This week the U.S. Army announced that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 29, will face a general court-martial for his alleged 2009 disappearance from a base in Afghanistan. He has been charged with “desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty” and “misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place.” Until last week, Bergdahl hasn’t spoken publicly about his case, but on Thursday, Bergdahl became the subject of the popular podcast Serial. Over the last several months, he spoke extensively with a screenwriter who then shared his interviews with the producer of the podcast. In going public with his story via the podcast, Bergdahl may in fact be ensuring his fate; he readily admits to deserting his unit.
According to the officer who investigated Bergdahl’s case, around midnight on June 29, 2009, Bergdahl — who was five weeks into his deployment — left his forward operating outpost in Taliban-controlled territory. According to Lt. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, he wanted to create a crisis large enough to attract the attention of a general officer. Bergdahl felt his unit wasn’t pursuing the Taliban aggressively enough and thought that deserting his platoon would serve as the spark to bring attention to the matter.
“As a private first-class, nobody is going to listen to me,” Bergdahl says in the first episode of the podcast. “No one is going to take me serious that an investigation needs to be put underway.” He also admits that his motives weren't entirely noble. “I was trying to prove to myself; I was trying to prove to the world, to anybody who used to know me ... I was capable of being what I appeared to be,” Bergdahl says. “I had this fantastic idea that I was going to prove to the world I was the real thing.”
He likened himself to the fictional spy Jason Bourne of Robert Ludlum’s popular books.
“Doing what I did is me saying that I am like, I don’t know, Jason Bourne,” Bergdahl said. “You know, that I could be what it is that all those guys out there that go to the movies and watch those movies; they all want to be that, but I wanted to prove that I was that.”
He was soon captured by Taliban-affiliated fighters, beginning four years and 11 months of captivity and torture. According to The Washington Post, Bergdahl was “kept in isolation and was beaten regularly to the point that his body was permanently damaged.”
“How do I explain to a person that just standing in an empty, dark room hurts?” Bergdahl recounts. “A person asked me: ‘Why does it hurt? Does your body hurt?’ Yes, your body hurts, but it’s more than that. It’s mental, like, almost confused. ... I would wake up not even remembering what I was.”
Bergdahl was exchanged in 2014 for five Taliban prisoners held by the US in Guantanamo, Cuba. The prisoner swap touched off harsh criticism, with some in Congress accusing President Barack Obama of risking the safety of the nation.
Although it’s unknown what Bergdahl’s motive was for speaking to a screenwriter, it certainly seems possible that he is pursuing a movie deal. And the podcast angle also seems to support the idea that Bergdahl is interested in having his story exposed to a broader audience. But, was this the best time to release that information? In the first episode, Bergdahl directly confesses to the desertion charge.
The Post reports that Bergdahl’s attorney declined to comment on the production of the Serial podcast, but did release a statement lauding the first episode.
“We have asked from the beginning that everyone withhold judgment on Sgt. Bergdahl’s case until they know the facts,” the statement said. “The Serial podcast, like the preliminary hearing conducted in September, is a step in the right direction. We hope the Army will now do its part to advance public understanding by releasing Lt. Gen. Kenneth S. Dahl’s report, including the transcript of his interview of Sgt. Bergdahl.”