As he straps on his body armor and enters the austere observation post in eastern Afghanistan, there is nothing to suggest that US soldier – who was charged with desertion by the US on Wednesday – will soon mysteriously walk off into eastern Afghanistan into Taliban captivity, then celebration, and then infamy.
This exclusive footage, shot by Guardian photographer Sean Smith as he spent a month with Bergdahl’s unit in Paktika province, is the last imagery of Bergdahl the deployed soldier. Smith shot it just days before Bergdahl walked off Combat Outpost Mest-Lalak in June 2009.
Bergdahl, in the footage, seems only marginally different from his fellow soldiers in the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. He is mostly silent, carrying on with his duties, while other members of his unit grouse over the wartime boredom and frustration that they encounter half a world away from home. “Roger that, sir,” are the only words of Bergdahl’s Smith records.
Yet in emails to his family published in 2012 by Rolling Stone, Bergdahl, too, expressed doubt and bitterness over the mission, much like his colleagues in the video, who question the wisdom of the arduous counterinsurgency and nation-building mission featured in the US’s longest-ever war.
“They all hate us here anyway,” one soldier says. Another remarks: “They just want to be left alone, man. The same thing in Iraq, when I was there. These people just want to be left alone.”
The 501st appears isolated from the Afghan population, unable even to speak with the Afghans in whose name they fight except through radio communication with an interpreter, as Bergdahl watches. At one point, soldiers seem to consider throwing rocks at nearby Afghan children. The soldiers’ hilltop outpost is constructed near a burial site. One warns: “It’s not gonna be pretty when they come up here and get pissed off at us for desecrating their graveyard.”
Yet only Bergdahl walked off the base and into the hands of the Taliban, beginning a five-year captivity that ended in May 2014 when Barack Obama agreed to trade five senior detainees at Guantánamo Bay for his freedom.
Bergdahl’s disappearance, much criticized by members of his unit, has been under investigation by the US army ever since, while a political firestorm has continued over the prisoner swap.
The army on Wednesday announced against Bergdahl that could lead to imprisonment for the rest of his life in a US military prison.
Through his attorney, Bergdahl said in a statement on Wednesday that he was kept in isolation for his five years as a prisoner of the Taliban and its Haqqani Network allies, and chained after multiple escape attempts.