Sarah Koenig has turned her investigative attentions to Bowe Bergdahl for this season of the massively popular true-crime podcast Serial. To get you caught up on this ongoing story, here is some brief background on the former prisoner of war's story.
WHO IS BOWE BERGDAHL?
Bowe Bergdahl is a 29-year-old U.S. Army Sergeant (promoted from private in absentia) who served with the 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division in southeast Afghanistan. On the night of June 30, 2009, Bergdahl disappeared from base and was eventually captured by Taliban-affiliated insurgents in the Patika province. He was held captive for almost five years before being released On May 31, 2014 as the result of a controversial prisoner exchange involving five U.S.-held Taliban members who were being held at Guantanamo Bay.
Bergdahl told U.S. officials that he tried to escape while in captivity, but was re-captured by the Taliban-affiliated fighters. He says he was tortured and abused because of this attempt, and that he was locked in a metal cage in total darkness for weeks at a time. After his release and medical evaluation, officials told The New York Times that, while “physically able to travel,” Bergdahl was “not yet emotionally ready for the pressures of reuniting with his family.”
WHAT'S SO CONTROVERSIAL ABOUT HIS STORY?
Since his release, much of Bergdahl’s story—most notably the events surrounding his disappearance—has faced intense scrutiny. In a video released by his Taliban captors in 2009, Bergdahl said he was captured while lagging behind on patrol. This was later refuted by multiple sources, including Nathan Bradley Bethea, who served in Bergdahl’s battalion. In a 2014 Daily Beast article, Bethea wrote, “Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.” Bethea also asserted there was no patrol the night Bergdahl says he lagged behind.
Adding to the confusion, Bergdahl had sent home his computer and other personal items shortly before his disappearance, leading some to believe that it had been pre-planned. According to The New York Times, Bergdahl had left a note behind “saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life.” The very existence of this note is also a matter of debate, as members of the Senate Intelligence Committee were told that there was “no statement.”
WHAT DO POLITICS HAVE TO DO WITH ALL THIS?
Soon after President Obama announced the release and corresponding prisoner exchange deal, many Republican politicians (and some Democrats) criticized the move, even though Bergdahl was America’s last prisoner of war at the time. They cited the many unknowns about his disappearance and subsequent capture, as well as other issues like the White House’s failure to give Congress 30 days' notice about the Guantanamo prisoner swap.
After sitting in on a briefing about Bergdahl's release, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin told the press, “I think we can all agree we’re not dealing with a war hero here.” The issue became so divisive, some politicians deleted their earlier tweets celebrating the serviceman’s return (these tweets were easily archived, of course).
His hometown of Hailey, Idaho cancelled a homecoming celebration, even though they had held an annual “Bring Bowe Back” event during the years that he was held captive. According to Politico, this was due to “security concerns over the prospect of big crowds—both for and against the soldier.”
WHAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE HE RETURNED TO AMERICA?
On March 24, 2015, representatives of the U.S. Army announced Bergdahl will be charged with desertion. The charges—one count of “desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty” and one count of “misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place”—can result in a sentence of up to “confinement for life.”
HAS BERGDAHL SPOKEN TO THE PRESS SINCE HIS RELEASE?
This season of Serial features interviews with Bergdahl conducted by screenwriter and journalist Mark Boal. It marks the first time time he has spoken publicly about his story. Boal says he recorded 25 hours of conversation with Bergdahl.