The Cable

Serial Recap: The Two Sides of Bowe Bergdahl

The deserter’s friends describe a lost soul man who could be kind and generous -- but also moralistic and unyielding.

FT. BRAGG, NC - DECEMBER 22: Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, leaves a military courthouse on December 22, 2015 in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. Bergdahl was arraigned on charges of desertion and endangering troops stemming from his decision to leave his outpost in Afghanistan in 2009. He was captured by the Taliban and spent five years in captivity before being freed in a prisoner exchange. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
FT. BRAGG, NC - DECEMBER 22: Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, leaves a military courthouse on December 22, 2015 in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. Bergdahl was arraigned on charges of desertion and endangering troops stemming from his decision to leave his outpost in Afghanistan in 2009. He was captured by the Taliban and spent five years in captivity before being freed in a prisoner exchange. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

Even to his closest friends, Bowe Bergdahl has always been a tough guy to figure out. At once thoughtful, kind, and generous, the small group of confidants he surrounded himself with in his hometown of Hailey, Idaho also say he can be demanding, moralistic, and incapable of understanding how others view the world.

“It’s really handicapping to him,” friend Kayla Harrison told journalist Sarah Koenig in the latest episode of the Serial podcast, released Thursday. “He’s constantly struggling to understand how people are ok with everything.” Over time, she said, he has been “slowly understanding that not everybody can accept the way he thinks….he has the least flexible [moral] system ever.”

Harrison repeated something her mother Kim – something of a substitute parent to Bergdahl in his teen years – said in an earlier episode and which has been hinted at by some of the soldiers in his former unit. “He holds the world and everybody in it to unrealistically high expectations, and if you don’t live by those morals that he tries to live by himself, then he has no respect for you,” she said. “He just doesn’t understand.”

That all fits in well with what Bergdahl himself has said during the taped phone conversations with producer Mark Boal that form much of the backbone for the Serial podcast. As we heard in the previous episode, Bergdahl was furious over what he perceived as the failure of officers in his unit to lead troops effectively, and for focusing on things like making sure soldiers were shaving, rather than killing the Taliban.

Bergdahl told Boal that many of his social issues stem from his upbringing in rural Idaho. He grew up alone, he says, homeschooled by his mother in their house on the outskirts of town. He struggled to read, and was a poor student, so ended up spending much of his time wandering the woods, “by myself, taking care of myself.”

But once he fell in with the Harrison family in his late teens, he seems to have found a place. The family owned a coffee shop in town, and Bergdahl worked there acting as a kind of security guard. He also began to experiment socially, trying on roles to see what might fit.  He would do things like tape his mouth shut for days at a time, punch trees and bricks to toughen up his hands, and devour books on philosophy and religion.

After his teen years bouncing between jobs on fishing boats and throughout the northwest, he finally left Idaho for France to try and join the French Foreign Legion. No one is certain exactly what happened while he was there, but he came back after a matter of days, refusing to talk about the experience.

It was Kim Harrison who encouraged him to join the Coast Guard when he told her he wanted to join the military, as she thought it might be a better fit for him than the Army or Marine Corps. He shipped off to Coast Guard boot camp in January 2006, but like his trip to France, things didn’t work out. Harrison said his letters to her were “desperate” and “rambling,” and he was having a hard time adjusting. Finally, during his third week of training, he was found on the floor of the barracks, curled in the fetal position shaking and crying, and was soon discharged for “adjustment disorder with depression.”

By May 2008, still itching to see the world and live the heroic life he had dreamed up for himself, Bergdahl walked into an Army recruiting office in Boise, Idaho, to fill out papers for enlistment. At the time — in the midst of some of the heaviest fighting in Iraq, and with talk of ramping up in Afghanistan — the Army was regularly issuing waivers for recruits with legal or mental health issues that would have previously kept them out of the service. “I thought I was in a much better position” mentally, Bergdahl said.

All Bergdahl had to do to put the stain of his Coast Guard failure behind him was write a letter explaining that he had matured, and was ready for the challenge. Apparently, no one in the Army ever saw the notes on his record about his mental health discharge. A little over a year later, he was gone, walking alone in Afghanistan.

Note: The folks at Serial have split this week’s podcast into two episodes, with the second installment coming Friday.

Photo Credit: Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

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

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