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What Would a Parent Do?

by on June 09, 2014 6:00 AM

The coverage of the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban friendly forces in Afghanistan in exchange for the release of some Taliban heavy hitters from Guantanamo Bay has been in the forefront of the media.

Bergdahl reportedly walked away from his Army post in Afghanistan and has reportedly been held captive for the past five years by the Haqqani Network, an Islamic extremist group that opposes the US-NATO efforts in that country.

Through the roar of partisan politics and outrage from leaders of both political parties that the decision (and perhaps Sgt. Bergdahl's role in his own captivity) was not vetted properly, fears of escalation from those who hate America are intensifying. From questions raised by his platoon members to Dianne Feinstein, Democrat and member of the Senate Intelligence committee, people are raising serious concerns about process, this situation seems to have a new twist every day.

As a parent of young adults myself, this story has really piqued my interest. As I watched Sgt. Bergdahl's parents with President Obama in the Rose Garden of the White House, celebrating news of his release, I was uncomfortable with his father's apparent identification with his son's captors. Speaking in Arabic, his unkempt beard eerily seemed similar to those of those who have held his son. The body language between Mrs. Bergdahl and the President was equally as disturbing if not inappropriate. At the same time, I found myself feeling for parents who have spent the last five years in desperate search of their son.

How far would I go as a parent to bring my children to safety? Is there a line that I wouldn't cross to bring one of my children home?

It's hard to comprehend. From the time that we become parents, the need to protect our children and to keep them safe becomes part of our chemistry. It becomes our focus.

As our children age, the need to protect them doesn't go away.

When my son was three-years-old, we lost him at Disney World. We were waiting for one of the afternoon parades. I thought he was with my husband as I went to get popcorn and drinks for the crew. My husband thought my son went with me to help carry snacks. When we came back together and realized what happened, the sense of panic was almost indescribable.

I couldn't hear. I couldn't think. I couldn't breathe. We eventually found him about 50 feet further up the parade route, dancing to the music and waiting for the parade to start. He was gone under five minutes. It felt like an eternity.

I can't imagine not knowing for five years.

With each developmental milestone, as parents, we prepare for our children's eventual separation and independence from us. The first time we leave our infant with a caretaker – even if it's Grandma. The first day of day care or pre-school. Kindergarten. Elementary school. The first sleepover and the first sleep-away camp. Middle school and getting dropped off at movies or with friends. High school and that darn driver's license. College or work or, as in Bergdahl's case, the military. Eventually, the time and the distance that they spend away from us are greater than those precious moments with us.

But, parents know that with just a phone call, we quickly jump back to "I will be right there." It doesn't go away when they become adults.

Sifting through all of the truths and speculations about the Bergdahls, they seem to be a fairly regular family, albeit, perhaps somewhat non-traditional in their viewpoints. Sgt. Bergdahl earned a G.E.D. after being homeschooled. He is said to have picked up ballet as a hobby late in his adolescence.

He worked a variety of nominal jobs before enlisting in the Army when he was 22. While his fellow soldiers were playing video games and drinking beer during down times in basic training, Bergdahl reportedly chose to read and learn about the country where he would eventually be deployed. Even those closest to him said they missed the warning signs of a young man in trouble; questioning their mission, sending home personal belongings and sharing emails home that spoke of doubts.

Details of his eventual walk off post and his role, if any, in collaborating with his captors remain sealed in the confidential files that will undoubtedly come out in the current investigation. If it turns out that a 23 year old made a stupid and irrational decision on that day five years ago, it wasn't the first and definitely won't be the last. The human brain doesn't stop developing until our mid to late twenties and impulse control and decision making is the last function to mature.

Despite his youth and perhaps an idealistic view of America's enemies, I believe that he should and will be held accountable for his actions. If, as he has been accused, his actions caused harm or death to other Americans in their search for him or if he compromised our national security, he should be made to face those charges.

Like all parents, the Bergdahls have and will continue to suffer with him as he faces those consequences.

There is not a parent among us who has, at times, cried with and for our children in response to decisions they make as they are navigating through life.

Can the parents of a young man whose decisions held them captive also be diagnosed with Stockholm Syndrome? Is it that far-fetched to think that a parent whose heart and mind and focus was on the return of their son would spend time trying to understand the people who were holding their son? That beard and those sympathetic to the cause references in Arabic to communicate to his son's captors.

Stress can make people do crazy things. How far parents would go to protect or save our children might seem irrational too.

The mistake was in letting the grieving parents have an international audience.

So many questions remain unanswered in this whole fiasco. Ultimately, our military and our judicial system will sift through it and come to some understanding of the truth. Our elected officials will determine if power and process were abused. Americans may now face greater risk of harm in foreign lands and in battle because of the messages sent in this exchange.

Parents will understand that the need to protect and to save our children sometimes trumps everything else.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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