Before PFC Bowe Bergdahl spoke to Serial about his experience or tofilm-maker Mark Boal, Bergdahl spoke to . They spoke for a day and a half, but by the end of their conversation, Bergdahl’s statement was more than 300 pages long. In the words of a flabbergasted Boal, “300 pages? Why? Did you tell him every single meal you had since deployment?” What Bergdahl had actually told Dahl was the story of why he had walked off his base in Afghanistan. The reason he had decided to create the so-called , which had started his journey to this August’s court martial – after more than five years in captivity at the hands of the Taliban.
‘He was a great soldier’
Before Bergdahl left his unit, walking off his post in the middle of the night in Afghanistan, everyone admired his professionalism and dedication to his job. “He was a great solider,” Sarah Koenig read in a statement from a fellow soldier. He joined the army in 2008 as an infantry soldier with his goal to be in special forces. With that in mind, he worked extra hard, volunteered for extra duties, and was what the military called “squared away” – a very high compliment. But, according to Koenig, Bergdahl was not the typical grunt, either. Not one in for “the typical barracks soldier lifestyle” of drinking and crude humor, preferring to listen to classical music, read, and smoke a pipe – not typical grunt behavior. Bergdahl also had very specific ideas about army leadership and according to Koenig, he found his ideal in his senior drill sergeant at Fort Benning, during basic training. “He was somebody you could trust and you could take pride in backing him,” Bergdahl said. “Unfortunately, when I got out of basic everything went downhill from there.” In his conversation with Boal, Bergdahl explains that his disillusionment with the army didn’t start in , but pretty much the moment he left basic training and faced the reality of leadership and life in the army. He started cataloguing his concerns, letting them loose in his conversation with Dahl.
Bergdahl’s unit landed in Afghanistan in spring of 2009, right as the Taliban was pushing back, casualties among US and coalition forces had spiked, and according to Koenig, basically, we were losing the fight. President Obama had called for a surge in troops into the region to fight a situation he deemed “increasingly perilous”. On the ground, that translated to battalions such as Bergdahl’s doing tours in Iraq, returning to the US to absorb new recruits, and heading into Afghanistan with a mission of counter-insurgency, training Afghan forces, and trying to build support among Afghans. But this mission was kind of fuzzy. Koenig spoke to many officers who seemed to have no idea what they were really doing in Afghanistan. Rebuilding a hospital made sense, but handing out “bags of salt, things of ghee, bags of rice, things of crayons to the kids”, made less sense to the soldiers. “Infantrymen – I think by definition we’re not supposed to be doing humanitarian things,” said soldier John Thurman, who posed: “How are we supposed to beat the Taliban this way?”
Bergdahl arrived in Afghanistan in May 2009, a few months after his troop. He had a staph infection earlier in the year. His fellow soldiers noticed that he looked disappointed when he arrived on their base. “He wanted hardships,” said one, who believed Bergdahl thought their bunk beds were too cushy. “He took the mattress off the bed and slept on the springs instead.”
‘What you couldn’t shave?’
“I wanted to be a soldier,” Bergdahl explained to Boal later. He wanted the “movie version of a soldier”, according to Koenig. A week after Bergdahl’s arrival, his battalion saw “action” – an IED blasted up a few so-called vehicle (MRAPs) in their convoy. They had to haul a disabled truck the rest of the way up the mountain to a kind of fort operated by Afghan security forces. It had seen a lot of gun and rocket fire and looked worse for the wear. “This was the first time that I saw something where I saw that this place is fucked up bad,” said Josh Corder, who served with Bergdahl. The battalion had to stay in their vehicles all the time, in case of enemy attack, and they had to stay there for days due to the disabled truck. “It was the most miserable place ever,” noted one soldier. They were so trapped in the mountain that the army had to drop food and water via airplane to keep the battalion alive. The soldiers had to stay put while the command figured out how to get them and the MRAPs down and it was taking a very long time.
After five days of being stuck in their vehicles on a mountain, they were finally told to head down the mountain and back to base. They took a different route – and hit another IED, which disabled another truck. As they were investigating the damage, they came under attack from the Taliban. They were surrounded. They needed to leave, but couldn’t until the MRAP was towed out of there, because the vehicles were too valuable to leave behind. They eventually made it out of the attack with no casualties on their side.
Back on base after days trapped in an MRAP and then falling under enemy fire, according to Bergdahl, the first thing out of their platoon commander’s mouth was, “What, you couldn’t shave?” This rubbed Bergdahl the wrong way. Most of the soldiers brushed it off and started carrying a razor with them, Bergdahl stewed. According to Koenig the comment made Bergdahl feel that he and his fellow soldiers “weren’t in safe hands”.
‘This whole thing is stupid’
According to Corder, something shifted in Bergdahl after the attack. He thought the army wasn’t behaving aggressively enough, that they should have been out there killing the enemy instead of hiding in their trucks. According to Koenig, Bergdahl talked to Boal about a lot of diverse and divergent feelings about the war, the sum of which was that whatever they were doing in Afghanistan wasn’t working. “This whole thing is stupid,” Bergdahl said. “It’s bullshit what we’re doing here.”
To figure out whether that is true, Koenig talked to , PhD and former infantryman who was in Afghanistan at the same time as Bergdahl. His take is that the army never really committed to the concept of fostering goodwill or rebuilding Afghanistan. All those bags of rice and ghee and new roads were fine, but ultimately meaningless without a full commitment to support the Afghan people, which the US military was never willing to do. “The reality is they are fighting their struggle, we’re fighting ours and we never bothered to say, ‘OK do these two actually overlap?’” Dempsey said.
A CIA operative named Bill Murray (not Bill Murray) felt the same way saying that there was no real point in rebuilding Afghanistan or restructuring their society, instead they should just “tell them you want to get Bin Laden and get out”. Military leadership didn’t buy it, though. They wanted more money and more men, according to Koenig.
‘You want to shoot 15 people in My Lai go ahead’
On Bergdahl’s first night at in late May of 2009, he and five other soldiers were sent to sleep on an observation hill with a foxhole built for two. “That meant four guys sleeping on a bare hill with a town 75 yards away,” Bergdahl said. “This wasn’t considered a security risk by the guys who put us up there.” The next day they were tasked with enlarging the hole, digging rocks under the blazing Afghan sun. They asked their sergeant if they could take off part of their uniforms due to the heat and received tacit permission. The battalion commander, , was not pleased to see them out of uniform and threw what Bergdahl called “a tantrum”.
According to Koenig, that would have been the end of it, except for the fact that photographer of the Guardian published photos of Bergdahl and his crew out of uniform. “That sent the commanders through the roof,” Koenig said. According to Bergdahl, they were severely reprimanded by colonel Baker. “He’s saying, ‘your guys are as bad as child rapists, your actions are as bad as if you’d murdered an entire village in Vietnam’.”
While Baker refused to be interviewed for the show, retired command sergeant major Ken Wolf, Colonel Baker’s number 2, told Koenig he believed this was a very big deal. He peppered Koenig with questions about the photos: “You see weapons? You see anyone with body armor on? You see guys with helmets on?” When she says no, he bluntly tells her: “You see a bunch of guys waiting to get fucking killed.”
In the photos, Bergdahl is smoking a pipe off in the corner, which Wolf did not appreciate either. To him, the entire scene screamed lack of discipline, because he and his sergeants had come up with uniform rules and now they were ignoring them. For Wolf, ignoring uniform rules was a fast and slippery slope: “Do whatever the fuck you want, you want to shoot 15 people in My Lai go ahead.” For Wolf, this lackadaisical attitude could not stand, especially so early in the deployment. Three people were reprimanded for the out-of-uniform incident, one demoted, two moved out of the platoon.
Bergdahl felt that Baker had turned against them. “He was going out of his way to make everything as miserable as possible in an unnecessary way,” said Bergdahl. The punishments messed with the platoon’s morale and Bergdahl’s disillusionment boiled over and he was worried that Baker would send them on a suicide mission to get rid of them for blemishing his reputation. Bergdahl decided that he had to save his platoon. Three weeks later he walked off OP Mest.
Next time, Koenig asks is Bergdahl selfless or selfish?
- After arriving in Afghanistan, Bergdahl would sleep clutching a tomahawk to his chest, which sounds uncomfortable.
- If you ever find yourself in Afghanistan, be sure to drive an MRAP, a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle that can survive an IED.
- At first, Mark Boal was not impressed with Bergdahl’s reasons for leaving the base, but claims that his understanding changed. More on that later.