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Saturday, December 9, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Saturday, December 9, 2023 | Back issues
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Bergdahl Breaks Silence|on Capture by Taliban

SAN ANTONIO (CN) - Minutes after Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl slipped away from his combat outpost in the dead of night, triggering a five-year search for answers that altered the trajectory of U.S. operations in Afghanistan, he had a sinking feeling: "Good grief, I'm in over my head."

Carrying little besides a vacuum-packed meal ready to eat, trail mix, some cash and a compass, Bergdahl tried to run the 20 miles from his platoon's base, Observation Post Mest, to a higher headquarters, hoping his absence would trigger enough attention to allow him to air his grievances.

"Suddenly it just really starts to sink in that I did something bad, well not bad, but I did something really serious," he said in an interview with the podcast "Serial," released Thursday.

Still unsure whether he will face court-martial on charges that could land him in a military prison for life, Bergdahl, 29, spoke publicly for the first time since being freed from Taliban captivity in 2014. His release came nearly five years after he walked away from his combat outpost and fell into Taliban hands.

Bergdahl's story has been told before - by Army officials testifying at his preliminary hearing in September, by media analysts and soldiers angry at his disappearance - but not by Bergdahl himself.

He has been silent since returning to the United States last year and being placed on active duty at a military base in San Antonio. Under the glare of the international media during his September hearing, Bergdahl spoke only to answer procedural questions.

Thursday's release of the podcast series, co-created and hosted by Sarah Koenig, brought a new voice to story, featuring Bergdahl in recorded phone conversations with filmmaker Mark Boal.

It provides a glimpse into the mind of the soldier who remains largely a mystery to the public.

"There's times when I'd wake up and it's just so dark, like I would wake up not even remembering what I was. To the point where you just want to scream, and I can't scream, I can't risk that, so it's like you're standing there screaming in your mind," he told Boal.

The recordings are from 25 hours of audio between Bergdahl and Boal, who wrote and produced the movies "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty." Bergdahl approved the release of the taped conversations.

Bergdahl's version of why he sneaked off his post and ended up a prisoner of terrorists for five years mirrored testimony at his Article 32 hearing in September.

"Alls 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.

Bergdahl recounts walking away from his Army base in the first episode of "Serial's" second season, describes the isolating torture he faced, and compared himself to Jason Bourne, the hero of a series of Robert Ludlum novels and films made from them.

"I was trying to prove to myself, to the world, that I was capable of being that person," Bergdahl said. "Doing what I did was saying I am like Jason Bourne. I had this fantastic idea that I was going to prove to the world that I was the real thing.

"I could be what it is that all those guys out there who go to the movies ... They all want to be that, but I wanted to prove that I was that."

Eugene Fidell, Bergdahl's attorney, said in a statement that the podcast is "a step in the right direction."

"We have asked from the beginning that everyone withhold judgment on Sgt. Bergdahl's case until they know the facts," he said. "We hope the Army now will 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."

Fidell has long sought the Army's release of documents detailing the 2014 investigation of Bergdahl's disappearance and capture. Dahl, the Army's lead investigator, testified at the hearing that sending Bergdahl to prison "would be inappropriate."

Bergdahl was charged in March with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.

His hearing officer, Lt. Col. Mark A. Visger, recommended that Bergdahl's case be referred to a special court-martial, but that he receive no jail time, defense attorneys revealed in October.

The Army has remained mum on details of Visger's report. The final decision on whether to bring Bergdahl to trial by court-martial rests with Gen. Robert Abrams, the commander of U.S. Army Forces Command.

Questions have hung over the case for years. Bergdahl has been portrayed as a traitor, and his May 2014 exchange for five Taliban detainees created a political firestorm that still fuels criticism from Washington lawmakers.

Bergdahl, an Idaho native, told the filmmaker that in the hours after he vanished he altered his plan, to try conduct his own surveillance of the Taliban, but soon found himself tangled in the hills when he forgot to check his compass.

"That's what put me into line of sight of the Taliban," he told Boal.

Bergdahl said six to seven men in motorcycles carrying high-powered weapons snatched him away less than 24 hours after he walked into the enemy-infested desert.

"I can't tell you what set them off, I can't tell you how they spotted me ... they deviated, they turned off the road, came toward me, and maybe they just saw somebody walking in the desert and they wanted to see who he was," he said. "I couldn't do anything against six or seven guys with AK-47s and they just pulled up and that was it.

"Alls I had was a knife I'm not stupid enough to try and knife off a bunch of guys with AK-47s."

Army prosecutors said Bergdahl's May 2009 disappearance launched an intensive manhunt that exposed soldiers to unnecessary risk.

"Nobody knows who he is and nobody knows why he did it," Boal said.

"He's a mystery. He poses this really mysterious dilemma because he did something that's - from a military perspective from a lot of people's perspective - is unforgivable. He commits a cardinal sin in walking off and leaving his post. And yet it's not that simple because he says he did it for really, not just really good reasons, like the most important, profound reasons you could possibly think of. So how do you judge someone like that, how do you judge him?"

Koenig speaks with several soldiers in Bergdahl's platoon in the episode. The next installment of Bergdahl's story features Koenig's telephone interview with Taliban.

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