Sometime after midnight on June 30, 2009, Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl left behind a note in his tent saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life. He slipped off the remote military outpost in Paktika province on the border with Pakistan and took with him a soft backpack, water, knives, a notebook and writing materials, but left behind his body armor and weapons -- startling, given the hostile environment around his outpost.
That account, provided by a former senior military officer briefed on the investigation into the private's disappearance, is part of a more complicated picture emerging of the capture of a soldier whose five years as a Taliban prisoner influenced high-level diplomatic negotiations, brought in foreign governments and ended with him whisked away on a helicopter by U.S. commandos.
The release of Sgt. Bergdahl, promoted while in captivity, has created political problems for the Obama administration, which is having to defend his exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But it also presents delicate politics for Republicans who are attacking, through surrogates, America's last known prisoner of war.
The furious search for Sgt. Bergdahl, his critics say, led to the deaths of at least two soldiers and possibly six others in the area. Pentagon officials say the charges that the deaths were related to the search for Sgt. Bergdahl are unsubstantiated and are not supported by a review of a database of casualties in the Afghan war.
"Yes, I'm angry," Joshua Cornelison, a former medic in Sgt. Bergdahl's platoon, said in an interview Monday arranged by Republican strategists. "Everything that we did in those days was to advance the search for Bergdahl. If we were doing some mission, and there was a reliable report that Bergdahl was somewhere, our orders were that we were to quit that mission and follow that report."
Sgt. Bergdahl slipped away from his outpost, the senior officer said, possibly on foot but more likely hiding in a contractor's vehicle. "He didn't walk out the gate through a checkpoint, and there was no evidence he breached the perimeter wire and left that way," the officer said.
It was not until the 9 a.m. roll call June 30 that the 29 soldiers of 2nd Platoon, Blackfoot Company, learned that he was gone.
"I was woken up by my platoon leader," said Mr. Cornelison, who had gone to sleep just three hours before, after serving watch from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. "Hey, Doc," his platoon leader said, "Have you seen Bergdahl?"
Platoon members said Sgt. Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, was known as bookish and filled with romantic notions some found odd. "He wouldn't drink beer or eat barbecue and hang out with the other 20-year-olds; he was always in his bunk; he ordered Rosetta Stone for all the languages there, learning Dari and Arabic and Pashto," Cody Full, another member of Sgt. Bergdahl's platoon, said Monday in an interview also arranged by GOP strategists.
The soldiers began a frantic search for Sgt. Bergdahl using Predator drones, Apache attack helicopters and military tracking dogs. All in all, they searched for 90 days, with clear orders: If they heard from any locals that there was a chance Sgt. Bergdahl was nearby, they should drive to the location, do a foot patrol of the nearby area and talk to locals.
Mr. Full, then a specialist in the platoon, said he and other platoon members grew increasingly bitter at the time they were spending looking for Sgt. Bergdahl. "He had sent all his belongs home -- his computer, personal items," said Mr. Full, now 25. He said Sgt. Bergdahl used to gaze at the mountains around them and say he wondered if he could get to China from there. Other platoon members said Sgt. Bergdahl wrote Jason Bourne-type novels, in which he inserted himself as the lead character.
The anger toward Sgt. Bergdahl increased exponentially after Sept. 4, when fellow soldiers learned that two members of 3rd Platoon, which routinely went on tandem missions with 2nd Platoon and whom they believed were also searching for Sgt. Bergdahl, had been killed in an ambush. Pfc. Matthew Martinek and Lt. Darryn Andrews, both of them friends of Mr. Cornelison, died in the ambush.
A Defense Department official said it was unclear whether the two men were killed directly because of the Bergdahl search.
Some soldiers also have contended that the Taliban, knowing the units were out searching extensively for Sgt. Bergdahl early after his disappearance, chose July 4, 2009, for a major attack on another combat outpost. Two soldiers died.
Still, a leaked war report from May noted that the area was traditionally a "safe haven" for insurgents, and there had been intensifying assaults on the outpost even before the search for Sgt. Bergdahl.
An Afghan war casualties database review suggests that Sgt. Bergdahl's critics appear to be blaming him for every U.S. soldier killed in Paktika province in the four-month period following his disappearance -- a period in which casualties were mounting across the entire country.
Mr. Cornelison and Mr. Full both said that now that Sgt. Bergdahl has been freed, they want him court-martialed as a deserter. "I won't get into the politics," Mr. Cornelison said, "but now that he's back, he needs to be held 100 percent accountable -- for putting myself and 29 other people in my platoon in hell for 90 days."
Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said there was a far larger matter at play: the U.S. military does not leave soldiers behind. "When you're in the Navy, and you go overboard, it doesn't matter if you were pushed, fell or jumped," he said. "We're going to turn the ship around and pick you up."