We are now on Episode 6, Season 2, of the most popular podcast in America, “Serial.” This season intricately explores the high-profile case of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Bergdahl is facing an August court-martial on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. If convicted, he could face life in prison. He has not entered a plea.
The episodic manner in which narrator Sarah Koenig breaks down Bergdahl’s captivity is — in typical “Serial” fashion — emotionally trying as listeners are forced to discern for themselves the guilt or innocence of the subject at hand.
More than 25 hours of recorded phone conversations between Bergdahl and Hollywood screenwriter and producer Mark Boal form the crucial backdrop for this season. These conversations mark the first time the public has heard Bergdahl’s story directly from the man himself.
In the military, “DUSTWUN” stands for “Duty Status — Whereabouts Unknown.” This title sets the scene for the question that will be the core of the entire season: Why did Bergdahl leave his post in Afghanistan in 2009?
According to Bergdahl, he intended to walk to a nearby base to report problems he perceived in his unit. “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.
But Bergdahl admits that he also wanted to be seen as a fictional Jason Bourne-like character. “I had this fantastic idea that I was going to prove to the world that, you know, I was the real thing,” he said. “I was trying to prove to the world, to anybody who used to know me, that I was capable of, you know, being that person.”
The episode then explores the logistics of how Bergdahl actually left his base and how he was captured. “There I was in the open desert and I’m not about to outrun a bunch of motorcycles,” he said. “So I couldn’t do anything against six or seven guys with AK-47s and they pulled up and that was it.”
Bergdahl, now 29, also recounts chilling details about his time in captivity.
“In this blackened dirt room, it’s tiny,” Bergdahl told Boal. “And just on the other side of that flimsy little wooden door that you could probably easily rip off the hinges is the entire world out there. It is everything that you’re missing, it is everybody, everyone is out there. That breath that you’re trying to breathe, that release that you’re trying to get. Everything is beyond that door. And, I mean … I hate doors now.”
After the first episode aired, the military coincidentally announced that Bergdahl would face a court martial for his alleged desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
With this in mind, the second episode suddenly became all the more intriguing.
It focused on two main points: that the Taliban now saw Bergdahl as a huge opportunity (hence the title “Golden Chicken”) and the realization that the United States’ effort to find him was an all-encompassing, yet demoralizing experience for the troops.
During her conversations with Bergdahl’s captors, Koenig finds that the Taliban maintain they treated him fairly, stating, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world … Bowe came to us.”
They said they treated him as a guest, and even danced for him to try and calm his fears. Bergdahl says he has no memory of this.
Nonetheless, the Taliban knew he was a precious bargaining and propaganda asset so they were careful about moving him, first taking him westward into Afghanistan to throw off U.S forces and initial search efforts that would have assumed Bergdahl’s captors would make a beeline for the safety of Pakistan. His captors waited several days before they took him across the border.
As the search for Bergdahl continued, tensions among his platoon mates grew. With fellow soldiers telling Koenig in an interview that they legitimately might have shot or killed him if they had found him, it became clear they were angered and confused by their predicament.
The Special Operations forces looking for him took great risks, conducting daytime operations, going on missions with little to no planning, forgoing sleep and more. It became clear that the open-ended nature of the mission was really difficult and a source of frustration for the soldiers.
In the third episode, “Serial” recapped Bergdahl’s first year of captivity with the Taliban. It began and ended with his attempted escapes, and provided a detailed and gruesome look at his time spent as a prisoner.
Bergdahl’s first attempt at escape was short-lived. While hiding under a mud-covered roof, a woman quickly spotted him and turned him in. Bergdahl described his punishment to Boal: “They put me on an Afghan bed and chained my feet to the end of the bed and chained my hands to the tops of the bed so that I was, basically, spread-eagle on the bed and blindfolded. And that’s basically how I spent the majority of the next three months.”
Interesting detail into his captors’ mannerisms and customs were also brought to light throughout the course of this episode. For instance, Bergdahl said the Afghans love Mountain Dew soda. “If you want to piss those people off in that country, all you have to do is cut off their sugar supply,” he said.
Listeners also learned of another escape attempt toward the end of his first year as a prisoner. Bergdahl had managed to collect a PVC pipe, a key and other items to help him unchain his arms and legs and sneak out a window, dropping 15 feet to the ground. As he wandered away from his prison in the darkness of night, he fell off a cliff and tumbled so far that he damaged the left side of his body, leaving him injured, and unable to walk well.
Knowing that he must find some kind of shelter and a place to hide, Bergdahl dug a hole and covered himself with a blanket and pine needles. Drinking river water and eating grass to sustain himself, this stab at freedom lasted nine days, according to Bergdahl, until he was eventually recaptured.
From that moment, Bergdahl said it would be four more years before he would see the stars again.
The fourth episode explored just who exactly was holding Bergdahl: the Haqqani network, a Taliban-related terrorist organization.
Koenig boiled down the complicated history of the infamous group, saying, “The Haqqanis are a family-run operation, and they’re not one thing. They’re Islamic nationalists, they’re a militant group and they have businesses. A New York Times story compared them to ‘the Sopranos of the Afghanistan War.'”
Koenig also highlighted the irony that during the early 1980s, the United States paid the Haqqani network millions of dollars in an effort to prop up their fight against the Soviets. “We helped build them up,” Koenig said.
The episode also revealed the conditions that Bergdahl endured after his attempted escape. After more than a week of freedom, Bergdahl’s captors now kept him in a six-sided cage of metal bars. It was collapsible so that it could be moved easily when they would relocate him, he said.
“When they moved me around they put a girl’s dress over me, and then they put a burka over me. And then because you know anything I touch, because I’m an infidel … everything I touch is dirty. So, thankfully, they left the dress and the burka in the room so I was able to use that as warmth.”
He also would be slowly cut with a razor across the chest. “Don’t think one or two cuts at a time,” he said. “Think probably between 60 to 70 cuts at a time. They did it slowly.”
Finally, the episode explored how Bergdahl survived. Not physically, but mentally.
To keep his mind occupied, Bergdahl said, he would scan the room through the bars of his iron cage, grasping at anything new to look at.
Next week, the series will explore the political pressures in the United States to bring him home.
Episode 5, ‘Meanwhile, in Tampa’After a two-week long hiatus, we are now on Episode 5, Season 2 of “Serial.”
Now on a bi-weekly schedule, the series has needed extra time to dig deeper as new information surrounding Bergdahl’s case continues to emerge.
“This story goes in so many directions and, as we’re reporting it, we’re getting access to more of the key people close to Bergdahl’s case and to more information than we initially thought we would,” Koenig wrote on the podcast’s website.
Throughout “Meanwhile, in Tampa,” Koenig examines the political pressures in the United States surrounding Bergdahl’s capture while also exploring the complicated dance of diplomacy alongside all of the miscommunication between the various agencies in charge of his case.
The episode opens with an introduction to one of Bergdahl’s closest friends from home, Kim Harrison. She was listed as a point of contact in his Army form, and was alerted of his captivity just days after he went missing.
Devoted to finding her friend, Harrison did everything in her power to help. Enlisting the support of one of her contacts at Interpol, they filled out a missing person report, which was denied by the Department of State within 12 hours of its submission.
Confused and bothered by this denial, an unnamed colonel then told Harrison that “Interpol involvement could complicate, jeopardize and delay the investigation,” and that it was “in her best interest not to get involved.”
Harrison took matters into her own hands and eventually got in touch with a Taliban member who knew where Bergdahl was being held. Crazy. I know.
After various phone calls and email exchanges, it was clear that the language barrier between his native Pashto and Harrison’s native English was an issue. She then had no choice but to hand her contact’s information over to the FBI.
The Taliban member told FBI agents that in exchange for vital information regarding Bergdahl’s location, he wanted to be relocated to the United States with all eight of his family members.
Over a two-year-long process in which more information surrounding his eight family members was required, the source stopped responding. He was never contacted or pursued by any agency at any point during Bergdahl’s time in captivity again, even though some close to the case viewed him as the best chance they had of getting Bowe home.
Two women, whom Koenig refers to as Andrea and Michelle, are introduced later on in the episode. They represent two of the many people who worked on Bergdahl’s case, and who felt as though they were fighting an impossible battle to get him home. These women work for the U.S. Central Command personnel recovery, and while they couldn’t reference Bergdahl’s case for security reasons, they describe instances of feeling like saleswomen trying to convince those higher in command to put more effort into their personal recovery cases. Andrea even described using Johnny Walker Black Label and beef jerky to persuade a certain general to give one of her cases the attention it needed.
It was clear the overarching attitude towards Bergdahl — even by those most educated on the case — was that he was a traitor. Ultimately, this slowed the entire process down.
Then we meet a man, referred to by Koenig as “Nathan.” According to Koenig, he is a part-time military intelligence analyst who used to work for the military full time. Feeling disgusted by the way various agencies were handling Bergdahl’s case, Nathan made the difficult decision of reaching out to Bergdahl’s parents to inform them he thought more could be done.
Bowe’s father, Robert Bergdahl, felt as though he had stayed quiet long enough, and his communication with Nathan ultimately led Robert Bergdahl to release a video on YouTube pleading with the Pakistan Government for his son’s release.
Episode 5 shines a light on the reality that one of Bergdahl’s biggest problems was the fact he was in Pakistan. The American government’s relationship with Pakistan is a sensitive one. Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and it is important to keep the peace, so ground-supply lines remain open in the air and on the ground for U.S. troops. The country has also led the U.S to important al Qaeda members over the years, and the fear of disrupting this relationship, especially for one serviceman, proved to be a lot to handle for government leaders assigned to the case.
Koenig ends the episode with this statement, “When I first started looking into this question of what did we do to get Bowe back, frankly, I didn’t think it would be all that difficult to answer — which, silly me maybe, but still at least I thought the answer would be linear. But a chain of events would reveal itself. One link leading to another, attached to another.”
“Instead, I found a bunch of people whose stories were all pretty different but whose central theme was the same. Frustration. Why aren’t we doing more? Who’s blocking this effort? Why? They described struggling against a tangle of competing interests they couldn’t control, and sometimes couldn’t even see. It sounded as if there was a scandal to uncover. And maybe there was dishonesty and even malevolence in some corners,” Koenig added.
“But mostly I think it’s because, the truth is, there’s a limit. There have to be limits on how much we risk, on how much we give up to get one person back. And for a long time Bowe loomed small. To put it coarsely, he wasn’t worth it. He was tucked in among so many other crises. A small fire smoldering among all these giant fires that also need to be put out. The time to deal with him is when he becomes something else. Something useful. A way to put out a bigger fire,” Koenig concludes.
This week’s episode, “5 O’clock Shadow,” takes a deeper look into Bergdahl’s motives for walking away from his post in Afghanistan in 2009.
Providing a helpful backdrop into the state of the war during Bergdahl’s deployment, “Serial” host Sarah Koenig explained that the fight in Afghanistan had reached a turning point by spring of 2009 and a heavier U.S. military presence was needed.
The Taliban was beginning to make advances and had shadow governors in 33 out of the country’s 34 provinces. Casualties among U.S. coalition forces had increased tremendously. To meet the need on the ground, President Obama approved sending in tens of thousands of additional troops.
Bergdahl’s battalion was part of this surge and would be conducting a counter-insurgency mission, otherwise known as COIN. COIN is not just fighting the enemy, but also nation building.
Troops are in close contact with communities, trying to win over hearts and minds, while supporting and re-establishing the society and economy threatened by an insurgency.
According to Koenig, Bergdahl and his platoon mates were confused as they spent most of their days handing out bags of rice to local citizens and coloring books to children.
Bergdahl notes that this didn’t sit well with him. He wanted to be more of a “movie soldier,” as Koenig described.
“I wanted to be a soldier,” Bergdahl told screenwriter Mark Boal. “I wanted to be a security contractor afterwards. I wanted people to take me serious. I wanted to go into Special Forces. I wanted that adventure, I wanted that action, I wanted that moment of adrenaline, I wanted that moment of you know, contact. Getting in gun fights, being that soldier that gets in fire fights, and goes around in armored trucks.”
Boal’s 25 hours of recorded interviews with Bergdahl are the heart of this season of “Serial.”
The episode also reveals another side to Bergdahl’s personality.
While he got along with his platoon mates, they told Koenig that there was always something different about Bergdahl — something his fellow soldiers couldn’t put their finger on.
Unlike the other guys, he smoked pipes instead of cigarettes, read the entire Ranger Handbook when no one else really bothered, listened to classical music, and refused to tell any dirty jokes, they said. He also brought a quirky level of intensity that was unparalleled to anyone else in his squad — sleeping without a mattress, and holding a tomahawk against his chest at night, they said.
While Koenig indicated Bergdahl felt an overall frustration with his platoon’s mission in Afghanistan, there were two events she highlights that ultimately pushed the soldier over his limit and led to him leaving his outpost.
In the middle of the night, Bergdahl and his platoon mates were called to recover a disabled vehicle that had been blown up by an IED in Omna, a district center up in the mountains. What was supposed to be an eight-hour mission turned into a six-day operation of multiple IED attacks, additional disabled vehicles and finally a complex Taliban ambush. No one in Bergdahl’s unit was hurt in the ambush and ten Taliban members were believed to have been killed. When they returned to base, their battalion commander, Lt. Col. Clint Baker, didn’t congratulate the men on surviving such a dangerous mission that he had ordered, according to Koenig. The first thing Baker reportedly said was: “What, you couldn’t shave?” The men hadn’t taken any razors with them.
Still frustrated by this event, Bergdahl told Boal, “It’s just like, ‘Are you serious? After all of that bulls***, after everything that we’ve gone through, we get back here and now we have to go shave the last six days’ mud off our face because some jacka** who’s been sitting in an air-conditioned office giving us bulls*** orders the entire time, he’s got a problem with the fact that, what, we couldn’t shave?'”
According to Koenig, while his other platoon mates were frustrated by the events in Omna, they seemed to shake it off more than Bergdahl.
“Moreover, to Bowe at least, [Baker] seems unconcerned with the welfare of his men. And to Bowe, that’s what starts to feel scary. That maybe they’re not in safe hands,” Koenig said.
The second event that ultimately led Bergdahl to abandoning his post came when he and five other soldiers had to dig out a foxhole to fit them all in 110-degree heat. Koenig described how they thought they had received permission to remove some of their gear because of the scorching temperatures even though it went against regulations.
After removing their heavy protective vests and helmets along with other equipment, their battalion commander arrived at the scene and, according to Bergdahl, was far from pleased.
Bergdahl described the battalion commander as having a “temper tantrum,” and went on to tell Boal that he could see “nothing but aggression” from Lt. Col. Baker.
Bergdahl reported seeing Baker press “his chest plate against another sergeant, trying to get in his face,” for having such a lack of discipline.
Koenig said she tried to speak with Baker, but said that because Bergdahl’s trial is ongoing, the battalion commander declined all requests for further comment.
Koenig did reach out to Kenneth Wolf, the unit’s command sergeant major, who had a few things to say about the incident. A photojournalist from The Guardian newspaper had taken pictures of the six men at their outpost. Looking at one image, Wolf asked Koenig over a phone interview, “Do you see the weapons? Do you see anybody with body armor on? No. You see a bunch of guys waiting to get f****** killed. That’s what you see.”
Eventually, this incident led to consequences for three out of the six men, Koenig said, noting that one soldier was demoted, and two other sergeants were moved out of the platoon.
At this point, according to Koenig, Bergdahl had had enough. He told Boal that Baker was “going out of his way to make everything as miserable as possible in an unnecessary way. That’s what I saw. And I saw the effect that had on everybody. … I wasn’t the only guy. I was one of many.”
Koenig later emphasized that Bowe didn’t see the commander’s actions as corrective, he saw them as “punitive, and worse, irrational.”
According to Bergdahl, “That’s why I ended up doing what I did. Because he was out of control from what I could see. He was unfit for what he was doing, and, you know, I wouldn’t put it past him to be the type of guy to purposely put me and my platoon mates in harm’s way just because he has a personal grudge against us. Because we soiled his reputation or whatever bulls*** idea he had in his head.”
Three weeks after this incident, Bergdahl left his post, and his life would change forever.
As the story continues to unfold, one thing is certain for Boal: “Bowe’s story never changed, but my understanding of the man telling the story began to change.”
Stay tuned for episode 7.