-- We've reached the final and 11th episode of the second season of the most popular podcast in America, "Serial." This season intricately explored the high-profile case of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Bergdahl is facing a 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. His court martial was scheduled for August, but the case is currently on hold, as the Army appeals court reviews a complaint filed by the prosecution about access to classified materials granted to Bergdahl’s defense team by the presiding judge in the case.
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.
Jump to episode recaps:
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?
He intended to walk to a nearby base to report problems he perceived in his unit, according to Bergdahl. "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 U.S. 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.
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 scotch and beef jerky to persuade a certain general to give one of her cases the attention it needed.
It was clear the overarching attitude toward 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 Pakistani government for his son’s release.
Episode 5 shines a light on the reality that one of Bergdahl’s biggest problems was that he was in Pakistan. The U.S. 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 United States 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 contributed to pushing the soldier over his limit and leading 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 10 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 contributed to Bergdahl’s 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."
This week, “Serial” released a surprise two-part episode exploring angles of Bergdahl’s story that rarely make headlines: his childhood, and the aspects of his personality that may have led to his momentous decision to walk off his post.
In “Hindsight, Part 1,” host Sarah Koenig shifted the series’ focus all the way back to the state of Idaho, where he grew up. According to Bergdahl, this is where his story really begins. In conversations with filmmaker Mark Boal, Bergdahl describes growing up isolated, in a rural area, taking care of himself, wandering around with BB guns and shotguns. Home-schooled by his mother, Bergdahl was never very good at his school work, and Koenig says he grew to fear punishment.
As a teenager, Bergdahl found refuge from his home life by taking fencing classes at a performing arts school in Ketchum, Idaho. Kim Harrison, whom we met in Episode 5 and is now one of Bergdahl’s closest friends, helped run the school.
According to Koenig, Bergdahl would talk for hours with Harrison and other staff members about his struggle to understand “the big existential questions” of life. Kim Harrison’s daughter Kayla told Koenig that he wanted to be “strict, and uncompromising,” with his morals, and told her, “you’re not a good person if you know that there’s something wrong and you’re not doing everything in your power to fix it.”
Kayla told Koenig she felt as though Bergdahl “holds the world and everyone in it to unrealistically high expectations… he has the least flexible system ever.”
Harrison told Koenig that, despite leaving Idaho for a string of trips and “adventures” in his teens, she was shocked when he told her his next adventure would be joining the military. Immediately, Harrison knew this was a bad idea and felt Bergdahl would never be able to “suck it up, join the crowd, and follow orders.”
Harrison suggested Bergdahl join the Coast Guard, where he would be helping people and saving lives.
But only a few weeks into basic training, Koenig reports that Bergdahl experienced a breakdown. Koenig describes the military’s investigation, which revealed Bergdahl was “found in a fetal position and shaking and crying” on the floor. He was eventually seen by a psychiatrist who recommended discharging him with a diagnosis of “adjustment disorder with depression.” For him to re-enlist, he would need to get counseling for stress management and psychiatric approval.
Feeling like he had “washed out” after being separated from the Coast Guard, Bergdahl told Boal that his family “basically thought I was the failure. The black sheep of the family that, you know, just wouldn’t listen, and wouldn’t do the right things and all that.”
Bergdahl had an answer. A way to fix everyone’s perception of him. He would join the Army.
Because of how Bergdahl left the Coast Guard, he would need a waiver to re-enlist, Koenig explained. And because the military needed additional troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, getting a waiver in May of 2008 was easier than usual.
According to Koenig, all Bergdahl had to do to receive his waiver was write up a short explanation of his discharge. In the statement, Bergdahl said, “I have matured and know that I am prepared to go into the Army. Please do not allow my past record to prevent me from coming into the Army.”
Bergdahl was eventually accepted into the Army in the spring of 2008. A year later, he would walk away from his post, and his life would change forever.
“Hindsight, Part 2” picks up with Koenig asking a question she believes will be key in Bergdahl’s court martial: “Did the Army screw up by accepting Bowe, by deploying him to Afghanistan?” One long-time Army psychiatrist, Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, told Koenig that the Army recruiting process relies on self-reporting for mental health assessment, and that unless a recruit shows obvious outward signs of psychosis, he or she will likely be accepted.
But Maj. General Kenneth Dahl, who conducted the initial Army investigation into Bergdahl’s case, wrote in his report that he feels “this system isn’t good enough,” according to Koenig. Dahl felt the recruiter did what he was supposed to do and followed all the regulations, but “it seems inadequate we would rely on an interview… and not review the details of a separation incident” because “when you’re deciding whether to re-enlist someone, few things are more relevant than a prior separation.”
The episode also reveals Bergdahl’s perception of the Army and what it means it be a soldier, and explores how that perception may have influenced his actions.
In a conversation with Mark Boal, Bergdahl says he wanted to be a soldier, but he had a vision of being a soldier “back then,” or in the past. “I wanted to be a World War II soldier, I wanted to be, you know, an 1800s soldier… more than anything I wanted to be a kung fu fighter,” he said. “But that’s where I ended up having problems because… the only option I had was to be a modern soldier.”
A modern soldier, Koenig points out, has no choice about the cause or the morals of the fight. He is a “brainless private,” “just a tool.” Boal says he thinks this reality challenged Bergdahl, a person who believes so profoundly in the sacred nature of military leadership.
In the days leading up to his disappearance, Koenig says Bergdahl wrote letters to family and friends comparing himself to John Galt, a character from Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged.” In the novel, Galt brings the economy to a halt in a moralistic effort to fix it. The recipients of the letters say, in hindsight, the comparison offers a clue to the actions Bergdahl was contemplating.
All this evidence suggests to Koenig that questions of mental health and instability will be key to Bergdahl’s defense in his court martial proceeding. She reports that Bergdahl’s defense team called for an Army mental health assessment for Bergdahl in May 2015, and Army forensic psychiatrist Christopher Lang diagnosed Bergdahl with schizotypal personality disorder.
Bergdahl’s case is on hold while a military appeals court reviews the prosecution’s complaints about access to classified documents that Bergdahl’s civilian lawyer, Eugene Fidell, has been granted.
As Koenig points out early in the episode, the exact details of these meetings between U.S. and Taliban officials would take weeks to fully explain. But there is one aspect of the deal that gained great attention on the world’s geopolitical stage: the highly criticized prisoner swap.
According to Koenig, when Bergdahl was captured in 2009, the war in Afghanistan had taken a dark turn. The Obama administration was focused on a “fully resourced, counterinsurgency. Peace talks -- meaning talking directly to the Taliban about ending the war – that was not part of the plan,” Koenig said.
Quietly and behind the scenes, however, contact was being made.
In 2010, in Munich, Germany, the first meeting between the United States and the Taliban took place. Both parties entered the meeting with clear intentions. According to Koenig, the United States “wanted the Taliban to stop fighting, break with al Qaeda and support the Afghan constitution, including rights for women and girls. That was especially important for Hilary Clinton.”
The episode reveals that the Taliban also presented a few non-negotiable demands during this meeting. According to Koenig, these included the removal of some of their names off of a U.N. sanctions list of terrorists, clear distinction between themselves and al Qaeda, an official office in Doha, Qatar, and they wanted Taliban prisoners released.
As Koenig stated early in the episode, “there was an orderly vision” that was expected of both parties after the first meeting in Munich back in 2010. She said that both U.S. and Taliban officials envisioned, “Everyone would agree to terms on the confidence building measures. The office would happen, the trade including Bowe would happen…”
Ultimately, the final goal of “Afghan to Afghan talks” would be achieved and underway.
Instead, what happened was anything but orderly. Again, as Koenig pointed out, the details of what occurred would be nearly an impossible task to explain in her forty-minute podcast. But, ultimately, after four years of heightened mistrust between U.S. and Taliban forces, and countless moments of tip-toeing around the complicated dance of diplomacy, Bergdahl’s freedom became directly tied to the release of five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Koenig explained that among these five detainees was a Taliban deputy intelligence chief, a former Taliban interior minister, one of the Taliban’s chief of communications. The last two, and perhaps most infamous of the bunch, were Mullah Mohammad Fazl and Mullah Norullah Noori: The chief of Army staff for the Taliban and a provincial governor under the Taliban regime.
According to New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall, Fazl “was one of the most feared men in the land.” She went on to tell Koenig that he was “this hideous operational commander who had a string of massacres to his name,” and that he was known to “shove his fingers up peoples nostrils, to push their heads back then slit their throats.” Noori, on the other hand, as Gall added, “had a reputation as someone you could reason with.”
Finally, according to Koenig, as the U.S. military was making active strides toward removing any kind of a serious military presence in Afghanistan, and after U.S. officials received an alarming proof-of-life video of Bergdahl looking far from healthy, in any sense of the word, the highly anticipated prisoner swap happened Saturday, May 31, 2014.
Bergdahl was now back in U.S. custody and the five prisoners were brought to Doha and were to stay there for one year, Koenig explained.
Koenig emphasized the fact that while this was a necessary trade, it was by no means “a brilliant achievement.” She highlighted the fact that the entire swap was extremely “difficult to assess” in that, ultimately, the Taliban got everything they wanted from their original list of demands that were set forth during the first peace talks in Munich, Germany, back in 2010.
“They got some of their names off the U.N. sanctions list, their office isn’t official but there is that building in Doha, and they got their prisoners back from Guantanamo, no less. All they gave up was Bowe, the guy they planned to give up all along. The guy they were tired of holding. All in all, a tidy victory,” she said.
The day of the trade, President Obama faced the country in a now-infamous press hearing in the Rose Garden standing side by side with Bergdahl’s parents. He told the country, “This morning I called Bob and Jani Bergdahl and told them that after nearly five years in captivity, their son Bowe is coming home.”
According to Koenig, Bergdahl’s family and friends were under the impression he would not face any serious or incriminating charges upon his return, and that “time with the Taliban would be punishment enough.”
As we now know, this was far from the case.
On the next episode of “Serial,” the aftermath of the decision to bring Bergdahl home and how he now faces a court-martial are explored.
Episode 10 focused on the immediate aftermath of the highly criticized prisoner swap, and highlighted three truly “thorny” political spectacles that soon erupted in the nation’s capital.
The first catalyst to the madness occurred during an interview conducted by ABC News' George Stephanopoulos with U.S National Security Advisor Susan Rice. When asked if Bergdahl should be disciplined upon his return to U.S. soil or if he had suffered enough in captivity, Rice responded by saying, “Certainly, anybody who’s been held in those conditions in captivity for 5 years has paid an extraordinary price. ... He served the United States with honor and distinction.”
According to Koenig, to say Bergdahl served his country with “honor and distinction” was offensive beyond comprehension to many military members connected to the case.
A media frenzy surrounding Bergdahl’s innocence soon ensued. According to Koenig, some of the soldier’s former platoon mates and other insiders on the case were all now jumping the gun to voice their opinion on the situation. In an interview with Fox News, one of Bergdahl’s former platoon mates laid his view out quite simply: “He needs to be 100 percent accountable for what he did. The fact of the matter is, he deserted us in the middle of Afghanistan to go and find the Taliban."
The second moment that contributed to the political upheaval surrounding Bergdahl’s case was the controversial announcement by President Obama in the White House’s Rose Garden. Standing side by side with the newly released prisoner’s parents, the president showed compassion, empathy and relief towards Bergdahl's safe return. According to Koenig, some White House staffers now regret the ceremony -- calling it last minute, and a change of course from the original plan the administration had to publicly reveal Bergdahl's status, and the prisoner swap. Originally, the administration was just going to release a written statement. One White House staff member also told Koenig, “In hindsight, we should have thought about it more. There were other audiences who were watching. People who had suffered. The Rose Garden put a target on our back.” As Koenig added, it put a target on Bergdahl's as well.
Marking the third major contributor to the political spectacle surrounding the case, Koenig spent the next portion of the episode examining Congress’s reaction to the Rose Garden announcement. With many members finding out about the swap for the first time on TV, Koenig stated, “no one from the White House, or Department of Defense, or State Department, no one told Congress this trade was about to go down. ... By law, the administration was supposed to notify congress 30 days before any detainee was transferred out of Guantanamo. This time, they didn’t. And that was on purpose. The White House didn’t want members to get mad and to try to stop the deal from taking place. ... The decision was made. Don’t say anything.”
According to Koenig, despite efforts made my Congress to obtain information on the prisoner swap idea during Bergdahl’s time in captivity, members were consistently kept in the dark and led to believe there may not even be a deal at all.
Ultimately, according to Koenig, the White House said that the Secretary of Defense had acted within his range of legal authority by following all the rules and requirements for detainee transfers, and that the 30-day notice to Congress would have endangered Bergdahl's life. Nonetheless, the consensus of both Republicans and Democrats alike was that the administration handled this irresponsibly.
While Washington seemed to be in a constant state of ethical, legal and political turmoil in the weeks after Bergdahl’s release, the newly freed soldier still hadn’t even returned to the United States.
According to Koenig, Bergdahl was being treated at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he was undergoing the military’s reintegration process. Not used to having more than just a bowl, blanket and water bottle for 5 years, Koenig said that everything felt strange to Bergdahl, adding that he couldn’t even speak, just blink and squint.
In a conversation with screenwriter Mark Boal, Bergdahl recalled what happened one of the first few days at the hospital after he was brought into a room by Army commanders hoping to speak with him. The room had chairs and a couch -- two now-foreign concepts to the former prisoner.
“I heard the word sit, so basically I just sat because that’s what I was used to doing. I squatted down, then plopped down in Indian style cross-legged style onto the floor.” He added that captains, generals, and colonels alike joined him without hesitation. “Now that I think about it, it’s kind of funny,” Bergdahl said with a chuckle.
Koenig described other peculiar facets from his time spent in the hospital, revealing Bergdahl's constant state of paranoia, unwillingness to sleep on a normal bed because it felt too soft, and the medical charts created by hospital staff that intricately tracked his various levels of emotional capabilities -- including his ability to deal with negative media attention.
According to Koenig, Bergdahl was completely unaware of the media scrutiny surrounding his case back home.
As the American public anxiously awaited the soldier’s return to U.S. soil, Koenig explained that a bigger question had begun to emerge -- had soldiers been killed or injured searching for Bergdahl?
Today, Koenig revealed, there is still no official answer to that question. Stay tuned.
In the final episode of the season, “Present for Duty,” Sarah Koenig attempted to answer two of the biggest and most concerning questions about Bergdahl’s case that remain unanswered: Were soldiers killed or injured looking for him, and what, ultimately, should we really blame him for?
Koenig kicked off the episode by returning to Bergdahl’s brief and unsuccessful stint with the U.S. Coast Guard. After Episode 7 aired, and his mental breakdown during boot camp training was described, a former “boot camp buddy” of Bergdahl’s, John, reached out to Koenig to share his thoughts on the matter. Feeling as though what happened at boot camp was much more than a mental breakdown, John could not believe the soldier was reenlisted back into the army in May of 2008, telling Koenig, “Based on what I saw, based on what happened during coast guard boot camp ... not at all. There’s no reason why they should have ever let him in at all.”
Koenig then put it simply, “The army messed up, Bowe messed up. Let’s move on. But that leaves out a reckoning, and a reckoning is what the military wants understandably.”
The root of this reckoning lies in the alleged six soldiers, and possibly others, who were killed on duty while looking for Bergdahl. While this still has yet to be conclusively proven, Koenig described the development of this idea transitioning from “the realm of the murky” into “concrete information” as it was backed by media platforms and unquestioned by the Department of Defense.
The episode took an interesting turn when Koenig presented a concerning bit of information: According to the narrator and her research team, it was clear to some members of the military after the first two weeks Bergdahl was captured that he was in Pakistan.
Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Wolf, who was the highest NCO in Bowe’s battalion at the time and who, according to Koenig, has “no love lost” for the soldier, told Koenig he wanted to make one thing clear: “The families who lost sons during this deployment, to let them know their sons did not die looking for PFC Bergdahl. Their sons didn’t die looking for him.... Because all you’ve got to do is look at a map and look at a time frame.” In his mind, Bergdahl was already in Pakistan.
Why then, were the search and rescue efforts only being conducted in Afghanistan? For one, the U.S. military did not have authority to operate in Pakistan. But it was also because of the "no one left behind" mentality. Of course they would keep searching for any sign of him.
Jon Thurman, who served with Bergdahl, believes that soldiers were killed or wounded during the search efforts for him. Even if a mission was not directly connected to finding Bergdahl, that goal lurked in the background of everything they did.
He agreed with Koenig when she called this an “umbrella problem” hovering over everything he and his fellow soldiers did.
This is the primary accusation those against Bergdahl make, according to Koenig. “The basis of second- and third-order effects. So many resources were diverted to look for Bowe. Depriving other units, resulting in fatalities.”
In one of Koenig's last conversations with Mark Boal, the Hollywood screenwriter whose phone conversations with Bergdahl made the entire podcast possible, Boal told Koenig that Bergdahl’s trial has highlighted two important facets in our society. First, the capacity for human beings to forgive, and second, the fact that the confusion of how to punish Bergdahl reflects the larger confusion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even more so, the entire War on Terror.
Currently, Bergdahl is still an active military member and works an office job at his base in San Antonio. He faces a court-martial and could be convicted of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Bergdahl is fighting all charges. As Koenig said, "This means he waits.... Something he knows how to do."