The furor over Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who spent five years as a prisoner of insurgents in Afghanistan, came to Tampa last week.
A sign at the Veterans Memorial Park and Museum, calling for his return, was defaced when someone painted the word “desertion” on it, park officials say.
Workers at the park, 3602 U.S. Hwy. 301 in Tampa, discovered the vandalism sometime in the middle of last week, said park manager Raul Duran.
Trouble at the park is rare, said Duran, who has been working with the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department for 18 years and as manager of Veterans Memorial Park for the past 15. In addition to being defaced with paint, Duran said it appeared that someone tried to kick the sign over.
Duran said he did not report the incident to authorities.
The 15-square-foot sign was erected several months ago for about $150 by Rolling Thunder, an organization dedicated to the return of prisoners of war and those missing in action, says Mike O’Dell, chairman of the POW/MIA section of the park and museum.
O’Dell said he was upset to hear what happened to the sign, despite the roaring controversy over Bergdahl.
The Pentagon recently appointed Army Maj. Gen. Kenneth R. Dahl to investigate the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance from his unit. And there has been much consternation over the deal to free Bergdahl, freeing five high-ranking Taliban leaders in exchange. Last week, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who commanded U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013, told the Tribune he never saw any evidence that Bergdahl collaborated with his captors.
“Regardless of whether he is a deserter or not, it is not for us to decide,” said O’Dell, 60, who was stationed in a ship off the coast of Vietnam during that war. “The government will take care of business. When the investigation is over and if he is found to be a deserter, he will be treated like one and court martialed. We shouldn’t be throwing stones, because we don’t know the full story.”
The vandalism, said O’Dell, was the final straw for a sign that had created some “flak” for park officials.
“We took the sign down because of graffiti, but I was getting a lot of flak, with all the information being released about Bergdahl,” said O’Dell. “As chairman of the POW/MIA section of the park, I was not taking it down till he got back on U.S. soil. I was getting ready to take it down when this happened, so it was a couple of days premature.”
O’Dell said he would “be surprised” if it turns out that the sign was marred by juveniles, “because of the message about Bergdahl,” he said.
Dave Braun, who was an Army private when he served in a missile battery in Vietnam, said that as treasurer of Rolling Thunder Florida Chapter 11, the vandalism “is a personal affront.”
“It’s disgusting that someone would do that,” said Braun. “This was put on display at Rolling Thunder’s expense.”
The incident, he said, brings back ugly memories for Vietnam veterans.
“For someone to come by and deface that, brings me back. I talked to a lot of my veteran friends, and this is a replay of Vietnam solider coming home and the ill treatment we got,” he said. “So many people find fault with Bergdahl before he has his day in court, before he has even seen his family. His family received death threats. His own city had to cancel their welcome home. Until he has his day in court, he is strictly a prisoner released out of enemy hands during a war. To see the treatment he has been getting since the very beginning irks me.”