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Serial Recap, Episode 6: Bergdahl Reaches His Breaking Point

Bowe Bergdahl thought the Army was failing him and other soldiers, but one incident pushed him over the edge

bergdahl

The small group of U.S. soldiers sent to the top of the hill were hot, tired, and angry. They had been given the job of manning a small overwatch position near their base in eastern Afghanistan, only to find the hole that had been dug for shelter – and cover from enemy fire – only had room for two of the five.

So they started digging. And sweating. After radioing for permission to take off their bulky protective gear as some form of relief against the oppressive late May heat, and receiving a vaguely affirmative answer, they stripped down to their t-shirts, and kept digging.

What happened next would end up being perhaps the final straw for then-Pvt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been mentally cataloging what he saw as the many slights and missteps of other soldiers – and Army leadership — since the day he left basic training. And it forms the basis for Episode 6 of the Serial podcast, which recounts the story of how and why Bergdahl walked off his base in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009, and the five years of imprisonment he would subsequently suffer at the hands of the Taliban.

While they dug, the commander of the battalion, then-Lt. Col. Clint Baker, showed up, and according to Bergdahl, threw “a tantrum,” ripping into the men for being out of uniform. The soldiers mostly shrugged it off, but for Bergdahl, it seemed to represent everything that he felt was wrong with the Army: clueless leaders who were more concerned with rules than with the welfare of their men.

But then things got worse. A news photographer from the Guardian showed up and took a series of shots of the men standing around without their body armor. In one of the photos, Bergdahl can be seen smoking a pipe.

Speaking to Serial host and lead reporter Sarah Koenig, now retired Command Sergeant Major Ken Wolf is still furious over the photos. He shot a series of question at Koeing, “you see weapons? You see anyone with body armor on? You see guys with helmets on?” When she finally, almost reluctantly says no, he adds, “you see a bunch of guys waiting to get fucking killed.” Of the pipe, he says he told Bergdahl, “I don’t want to see any more of this Lawrence of Arabia shit.”

For Wolf, uniform slip wasn’t just soldiers being lazy. It was a sign that only weeks into their deployment, the men didn’t care about the rules. “Do whatever the fuck you want, you want to shoot 15 people in My Lai go ahead,” he said. In the end, the pictures resulted in the reprimand of three soldiers, one was demoted, and two others moved out of the platoon.

Bergdahl still can’t move past the incident. In perhaps the first moment in which he appears truly upset, he says that he felt his leadership had turned against their soldiers. Baker “was going out of his way to make everything as miserable as possible in an unnecessary way,” Bergdahl said.

It all fed into Bergdahl’s growing conviction that the Army wasn’t taking the war seriously. “This is bullshit, what we’re doing here,” he would later tell filmmaker Mark Boal in one of the long phone conversations between the two men that forms the narrative backbone for the second season of Serial.

Weeks later, he would walk off OP Mest in an attempt to make it to Forward Operating base Sharana in a dramatic attempt to call attention to what he saw as the failures of his fellow soldiers, and his leadership. It would set off a massive manhunt in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, and ignite a political firestorm at home. He wouldn’t come home for five more years.

 

Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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