Navy SEAL, dog handler: How a failed mission to rescue Bowe Bergdahl caused irreparable loss
The juxtaposition of two American military men who could stand in the same courtroom in the coming months couldn’t be set in more stark relief.
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl faces a general court-martial for walking off of his base in eastern Afghanistan in 2009. Bergdahl spent five years in Taliban captivity, where he was tormented, before being freed in a controversial prisoner exchange last year.
Jimmy Hatch, a Navy SEAL senior chief who led a platoon into a fierce battle to try to rescue Bergdahl, was shot and badly wounded on that mission. Beside him, service dog Remco lay mortally wounded, after running through a hail of bullets at two Taliban fighters hiding in a ditch, exposing their whereabouts.
Bergdahl is charged with not only desertion but also misbehavior before the enemy – an archaic, rarely used charge that includes “endangering safety of a command, unit, place, ship, or military property” and has a maximum penalty of life in prison. It could help answer the question of whether Bergdahl betrayed his country intentionally or should be viewed as acting as a result of mental health problems.
Military officials won’t confirm or deny the 2009 mission was a search for Bergdahl. An Army spokesman said Tuesday that the service maintains the position stated by then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in 2014 that he did not know of any specific “circumstances or details of U.S. soldiers dying as a result of efforts to find and rescue Sgt. Bergdahl.” An Army investigator and an officer who presided over Bergdahl’s preliminary hearing earlier this year both recommended he be spared a general court-martial and prison time. But no one has denied servicemembers were hurt as a result of the search and an Army commander last week ruled against the investigator’s recommendation and ordered Bergdahl face a general court-martial.
Hatch, his femur shattered, went through 18 surgeries in two years. He lost his military career and suffered from debilitating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He nearly took his own life. His fate inextricably tied to Bergdahl’s, Hatch said he would readily testify if he is called upon.
“I would tell them about the sacrifices of the group of individuals that went out with me on the night I was wounded,” Hatch said. “About the risks they took on behalf of Mr. Bergdahl because of his decisions.
“I would like Mr. Bergdahl and his family to hear what his decisions did to me and my family. I’d like to tell him about my injuries and about the difficulties my family and I continue to have.”
The Rescue Mission
Hostage rescue situations are notoriously dangerous. Unlike other operations in which a unit will take time to review and rehearse, the rescue is a mission of opportunity – there is little time for planning or thorough intelligence gathering and the captors are alert and ready. And there’s a hostage among them who must be protected.
“The enemy holds almost all the cards,” Hatch said.
The night of July 9, 2009 was no different.
Hatch’s Virginia-Beach based Naval Special Warfare Development Group was deployed to Afghanistan when Bergdahl walked off his base on June 30. Resources across the country and particularly in the east were being diverted to participate in search efforts.
Much of the war effort had been placed on hold to enable the search.
That night, Hatch and his crew were part of an assault force acting on intelligence that had identified the location of Bergdahl and his Taliban-aligned captors. The SEALS were joined by Sr. Chief Mike Toussaint – a dog handler - and his combat dog Remco, who had deployed to Afghanistan with the SEAL team and had been on missions with them for the better part of a year.
The men believe there is no doubt that the enemy knew they were coming – the helicopters could be heard for miles around. Before they even touched down, they were already being assailed by machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades, Hatch said.
The men moved forward toward a large building that appeared to be heavily fortified and were quickly engaged in various firefights. Hatch and a small group that included Remco and Toussaint, peeled off to try to outmaneuver two apparent fighters who’d been spotted running a small distance away.
The fighters were wearing traditional clothing – the qameez and shalwar, flowing long white cotton tops and loose cotton pants. One of those could be Bergdahl, Toussaint thought. They would have dressed him up, surely.
The moon was bright – bright enough, said Toussaint, that any other mission would have been delayed for a time when night vision goggles would have given the American forces the advantage. Still, the two fighters who’d been spotted had disappeared into the night and the high fields.
Hatch and Toussaint have different recollections of the next moments. But both agreed Remco, on orders from his handler, charged forward, running directly at the two fighters who had taken shelter in a nearby culvert. Both said the dog saved their lives, by exposing the location of the enemy.
It was his last act. The men watched as one of the fighters stood and fired at Remco point blank, shooting him in the head. Remco flew backwards.
Within seconds, Hatch was also shot in his leg in a devastating blow to his femur. He, too, flew into the air by the force of the impact and landed on the ground in a shattering of pain.
Toussaint could hear Hatch screaming as he ran toward the culvert firing, and managed to kill both men before they could shoot him. Then he dragged Remco back to where corpsmen were already working on Hatch.
Later, Toussaint would be awarded the Silver Star and a commendation for extraordinary heroism from the Chief of Naval Operations, even as he struggled to fight hazing charges that were later brought into question. Hatch received a Purple Heart. Remco, posthumously, also received a Silver Star that credited him for drawing the enemy’s fire and giving his teammates “the split seconds needed to change the balance of the fight.”
As he stood there, alongside his dead dog and his wounded buddy, still in the adrenalin of the fight, Toussaint’s anger was at the enemy – the people trying to kill them. Later, as he sat on the evacuation helicopter, it started to gnaw at him that Bergdahl’s decisions brought them to that place.
He watched his best friend - the dog he’d trained with and who was by his side for two years - killed, and his buddy shot and screaming in pain “all because of a selfish person that just put all of us at risk,” Toussaint said. “But we were there to do a job.”
Road to Recovery
It took Hatch a long time to come to grips with that day on the battlefield: his screaming in pain despite all his training to never to give the enemy indication of your whereabouts; his being so badly hurt he had to leave the fight in the middle, and his men forced to risk their lives to save him. He blamed himself.
The same helicopters that flew into a hail of bullets to drop the men off, returned to pick him up and take him to safety. As he lay in a hospital bed for months, and endured 18 surgeries on his leg, he played the events over and over, and wondered how he could have done things differently.
And Remco – Hatch had grown close to the dog. He’d taken to running with him. And his death brought bitter memories of another combat dog – his own dog Spike - who had died in his arms three years earlier in Iraq.
“I had taken responsibility in my mind, wrongly or correctly I don’t know, for the failure of that mission and for my buddies having to risk themselves to save me,” Hatch said. “It took a long time of pain and substance abuse issues until I could listen to people around me and understand that I was not a liability to the people in my life.”
In fact, Hatch hit bottom on a drunken day in his backyard some two years later when his wife and a police officer had to talk him out of shooting himself and handing over the gun. He went through two stints in a psychiatric ward, pushed by his wife and two war buddies before he could accept that while some anguish will never go away, he had tools to manage it and to believe things could be better.
Somehow, all of it was just a little more difficult to swallow because of the circumstances. Bergdahl made a decision to leave his base, Hatch said. That changed the course of a lot of other lives.
“You take the risk of being injured any time you engage in combat,” Hatch said. “But when the enemy holds all of the cards, that makes it far more likely that people will be killed or hurt. And that’s what his decision did.”
These days, Hatch lives by the credo that when others save your life, you owe it to them to live it well. That’s his obligation, he said. He’s started a nonprofit called Spike’s K9 Fund to help retired combat dogs. And he knows to seek help when he needs it.
He still struggles, reliving his worst moments. To this day, whenever something happens in the news that might bring things up, he gets calls from his buddies who saved him just checking in. It’s been happening a lot lately, with Bergdahl in the news so much.
Hatch keeps a picture of Remco in his office “because, you know, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “And you know what? Neither would some of the other guys if it wasn’t for him. He totally saved us.”
Bergdahl is in the news again. Not long ago, Hatch’s wife walked in on him holding the picture and crying. She set the picture down and held her husband.
“You never really get better from it,” he said. “You just learn how to deal with it, hopefully.”
When Hatch heard that Bergdahl would stand trial, he breathed a sigh of relief that the sergeant would be held accountable.
“I am just glad that in fact there was going to be a reckoning,” he said. “I think it’s really important as an American that he gets his day in court and gets to explain what was going on and to explain his actions.
“He deserves a fair trial,” Hatch said. “That’s what we fight for.”