Bowe might have spent his childhood hiking in the mountains of Idaho, but the terrain he now faced was nothing like back home. To get to Pakistan, he would first have to descend some 1,500 feet from the mountain outpost and skirt the village of Yaya Kheyl, a town known for harboring Taliban. At that hour, there would be few people on the main road through Paktiki, dubbed "Route Audi" by U.S. forces. But as dawn broke, a stream of motorbikes and pedestrians would start to pass by. Alone, white-skinned and likely wearing his Army uniform, Bowe would have stood out immediately.
If Bowe made it through town, the next step would be even more daunting: He would have to slog eight miles through deep sand so fine that soldiers called it "moondust." If he was lucky, he might pick up a path used by Kuchi nomadic tribesmen to bring their sheep to market. Along the way, Bowe would pass grave sites: tall stacks of rocks marked by bright flags. Then he'd be forced to climb back up the switchbacks to Omna, where his platoon had been bogged down on its first major mission, traverse the Bermel Plateau, and once again scale mountain peaks to cross the border into Pakistan.
At 9:00 that morning, the acting platoon leader, Sgt. 1st Class Larry Hein, called in over the radio to report a missing soldier. According to sources in the battalion, this was the last thing Hein needed, given all the scrutiny the unit had been under. The men needed a break. Instead, they had to find a member of their platoon. "That was a shitty week for all of them," says one soldier in the unit.
By 11:37 a.m., a Predator drone was on station, monitoring the area with a call sign of VOODOO. At 2:10 p.m., a Pathfinder and a team of tracking dogs arrived at the small outpost. Five minutes later, another Predator drone began circling the area. At 2:42, Guardrail – an electronic intercept plane run by the same clandestine Army agency that killed Pablo Escobar – captured low-level voice intercepts picked up from radio or cellphone traffic. An American soldier with a camera was reportedly looking for someone who spoke English.
The search quickly escalated. No one knew whether Bowe was a deserter, a prisoner or a casualty. At that point he was simply listed as DUSTWUN – short for "Duty Status: Whereabouts Unknown." But either way, the Army wanted him back, fast. At 4:42 that afternoon, Col. Michael Howard, the senior officer responsible for three eastern provinces in Afghanistan, ordered that "all operations will cease until the missing soldier is found. All assets will be focused on the DUSTWUN situation and sustainment operations."
Within an hour, two F-18s were circling overhead. Afghan forces passed along intelligence that a U.S. soldier had been captured by the Taliban. By that evening, two F-15s – call sign DUDE-21 – had joined the search. A few minutes later, according to files obtained by WikiLeaks, a radio transmission intercepted by U.S. forces stated that the Taliban had captured three civilians and one U.S. soldier. The battalion leading the manhunt entered and searched three compounds in the area, but found nothing significant to report.
The next morning, more than 24 hours after Bowe had vanished, U.S. intelligence intercepted a conversation between two Taliban fighters:
"I SWEAR THAT I HAVE NOT HEARD ANYTHING YET. WHAT HAPPENED. IS THAT TRUE THAT THEY CAPTURED AN AMERICAN GUY?"
"YES THEY DID. HE IS ALIVE. THERE IS NO WHERE HE CAN GO (LOL)" "IS HE STILL ALIVE?"
"YES HE IS ALIVE. BUT I DONT HAVE THE WHOLE STORY. DONT KNOW IF THEY WERE FIGHTING. ALL I KNOW IF THEY WERE FIGHTING. ALL I KNOW THAT THEY CAPTURE HIM ALIVE AND THEY ARE WITH HIM RIGHT NOW."
Then another intercept was picked up:
"CUT THE HEAD OFF"
Later that evening, a final intercept confirmed that Bowe had been captured by the Taliban, who were preparing an ambush for the search party.
"WE ARE WAITING FOR THEM."
"LOL THEY KNOW WHERE HE IS BUT THEY KEEP GOING TO WRONG AREA."
"OK SET UP THE WORK FOR THEM."
"YES WE HAVE A LOT OF IED ON THE ROAD."
"GOD WILLING WE WILL DO IT."
"WE WERE ATTACKING THE POST HE WAS SITTING TAKING EXPLETIVE HE HAD NO GUN WITH HIM. HE WAS TAKING EXPLETIVE, HE HAS NOT CLEANED HIS BUTT YET." "WHAT SHAME FOR THEM."
"YES LOOK THEY HAVE ALL AMERICANS, ANA HELICOPTERS THE PLANES ARE LOOKING FOR HIM."
"I THINK HE IS BIG SHOT THAT WHY THEY ARE LOOKING FOR HIM."
A third voice chimed in:
"CAN YOU GUYS MAKE A VIDEO OF HIM AND ANNOUNCE IT ALL OVER AFGHANISTAN THAT WE HAVE ONE OF THE AMERICANS."
"WE ALREADY HAVE A VIDEO OF HIM."
The next day, American forces had a chance to free Bowe. The battalion operations officer, call sign GERONIMO 3, met with two tribal elders from the nearby village. The elders had been asked by the Taliban to arrange a trade with U.S. forces. The insurgents wanted 15 of their jailed fighters released, along with an unidentified sum of money, in exchange for Bowe. The officer hedged, unwilling or unable to make such a bargain, and no deal was struck. Instead, the Army ordered all units stationed in the eastern half of Afghanistan – known as RC East, in military jargon – to join the search for Bowe.
On July 4th, the search effort got a break: Bowe was spotted in a village in Ghazni, about 15 miles across the mountains to the west. He was wearing khaki, with a bag covering his head, and he was being driven in a black Toyota Corolla, escorted by three to five motorcycles. But by the time troops arrived to investigate, it was too late. That was the last time that Bowe would be seen until the first propaganda video, released later that month.
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