Military & Veterans Life

Cover Story: Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

The launch of season two of the wildly popular Serial podcast caught millions of fans by surprise, chronicling the controversial capture and release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Serial’s ongoing coverage of the story brought the dramatic military account back to the forefront of the American public’s attention, and, by some accounts, the podcast’s in-depth study of Bergdahl and his capture may have spurred Department of Defense officials to take action.

After Serial’s record-breaking and award-winning first season – which focused on the murder of a Baltimore teenager and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend – many listeners believed host and co-producer Sarah Koenig might not be able to replicate that success for a second season. After all, Serial season one meticulously examined the criminal case – ultimately revealing new evidence that could potentially exonerate the convicted ex-boyfriend – and, to date, has been downloaded more than 100 million times. With Serial's unprecedented success, listeners clearly had high expectations for season two.

And Koenig didn’t plan to disappoint. On December 10, 2015, she described to listeners the video footage shot in the eastern reaches of Afghanistan that documented the release of Bergdahl, who spent nearly five years as a captive of the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network. Within those first few minutes of season two, Serial listeners were once again hooked.

The Controversial Release

As described by Koenig, the footage of the May 31, 2014 release showed Bergdahl sitting in the backseat of a pickup truck surrounded by armed Taliban fighters. He was cleanly shaven and dressed in traditional Afghan attire, blinking uncomfortably in the bright daylight. Eventually a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter landed in a whirlwind of dust and representatives of both sides greeted each other before Bergdahl was whisked away in the chopper.

It’s a scene that would normally be celebrated by U.S. leadership, fellow service personnel and civilians back home, but that wasn’t the case this time. The announcement of Bergdahl’s release generated harsh criticism of President Barack Obama, who signed off on a prisoner swap that released five high-profile Taliban captives without providing the required 30-days notice to Congress. It’s a move the president said was justified due to the “unique and exigent circumstances” of Bergdahl’s case.

However, it wasn’t just the release of captured enemy commanders that fueled the political firestorm surrounding the case, but the fact that Bergdahl’s loyalty was under scrutiny. Due to the somewhat mysterious circumstances of his disappearance, Bergdahl had been labeled a deserter and a traitor by many during his captivity (including some U.S. lawmakers, who struggled to come to an agreement on a prior prisoner exchange that eventually fell through). It was these mysterious circumstances that Serial’s Koenig examined in the first episode entitled "DUSTWUN," named after the military abbreviation for “duty status – whereabouts unknown.”

In Bergdahl’s Own Words

Though Bergdahl has never spoken to the media, Koenig was granted access to interviews of Bergdahl conducted by award-winning screenwriter Mark Boal (Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), who was researching a film production about the soldier’s time in captivity. These audio excerpts provided Koenig the narrative for season two, including intricate details about Bergdahl’s time in captivity. Most notably, however, the recordings allowed Koenig to present the events of June 30, 2009, in Bergdahl’s own words, as he recounted the preparation that led up to his walking away from his post and into enemy territory.

According to his interviews with Boal, Bergdahl hoped that leaving his post would draw attention to poor leadership that he considered dangerous to members of his unit, who had arrived at their posts in March 2009 as part of the surge that raised troop levels in Afghanistan to 100,000. The unit’s mission was to conduct counterinsurgency in the area, but a number of events led Bergdahl, who was already somewhat isolated from other members of his platoon, to become disillusioned with the Army’s mission in Afghanistan. Following the first death in his battalion, Bergdahl’s trust in the unit’s leadership deteriorated further.

In response to these issues, Bergdahl abandoned his post dressed in traditional Afghan attire, carrying only water, a knife, a compass and a few other belongings, with the intent of traveling nearly 20 miles by foot to a larger command post to alert superiors of these grievances. But, a mere hours after his departure, he would wind up in the hands of the enemy.

The Story Continues

Season two of Serial is ongoing and the number of episodes is yet to be determined. But listeners are hoping for the same in-depth study and consideration that Serial presented in season one, and Bergdahl’s account should easily provide plenty of enthralling material. Despite his eventual release from captivity in 2014, Bergdahl’s story is far from over.

In June 2014, the Army began investigating the facts surrounding his disappearance and capture. He had since returned to duty as an administrative clerk at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. By the end of 2014, the case had been referred to a four-star general for a possible court-martial with the charges of “desertion with the intent to shirk important or hazardous duty” and “misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command unit or place.” These charges carry the penalties of dishonorable discharge and confinement for life.

While there is no evidence that Serial influenced a decision, days after the first episode of Serial’s second season aired, Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of United States Armed Forces Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, ordered that Bergdahl be court-martialed on the charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.

If you are not already following the ongoing examination of Bergdahl’s case on iTunes, you can catch up on the first four episodes and learn more on Serial’s website. Updates on the case will also be shared on our website and on our Facebook feed.

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