In a meandering conversation published last week on the podcast “Serial,” Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl told a filmmaker that he deliberately walked off his unit’s combat outpost in Afghanistan knowing that it would cause a commotion. He did so anyway because he wanted to speak to a general officer directly about problems he saw in his unit, he said.
It was a dangerous decision that led to the Taliban capturing Bergdahl on June 30, 2009, within hours of him slipping away under cover of darkness. A months-long manhunt for the missing soldier ensued, but Bergdahl was taken over the border into Pakistan and held captive for the next five years, until the White House approved a prisoner swap in which five Taliban officials released from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The story has grabbed headlines for more than a year — and that was before “Serial,” the wildly popular podcast spun off from public radio’s “This American Life,” decided to focus on it. The second season of “Serial” began last week with Bergdahl’s case on the microscope and now raises questions whether he hurt his own criminal case with the Army by participating. The soldier faces charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy in connection with his disappearance.
On Monday, the service announced that it will seek a general court-martial — the most serious kind of trial in military justice — to prosecute Bergdahl’s crimes. The decision means that Bergdahl faces up to life in prison, rather than a more lenient sentence with no jail time recommended by an Army officer, Lt. Col. Mark Visger, who oversaw a preliminary hearing in the case in September.
The case is overseen by Gen. Robert Abrams, who commands U.S. Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C. If Abrams had pursued the lesser legal proceeding, a special court-martial, against Bergdahl, he would face no more than one year in the brig. Visger also recommended against prison for Bergdahl.
Bergdahl’s attorney, Eugene Fidell, has been reticent in discussing his client’s involvement in the production of the massively popular podcast. He declined on Monday afternoon to speculate whether the Army made its decision to bring a general court-martial after the release of the first episode of Bergdahl’s season on “Serial,” in which he said he set out to cause a temporary crisis by disappearing.
A spokesman for Army Forces Command, John Boyce, said there is no connection between the release of “Serial” and the Army pursuing a general court-martial, and moving forward with their case now. The podcast will air on a weekly basis for the foreseeable future.
Still, the Army’s decision comes just as a massive new audience of “Serial” fans begin following the case for the first time. The first season of the show was downloaded millions of times, and undoubtedly adds new scrutiny on the service as it prosecutes the case.
An arraignment date for Bergdahl hasn’t yet been set, but it’s likely his case could dominate headlines in 2016.