation with terrorists.

“If I was a prisoner of a terrorist and (the government) did not negotiate for me, I would accept that,” Aussenberg said.

Staff writer Mike Wereschagin and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Megan Henney is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-320-7987 or

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