Penny Rauhuff was watching television last week in her Spring Hill home when she saw something that made her turn off the set.
Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier who went missing from his post in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, was being turned over by his captors in exchange for five senior Taliban leaders.
“I turned the TV off immediately,” says Rauhuff. “I wouldn't sit and watch it. It just brought up too many thoughts.”
Less than a month after Bergdahl went missing, Justin Coleman, who Rauhuff considers a son, was killed by a Taliban bullet just two weeks before he was scheduled to come home. It was July 24, her 45th birthday. The news came during her party. The Army, she says, told the family that there was a good possibility Coleman, 21, was on a mission to search for a soldier who had been recently captured.
The circumstances of Bergdahl's disappearance and return have created a national uproar. One of his fellow soldiers wrote in the Daily Beast of how Bergdahl deserted his post, leading to the deaths of several soldiers in the ensuing search. Pentagon officials have said they will investigate the circumstances once Bergdahl, now in Germany, has healed from health issues the White House has said necessitated his quick recovery. Congress is calling for hearings into why it wasn't notified 30 days ahead of time, as required by law.
Rauhuff, who worked as a bartender and on a shrimp boat until breaking her leg, says she is not rushing to judgment.
Coleman, she says, was on patrol in Barg-e-Matal, a dangerous district in eastern Afghanistan's Nuristan province, near the Pakistan border. There were security problems there at the time having nothing to do with Bergdahl.
But shortly after Coleman was killed, Rauhuff says she and his father, Al Coleman, were told by the Army that the 2007 graduate of Nature Coast Technical High School was possibly killed looking for a soldier who had been captured. At the time, she says Bergdahl's name wasn't mentioned.
“I would have to see more and know more before I form an opinion.” says Rauhuff, “Right now, everything has been so right out there in front again, that I just haven't watched any of (the Bergdahl coverage). My personal feeling is that maybe he should apologize to the families for the children lost looking for him. That in my heart is the least he can do.”
Al Coleman says he doesn't want to talk about Bergdahl, whose name is not mentioned in the Army investigation into his son's death.
“I am very proud of my son and all the fallen heroes,” he says. “I think people need to think more about fallen heroes who have given their lives.”
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Justin Dean Coleman was a great student who everybody loved, says Rauhuff, who was recognized as a Gold Star Mother after his death. She and Coleman's father were a couple for several years. They continue to work together on a poker run charity in Coleman's name, his father says.
“We were very proud of everything he did,” she says. “He was in the marching band. He worked after school, Arby's for a while, then Pizza Hut.”
But more than anything, Coleman wanted to serve his country, says Rauhuff.
“His father and grandfather both did,” she says.
During his senior year, he worked out with Marines from a local base, says Rauhuff, and enlisted in the middle of the year when he turned 18.
“It took a minute before he could tell his dad,” says Rauhuff. “He tried to coax me into telling his dad, because he knew his dad would be upset. We were all hoping he would go to an academy. He was so smart. An honor roll student. His dad was heartbroken for a minute about his only son.”
Shortly before he was killed, Coleman sent a Myspace message, says Al Coleman.
“That's the way we used to stay in contact,” Al Coleman says. ”He said 'watch the news.'”
Al Coleman says he is not sure what his son meant. Rauhuff says one thing is certain.
“We do know that the boys he was with credit Justin for saving their lives,” she says.
The soldiers, she says, had just cleared a building. The Taliban had set up an ambush on the outside. Coleman was the first one out.
“They shot him under his arm,” she says. “He was killed instantly. That put the other guys on guard. They killed quite a few that night. When we went to meet them, they said if it were not for Justin taking that bullet, they all would be dead.”
Rauhuff says that while her “heart has never healed,” she is happy for Bergdahl's mother.
“I know her heart was breaking and it must not be breaking anymore,” she says. “She has her son back. No mother should ever have to go through this.”
While the recent news brings back terrible memories, Rauhuff says Coleman would be glad to know that, no matter why he disappeared, Bergdahl is back. “I think that he would be glad that Bowe is home,” she says. “He wouldn't want any soldier left behind, no matter what the cost. He was brave, and was very, very proud to be an American soldier.”