Slain Bartlett soldier's family blasts defense secretary

Updated 6/5/2014 3:25 PM
  • U.S. Army photo of Pfc. Matthew Martinek

    U.S. Army photo of Pfc. Matthew Martinek Associated Press

  • Patriot Guard Riders line the entrance to St. Hubert Catholic Church for the funeral Mass for U.S. Army Pfc. Matthew Martinek, a Bartlett High School graduate, on Saturday Sept. 26, 2009.

      Patriot Guard Riders line the entrance to St. Hubert Catholic Church for the funeral Mass for U.S. Army Pfc. Matthew Martinek, a Bartlett High School graduate, on Saturday Sept. 26, 2009. GEORGE LECLAIRE | Staff Photographer

The family of slain Bartlett soldier Matthew Martinek is blasting U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's assertion that he is unaware of any U.S. soldiers perishing while trying to retrieve another soldier who has been accused of desertion by comrades and was recently swapped for five imprisoned Taliban fighters.

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been accused by fellow soldiers of abandoning his post in Afghanistan, but military leaders have refused to label him a deserter. He was returned to U.S. custody Saturday in exchange for the release of captured Taliban officials who were being held at Guantanamo Bay.

Hagel told reporters in Belgium Wednesday that he doesn't "know of any circumstances or details of U.S. soldiers dying as a result of efforts to get Bergdahl."

Martinek's stepfather Ken Luccioni said members of his son's unit and former comrades of Bergdahl have told his family that Martinek was mortally wounded during a mission to retrieve Bergdahl.

"We heard from soldiers that were in the same mission, so unless Chuck Hagel has decided these soldiers are lying, what's the question here?" Luccioni said by phone from New York Wednesday evening. "If he doesn't know those were the missions, he ought to retire and find a nursing home."

Luccioni and Martinek's mother Cheryl Brandes have launched a high-profile campaign to say Bergdahl should be tried by the U.S. military. They say that while the Pentagon never told them anything more than that their son was hit while on patrol, evidence shows as many as eight soldiers died as a result of attempts to find Bergdahl.

"Bergdahl is going to get to come home, have an opportunity to get married, have kids and grow old," Luccioni said. "My son isn't."

While Luccioni said the family was in New York on a media blitz they are financing themselves to bring awareness to their plight, Hagel said it is unfair to the family of Bergdahl to leap to conclusions about his behavior in uniform.

"We don't do that in the United States," Hagel told reporters at a NATO defense ministers meeting. "We rely on facts."

Hagel said the Army will review the circumstances surrounding how Bergdahl left his unit and was captured by the Taliban, and added, "It's not my place as a former sergeant in the Army to decide who's worthy of being a sergeant and who isn't."

Luccioni took umbrage with Hagel's statements.

"Was it fair to his brothers-in-arms to put them in harm's way?" he said. "He had to know they were going to come looking for him. All the sudden we're talking about fairness for someone who deserted? It's incredible."

Since Bergdahl's release Saturday, a number of former soldiers stationed in Afghanistan with Bergdahl and Martinek have come forward to question the prisoner swap and dispute the military's accounts of the deaths of Martinek and several other soldiers.

"Those soldiers who died on those missions, they would not have been where they were ... if Bergdahl had never walked away," said Evan Buetow, a sergeant in Bergdahl's unit at the time. "At the same time I do believe it is somewhat unfair for people to say, 'It is Bergdahl's fault that these people are dead.' I think that's a little harsh."

According to a Defense Department release at the time, Martinek was mortally wounded Sept. 4, 2009, by a rocket-propelled grenade launched at his unit's vehicle that had just been disabled by a roadside bomb. In addition to Martinek, 2nd Lt. Darryn Andrews was also killed in the attack. Martinek succumbed to his injuries seven days later, on Sept. 11.

There is no mention of Martinek's unit searching for Bergdahl at the time in the military's official release and Martinek's parents have not made an official inquiry.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday that the Army might still pursue an investigation, and those results could conceivably lead to desertion or other charges.

Congressional hearings and briefings are looking into the deal that swapped Bergdahl for Taliban officials who had been held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and several lawmakers said President Barack Obama didn't notify them, as required by a law governing the release of Guantanamo detainees. White House staff members called key members of Congress to apologize.

Luccioni said he would like to speak to Bergdahl himself.

"I'd like to ask him if he was going to meet with (the Taliban) or if he was going to join them or what he thought he was going to happen," Luccioni said. "Why did he desert his fellow soldiers?"

The Taliban on Wednesday released a video showing Bergdahl's handover to U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, touting the swap as a significant achievement.

The 17-minute video emailed to media shows Bergdahl in traditional white Afghan clothing, clean-shaven and sitting in a pickup truck. More than a dozen Taliban fighters with machine guns, their faces mostly covered by headscarves, stand nearby. Bergdahl blinks frequently and appears to be listening as one of his captors speaks to him.

A Black Hawk helicopter lands and two Taliban fighters, one carrying a white cloth tied to a stick, lead Bergdahl halfway to the helicopter. Three Western-looking men in civilian clothes take Bergdahl to the helicopter, where soldiers in Army uniforms are waiting.

After his release, the 28-year-old from Hailey, Idaho, was reported to be in stable condition at a military hospital in Germany.

The freed Taliban Guantanamo detainees were flown to Qatar, the Persian Gulf Arab country that served as a mediator in the negotiations for the swap.

"I want them to explain why they would take five of the most dangerous terrorists and set them free so they could go endangering Americans and people worldwide again," Luccioni said. "I'm pretty, pretty upset about this whole thing."

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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