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America's Last Prisoner of War

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Bowe's platoon of some 25 men – under-manned by more than a third – was sent to a small combat outpost called Mest-Malak, near the village of Yaya Kheyl, where they were supposed to conduct counterinsurgency operations, attempting to win the local population over to the side of the Americans. Bowe had a serious staph infection in his leg, so he arrived at the outpost late. With his customary zeal, he'd been preparing for the deployment by learning how to speak Pashto and reading Russian military manuals. Almost as soon as he joined his fellow soldiers, he began to gravitate away from his unit. "He spent more time with the Afghans than he did with his platoon," Fry says. His father, recalling that time, would later describe his son to military investigators as "psychologically isolated."

The discipline problems that had plagued Bowe's unit back home only got worse when immersed in the fog of war. From the start, everything seemed to go wrong. In April, Lt. Fancey was removed from his post for clashing with a superior officer. He was replaced by Sgt. 1st Class Larry Hein, who had never held such a command – a move that left the remote outpost with no officers. According to four soldiers in the battalion, the removal of Fancey was quickly followed by a collapse in unit morale and an almost complete breakdown of authority.

The unruly situation was captured by Sean Smith, a British documentary filmmaker with The Guardian who spent a month embedded with Bowe's unit. His footage shows a bunch of soldiers who no longer give a shit: breaking even the most basic rules of combat, like wearing baseball caps on patrol instead of helmets. In footage from a raid on a family compound, an old Afghan woman screams at the unit, "Look at these cruel people!" One soldier bitches about what he sees as the cowardice of the Afghan villagers he is supposed to be protecting: "They say like, the Taliban comes down and aggravated­ their town and harasses them... Why don't you kill those motherfuckers? All of you have AKs. If someone is going into my hometown, I know my town wouldn't stand for that shit. I'd be like, 'Fuck you, you're dead.'" Another soldier laments, "These people just want to be left alone." A third agrees: "They got dicked with by the Russians for 17 years, and now we're here."

During the middle of May, Bowe went out on one of his first major missions. He described it in a detailed e-mail to his family dated May 23rd, 2009. What started as an eight-hour mission, Bowe recounted, ended up taking five days.

While another unit was setting up a night ambush in the mountains, an MRAP – the $1.5 million armored vehicle designed to protect soldiers from the roadside bombs being used by the Taliban – got hit with an IED. Bowe's platoon was deployed to escort a tow truck to get it down off the mountain. But on the way to escort the truck, an MRAP in Bowe's own platoon was hit by an IED. The unit found itself stuck in the mountains for four days, guarding the wreckage while their commanders debated whether to fly in the parts needed to fix the vehicles. Some of the time, Bowe wrote his family, was spent near a village that "was not too friendly to Americans" because it had been attacked by the Taliban. "So the elders were telling us to leave," he reported, "because the taliban was there, and we couldn't leave because command finely decided that they would fly in the parts (one MRAP needing a new engine) and would rebuild the MRAPs up there."

Once the MRAPs were finally fixed, the unit started to leave the mountains, only to be hit by yet another IED – the third of the mission – and to come under a blistering attack from rocket-propelled grenades. "It was at the point that the guys where beginning to climb into the trucks that the first RPG hit about 30m away from them," Bowe recounted, "and then the RPKs and the AKs began to splatter bullets on us, and all around us, the gunners where only able to see a few of them, and so where firing blindly the rest of the time, up into the trees and rocks. The .50 went down on the first shot on the truck i was in, and i had to hand up my SAW for the gunner to use. I sat there and watched, there was nothing else I was allowed to do."

No soldiers were killed in the ambush, but Bowe blamed the screw-up on his superiors: "Because command where too stupid to make up there minds of what to do," he wrote, "we where left to sit out in the middle of no where with no sopport to come till late mourning the next day." He concluded his e-mail with a nod to the absurdity of the situation: "The end of the 8 hour mission that took five days, and so here i am. But Afghanistan mountains are really beautiful!"

Over the next month, as he saw more of the war firsthand, Bowe's e-mails to his family lost their sense of absurdity and took on a darker edge. In one heartbreaking incident at the end of May, an Afghan official and four of his children were killed in a Taliban attack. The bodies were moved to Bowe's outpost, along with a wounded Afghan police officer.

In early June, after photographs taken by Sean Smith appeared in The Guardian, Bowe's unit got reamed out by its commander for its lack of discipline. Bowe's squad leader, Sgt. Greg Leatherman, was demoted, and two other sergeants in the squad were reassigned. According to Fancey, one was made "a gate guard for the rest of the deployment." As often happens in the Army, senior officers were going unpunished for screw-ups like the MRAP mission, while lower-ranking men paid the price for minor infractions.

The unit, for its part, continued to bungle even the most basic aspects of military duty. During the last week of June, the platoon spent a day resupplying at Forward Operating Base Sharana. When someone in the unit lost his weapon, everyone in the platoon had to drop what they were doing and look for it. To make matters worse, on an earlier trip to Sharana, 10 members of the platoon had been poached to pull guard duty at another base, leaving the unit even more undermanned than usual.

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