The deal that got Bowe Bergdahl released in exchange for five high-ranking Taliban detainees doesn't sit right with the family of an Army lieutenant killed in an ambush while searching for the missing sergeant.
"He was killed while looking for this deserter," said Andy Andrews, father of 2nd Lt. Darryn Andrews, who died in eastern Afghanistan in September 2009.
"If this guy [Bergdahl] had not gone off post, our son would not have been killed."
The Defense Department has never said Bergdahl was away without leave and has pointedly described him as a "prisoner of war."
The Andrews family did not know there might be a connection between the lieutenant's death and Bergdahl until this weekend when the White House announced the prisoner swap — which has drawn sharp criticism from some lawmakers and service members.
They said they learned of the reported link from other members of Andrews' platoon, who went public because they were disgusted that Bergdahl, who vanished and was captured under murky circumstances, was being portrayed as a hero.
A medic who was in Bergdahl's platoon told NBC News that he firmly believes the quiet, bookish sergeant willfully sneaked away, putting himself in harm's way and endangering the lives of fellow soldiers.
"He's not a hero," Josh Cornelison said of Bergdahl, who has been promoted twice in captivity.
"He left the Army. He walked away from his post on his own two feet with his own sound mind. He left by himself to do what he wanted to do. He is not a hero. Heroes are the people who sacrificed their lives for your freedom, for my freedom, for everybody's freedom."
Cornelison said after Bergdahl disappeared, the Army flooded the area with troops to find him. For 90 days, it was their top priority, even as the Taliban stepped up their attacks.
"Every single mission we did was pointed toward finding Berghdahl," Cornelison said. "Every single person that died was doing something to find Bowe Berghdahl."
He maintains that's what 3rd platoon was doing when a roadside bomb blew up on them, the precursor to an ambush in which Andrews, 34, and Pfc. Matthew Martinek, 20, were killed.
US ARMY via AP / Family Photo
A combination photo of Pfc. Matthew M. Martinek and 2nd Lt. Darryn Andrews.
The Defense Department did not comment on the medic's account, but Andrews' mother, Sondra, said her son told her at one point that his duties included looking for Bergdahl.
“He had been out on a 24-hour mission, and he said we had this soldier that just disappeared. He left his post and we’re all having to look for him and put ourselves in danger. He was resentful," she said.
But there was not suggestion back then that he was searching for Bergdahl when he died, and those reports came as a shock.
“We would have already had all this processed. You create this one scenario about how your child was killed, you justify how that happened and then you’re told he died looking for a traitor, a deserter. My son’s life was traded for that? It hurts.”
The fact that Bergdahl's freedom was brought about with the release of five Taliban deepened the pain, as did the joyful statements that Bergdahl's parents made.
“They show his parents, and his father is evidently speaking a native language...and seems to be a sympathizer and they're talking about how he gets to come home to his parents," the mother said.
"We got a box and our son was a hero.”
Andrews' twin brother, Jarrett, a lawyer, said the news felt "like a bit of a betrayal."
"It's more saddening than anything," he said. "There's some outrage, but it's mostly sad," he said, his voice choked with sobs.
"It's a slap in the face to people who served and risked their lives."
"I don't think Darryn would have any regrets about laying down his life, but ultimately he did do that and terrorists were still released," the brother said.
For Andrews' widow, Julie, who was pregnant with her second child when her husband was killed, the news of the prisoner exchange left her feeling physically ill.
"It's a slap in the face to people who served and risked their lives," she said.
"They put their lives on the line to put these men in jail and now there's this man [Bergdahl] with questionable character and devotion to the military who has been traded for these criminals."
Cornelison, who left the Army in 2011, said Andrews and Martinek are constantly on his mind.
"There is very rarely a day that goes by that I don't think about Lt. Darryn Andrews and Pfc. Matthew Martinek — and Bergdahl purposely leaving his post to do what he wanted to do."
"I really do hope that Bowe Bergdahl is held accountable for everything that he did. He has been held in captivity for five years, but that is nowhere near enough," Cornelison said.
First published June 2 2014, 12:47 PM