- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The first four episodes of Serial have focused on U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s decision to desert his post in eastern Afghanistan and the years of harrowing torture he suffered after being snatched up by the Taliban. The newest installment isn’t as dramatic, but it details something just as disturbing: an atmosphere of indifference and hostility towards the missing soldier throughout much of the military command charged with bringing him back.
“I can’t even begin to tell you the amount of times I heard ‘why should I care?’” said “Andrea,” a civilian analyst at the U.S. Central Command assigned to help coordinate the search for Bergdahl. She, along with another analyst identified as “Michelle” (neither is a real name), appear in the latest episode of the popular podcast, “Meanwhile, in Tampa.”
Bergdahl would eventually be freed in a hugely controversial May 2014 swap for five Taliban prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay. But even years later, the two analysts can’t help but express what sounds like fresh surprise at what they describe as the almost total inability of different parts of the federal government to work together to get Bergdahl home.
Episode 5 of Serial is the first where we don’t hear Bergdahl’s voice, so there aren’t any horrifying new details of his five years in the hands of the Taliban. Instead, host Sarah Koenig uses interviews with a small handful of military analysts and retired officers to tell the story of what was happening stateside to get the soldier out of Pakistan, where the militants held him after his capture.
One of the big breaks for the Bergdahl family came in the form of surprising assistance from a man identified as “Nathan,” (not his real name) a civilian intelligence analyst working for the Pentagon. Nathan told Koenig that he reached out to Bergdahl’s parents “totally unofficially” — and without the knowledge of his bosses — to point them in the direction of military officers capable of giving the family more timely information and brief them on what questions to ask and how to ask them.
There’s also an appearance by retired Lt. Col. Jason Amerine — a guy once so revered for his heroics in Afghanistan that the Pentagon made an action figure out of him — who led a small team at the Pentagon tasked with winning the release of Bergdahl and other western hostages in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Amerine’s experience was about the same as Andrea and Michelle’s: indifference, hostility, and misinformation. “You know, if you asked people about Bergdahl,” he tells Koenig, “the refrain was almost always that the guy was a traitor, even though there actually wasn’t any evidence that he was a traitor. So that attitude was everywhere up and down the chain of command.”
As thanks for his work, Amerine ended up retiring in November after beating back an investigation by the Army over allegations that he passed along classified information to members of Congress. Once he was cleared, the Green Beret was pinned with the prestigious Legion of Merit for his “standards of excellence and professionalism,” as he walked out the doors of the Pentagon for the last time, six months after Bergdahl was finally released, blinking and confused, back into the world.
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