In 'Serial' podcast, Bergdahl recalls leaving Afghan post thinking 'I'm in over my head'
About 20 minutes after stealing away from his post, alone in the dark in the wilds of eastern Afghanistan, then-Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl realized just what he’d done.
“I’m going, ‘Good grief, I’m in over my head.’ This really starts to sink in: I really did something bad. No, not bad. But serious.”
Bergdahl who spent five years a captive of the Taliban after walking off his post in 2009, was recovered in a controversial prisoner swap, then charged with desertion and misconduct. He spoke publicly for the first time Thursday in the first episode of “DUSTWUN” of the podcast “Serial.”
Bergdahl discussed his motives in leaving Observation Post Mest, his second-thoughts, and his capture by “six or seven guys on motorcycles with AK-47s.”
The show, according to its website, “follows a plot and characters wherever they take us. And we won’t know what happens at the end until we get there, not long before you get there with us.”
Bergdahl’s captivity is mentioned only briefly as the podcast begins. “How do I explain to a person that just standing in an empty dark room ... hurts? In this room, in this blackened dirt room, it’s tiny. And just on the side of this flimsy wooden door that you could probably easily rip off the hinges is the entire world out there. It is everything that you’re missing, it is everybody, everyone is out there. That breath that you’re trying to breathe, that release that you’re trying to get — everything is beyond that door,” he said. “And, I mean — I hate doors now.”
“I’d wake up remembering not even what I was... It’s like you’re standing there, screaming in your mind,” he said.
The series reporter didn’t speak with Bergdahl directly but used Bergdahl’s recorded conversations with Mark Boal, who is working on a film about Bergdahl’s odyssey. Boal, who wrote and produced “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker,” is involved in the podcast series, with Bergdahl’s permission, host Sarah Koenig said in the podcast.
Some of Bergdahl’s account had already become public in a September preliminary hearing of his criminal case: the soldier walked away from his outpost to send out a radio signal that he was “DUSTWUN” — duty status-whereabouts unknown. That he would, he knew, create a crisis that he hoped to leverage into an audience with a general officer when he turned up the next day at Forward Operating Base Sharona some 20 miles away.
“All’s I was seeing was leadership failure to the point that the guys standing next to me were in danger,” Bergdahl said in the podcast. But “as a PFC, no one is going to listen to me.”
He said he figured he’d be sent to prison, but that would be better than seeing fellow soldiers killed. And, he said, “I was fairly confident when someone took a look at the situation... people would realize I was right.”
Lt. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, who conducted an Army investigation after Bergdahl was recovered in 2014, said much the same thing at Bergdahl’s Article 32 hearing in September. But Dahl concluded that Bergdahl was misguided in his beliefs, however sincerely held.
Dahl also testified that Bergdahl, who’s now a sergeant, had an inflated view of his own abilities.
“I was trying to prove to myself, I was trying to prove to the world... that I was the real thing,” Bergdahl told Boal, explaining a secondary reason for his decision. Like “Jason Bourne,” he said, or other movie spies, assassins and heroic tough guys.
According to a soldier in Bergdahl’s company — Koenig interviewed scores of them and their voices are also heard on the podcast — some soldiers wondered if he was a spy. “We were just thinking, is this guy a complete lunatic or is he CIA?” the soldier said.
Bergdahl devised his plan just weeks after arriving in Afghanistan. He bought an Afghan robe at the “hajji shop” on Sharona, withdrew $300 in dollars and Afghan currency for possible bribes, and mailed home his computer and other items so the government couldn’t take them after his expected arrest.
After his realization of the seriousness of his action in leaving post, Bergdahl considered returning, then rejected that idea. He decided instead that he’d go to Sharona not only with his complaint about his leadership but also with valuable intelligence. He’d find someone planting an IED, then “I’d slowly, quietly follow him in the night,” and record where he lived, Bergdahl said.
“So when I got back to the FOB, I could say I also got this information... that would have been the bonus point to help me deal with the whole hurricane of... wrath that was going to hit me.”
But he got lost, he said, and ended up in the open at daylight, when the men on motorcycles spotted him. Asked if put up a fight, he said no, he only had knives. “I’m not stupid enough to try to knife off guys with AK-47s,” he said.
Bergdahl’s legal status is under consideration by Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of the U.S. Forces Command, who could court-martial Bergdahl, dismiss the charges, administratively separate him or decide some other arrangement. The officer in charge of the September hearing has recommended that Bergdahl not be sent to jail — as did Dahl — and that he should be tried at a special court-martial, in which punishment is capped at one year in jail and a bad-conduct discharge.
The podcast lasts about 40 minutes. At the end, to set up next week’s chapter — on the Taliban’s version of Bergdahl’s capture — Koenig phones the Taliban and introduces herself.
“Yes, yes, thank you very much. How are you doing?” the Talib says.