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Don’t judge POW

Former governor reflects on Bergdahl case


After five years of captivity in Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl came home to less than a hero’s welcome. Some of his fellow soldiers believed he had deserted his unit, and they said other soldiers died during the subsequent search for him. And some people who initially had been happy to hear that America’s only Afghanistan POW had been released had second thoughts after it sunk in that the administration had traded five high-ranking Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl.

Joe Kernan, who was a POW in Vietnam for 11 months in 1972 and 1973, has not been one of those joining in the chorus of condemnation. When we contacted him last week, the former governor and South Bend mayor was quick to emphasize that he had only followed news reports about Bergdahl’s release.

But Kernan, who was shot down and captured while flying a reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam, is inclined to wait until all the facts are in about the 28-year-old Army sergeant.

“I think there’s been a lot of rush to judgment on the kid,” Kernan said. “You’ve got a lot of people jumping to conclusions.”

Noting that an investigation is underway, Kernan suggested that “we just have to let that play out.”

Was the government right to get Bergdahl back despite the questions about his conduct? Absolutely, Kernan said. Post-traumatic stress syndrome “doesn’t just happen when you get home,” Kernan said. “You don’t know what the circumstances were surrounding his captivity … It could have been he was having a bad day and he was depressed and went for a walk and got nabbed.”

Kernan, a Democrat who was lieutenant governor in the administration of Gov. Frank O’Bannon, served as governor for a little more than a year after O’Bannon died in office in 2003.

Defeated in his bid for a full term by Republican Mitch Daniels, Kernan owned the Silverhawks baseball team in South Bend for several years. At Daniels’ request, he joined with Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard to produce a series of far-reaching recommendations on reforming Indiana government.

Today he spends a lot of his time working with veterans groups and other nonprofit organizations.

Outgoing, energetic and generous with his time, Kernan offers living evidence that the ordeal of being a POW doesn’t preclude living a full life.

Since just after his release, he has been part of an ongoing study at the Navy Medicine Operational Training Center in Pensacola, Florida. The study pairs repatriated POWs with a control group of veterans who served in similar roles during the same war but were never captured.

“Several years ago, they told us that two big differences had emerged,” Kernan said.

“One is that the POW group has a much higher incidence of arthritis,” he said. The other pertained to dealing with major incidents of post-military life: Getting married, getting divorced, getting a job, losing a job, physical issues.

“What they find is that the POW group is much better adjusted,” Kernan said. “You don’t sweat the small stuff. You kind of count every day as a blessing.”

Every May 7, Kernan has beer and pizza to celebrate the anniversary of his release. “We were the lucky ones. A lot of the other guys didn’t come home,” he says.

Though a lot of his fellow prisoners “really went through hell,” especially in the early days of the war, Kernan notes that there was “some adherence to standards” by his North Vietnamese captors.

Bergdahl, though, was in Afghanistan at a time “when people who were captured were getting their heads chopped off … This is a terrorist organization. Clearly, they don’t have the same playbook.”

All of which may be why, while politicians are falling all over themselves to condemn the deal that led to Bergdahl’s release, Kernan reserves judgment.

Maybe the rest of us should, too.