prisoner of war

What ‘Serial’ Listeners Should Know About the Bowe Bergdahl Case

FILE - This undated image provided by the U.S. Army shows Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. U.S. officials say the only American soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan has been freed and is in U.S. custody. The officials say Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's (boh BURG'-dahl) release was part of a negotiation that includes the release of five Afghan detainees held in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (AP Photo/U.S. Army)
Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl prior to his capture. Photo: US Army

Last season, you were likely forced to listen to “Serial” because it became impossible to converse with friends and co-workers without having an opinion on Jay, Adnan, and “Mail Kimp.” Getting up to speed was easy enough (once you figured out how to download a podcast), but on Thursday morning NPR’s Sarah Koenig threw a curve ball: Season two focuses on Bowe Bergdahl, a person whose story you might have followed if you weren’t busy dissecting a true-crime tale about some Baltimore high-school kids.

The first episode covered the basics about the American prisoner of war and his controversial release, but that won’t be much help when your loved ones start referencing old magazine pieces and analyzing the influence of “Serial” on the case. Thus, we’ve put together a guide that will have you pontificating about Bergdahl’s true motives and Koenig’s hidden sympathies in no time.

Why Bergdahl Left His Base
This is the central question of the Bergdahl case, and we heard the soldier describe his motives in his own words for the first time in Thursday’s episode of “Serial.” Bergdahl told filmmaker Mark Boal he walked off base on June 30, 2009, because he had serious concerns about his superiors, and wanted to trigger a DUSTWUN — an alert for missing soldiers — to draw attention to the situation. He would hike to a nearby base and probably get thrown in jail, but that would give him a chance to speak to Army commanders. “All I was seeing was basically leadership failure to the point that the lives of the guys standing next to me were literally, from what I could see, in danger of something seriously going wrong, and somebody being killed,” he said.

That’s consistent with what Bergdahl told the Army, but some have claimed that he had been reaching out to the Taliban and was planning to “offer himself up” to the enemy. (During the investigation, an Army official said they have “no reason to believe” that he was colluding with his captors.) Others say he was snatched while trying to desert, noting that he was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the U.S. military in the days before his capture. In a 2012 profile by the late Michael Hastings, Rolling Stone published excerpts from Bergdahl’s final email to his parents before he left base. He complained about his commanders, the military in general, and the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

The future is too good to waste on lies,” Bergdahl wrote. “And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be American. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting.”

Six soldiers died while searching for Bergdahl. “I was pissed off then, and I am even more so now with everything going on,” former Sergeant Matt Vierkant, a member of Bergdahl’s platoon, said shortly after his release. “Bowe Bergdahl deserted during a time of war, and his fellow Americans lost their lives searching for him.”

A banner supporting Bergdahl hangs outside a store in his hometown of Hailey, Idaho on July 13, 2014. Photo: Scott Olson/2014 Getty Images

Bergdahl’s Time in Captivity
Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban and held by members of the Haqqani network. The insurgent group operates in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and it was initially unclear where Bergdahl was located, or what his status might be. Then on July 18, 2009, the Taliban released a 28-minute video of the captured American:

Four more videos of Bergdahl were posted online through May 2011. There were several reports that he had escaped and been recaptured, and in June 2013 his parents received a letter from him via the Red Cross. Then in January 2014, after three years with no proof that Bergdahl was alive, the U.S. intercepted a thumb drive that contained video in which he referenced the death of Nelson Mandela the previous month.

After his release, Bergdahl’s attorney released a statement in which he described the horrific conditions he endured for five years. “In the beginning of my captivity, after my first two escape attempts, for about three months I was chained to a bed spread-eagle and blindfolded,” he wrote. He said his muscles atrophied and he developed sores, a skin infection, and an “internal sickness” from being given very little to eat and drink. He said he was occasionally beaten with a copper cable, and in his second year of captivity he was put inside a cage, but kept chained up, and would go several months without being allowed to wash himself or change clothes. Eventually he was moved to a room with plumbing and unshackled, since he didn’t have to be moved. He wrote:

I was kept in constant isolation during the entire 5 years, with little to no understanding of time, through periods of constant darkness, periods of constant light, and periods of completely random flickering of light, and absolutely no understanding of anything that was happening beyond the door I was held behind. Told I would leave the next day, and the next day told I would be there for 30 years. Told I was going to die there. Told to kill myself. Told I would have my ears and nose cut off, as well as other parts of my body.

Bergdahl’s Release
On May 31, 2014, the Obama administration announced that Bergdahl had been exchanged for five Taliban detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, after three years of negotiations. A few days later the Taliban released video of the handover (which was described in the first episode of Serial’s second season).

According to the Washington Post, once the helicopter was airborne, Bergdahl scribbled “SF?” on a paper plate, asking if the officers were Special Operations forces. “Yes!” one of the troops answered. “We’ve been looking for you for a long time.”

Not anticipating the debacle that would grow out of the prisoner swap, the White House held a press conference in the Rose Garden to formally announce Bergdahl’s release, framing it as a rare bit of positive news out of Afghanistan. Robert Bergdahl provided conspiracy theorists with plenty of fodder when he appeared with a long, scraggly beard (which he grew to mark the time since his son’s capture) and started out by addressing his son in Arabic and Pashto (explaining Bowe was having difficulty understanding English). He uttered the common phrase, “In the name of Allah, most Gracious, most Compassionate.”

Many objected to the terms of the trade, saying the Obama administration had unlawfully given up five dangerous Taliban militants for a deserter. “These are the hardest of the hard core. These are the highest high-risk people, and others that we have released have gone back into the fight,” Senator John McCain said at the time. “It is disturbing that these individuals would have the ability to reenter the fight.”

Bergdahl’s Family
Bowe Bergdahl had an unusual upbringing, which we’ll undoubtedly delve into in an upcoming episode of “Serial.” In Rolling Stone, Hastings reported that Robert and Jani Bergdahl were “devout Calvinists” who homeschooled Bowe and his sister and lived “nearly off the grid” on farmland in Idaho. After Bowe was captured, Robert taught himself Pashto and began studying Afghanistan, trying to understand what his son was going through. Friend Glenn Ferrell, a Presbyterian pastor, said Robert even tried writing to the Taliban, pointing out the similarities between their religion and Christianity, and begging them to spare his son. Some worried that Robert had become too engrossed with his studies, but Ferrell said he saw him as just “a desperate father.”

In the weeks after Bergdahl’s release, many far-right media outlets speculated that Robert was a Taliban sympathizer (and even on Fox News, Megyn Kelly described the peaceful White House greeting as Robert “[praising] Allah in the language of the Taliban”).

The Charges Against Bergdahl
Just six weeks after his return to the U.S., Bergdahl was put back on active duty. He was given a desk job at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.

In March 2015, Bergdahl was charged with one count of “desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty,” and one count of “misbehavior before the enemy” under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. He faces a maximum penalty of life in a military prison.

The Army reviewed the evidence against Bergdahl during a two-day hearing in September. Now it’s up to General Robert Abrams, the commander of U.S. Army Forces Command, to decide if Bergdahl’s case should be referred to a court-martial. The time frame for his decision is unclear, but in October, Bergdahl’s attorney said that the officer who presided over his hearing recommended that the case go to a lower-level court martial where the penalties would be limited to a reduction in rank, a bad-conduct discharge, and up to a year in prison, according to the AP.

While the first season of “Serial” helped Adnan Syed’s appeal effort, it seems unlikely that the military will be swayed by the podcast — especially because it sounds like this season will end on an ambiguous note as well. “Do we have a Jinx moment or something like that?” Julie Snyder, a “Serial” executive producer, told the New York Times. “No, we’re not holding back on something that the world needs to know.”

Bergdahl: What ‘Serial’ Listeners Should Know