Four years ago, I was a embedded as a journalist with a platoon of Marines in southern Afghanistan when a photographer and I faced a dilemma: Would we publish a photograph that showed a Navy corpsman out on a foot patrol without wearing one of his required protective gloves?
After taking dozens of photos on the patrol, we were approached by a member of the unit, who was worried that publishing a photo of the service member without gloves would get him in a ton of trouble.
If memory serves, we ultimately found a way to avoid the ungloved hand in any published photos. It kept the troops out of trouble with their commanders, while at the same time still allowing us to detail the battlefield operations that we’d traveled 8,000 miles to witness.
I thought of this today when listening to the newest episode of the “Serial” podcast, which continues to focus on the story of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Bergdahl, 29, faces charges of desertion for misbehavior before the enemy for choosing to walk away from his platoon’s tiny base in eastern Afghanistan in 2009. Doing so made him an outcast to many in the military because of the chaos and dangerous manhunt his disappearance caused. Bergdahl disappeared just before midnight June 29, 2009, and was captured by the morning by the Taliban. He spent the next five years in captivity.
In the newest episode, Bergdahl goes deeper into his reasons for walking off his base. For one, he thought his commanders were too fixated on making sure soldiers followed the rules for how they should appear.
Bergdahl has generally come across in his phone interviews published by “Serial” as unlike most other infantrymen you’ll find in the U.S. military. He grew up in virtual isolation in Idaho, smoked a pipe in combat and was generally disinterested in the kind of horseplay and wisecracks that young combat troops often use to break up the monotony and boredom that are intermixed with the terror and excitement that goes with being at war.
In the new episode released Thursday, however, Bergdahl sounds a whole lot like many other combat troops who are frustrated with their unit’s leaders and their attention to details that can seem trivial, including the Marines I previously mentioned.
In one example outlined by “Serial,” Bergdahl and some of his former platoon mates describe being stuck away from their base for five days after one of their mine-resistant trucks hit an improvised explosive device. When they were finally cleared by commanders to return, they were ambushed on the way back, setting off a firefight that included rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and small arms used by the Taliban.
In Bergdahl’s telling, their battalion commander, then-Lt. Col. Clint Baker, angered him and other soldiers response when they got back to safety.
“His concern was not anywhere close to, ‘Hey, how’s the men’s well-being? How are my men who are out there in a war zone?’ He didn’t say anything like that. Our platoon sergeant stepped out of the truck, hits the ground and the first thing that comes out of our battalion commander’s mouth was, ‘What, you couldn’t shave?’”
In another incident, battalion leaders, including Baker and Command Sgt. Maj. Ken Wolfe, were irate after seeing photographs published by the Guardian newspaper that showed Bergdahl and other soldiers not wearing body armor while digging holes in the heat and letting their weapons get dirty, which can affect their ability to work. Baker did not respond to requests from “Serial” for comment — likely because he will testify in Bergdahl’s court-martial — but Wolfe said it showed a dangerous lack of discipline.
“You see a bunch of guys waiting to get [expletive] killed,” Wolf told “Serial.”
From the point of view of some rank-and-file soldiers, however, the anger was misplaced and showed a disconnect with what they were going through. The photograph incident led to Bergdahl’s squad leader, Greg Leatherman, getting demoted, and two other soldiers getting reassigned.
“I was one of many who thought this was a complete joke,” Bergdahl recalled of the reaction. “I was one of many who were shaking their heads and rolling their eyes. I was one of many who was just going, “I can’t believe this is happening.’”
The difference, of course, is that no one else in Bergdahl’s platoon thought that incident merited walking away from his base, a dangerous plan that led to his capture and thousands of American troops looking for him.
Bergdahl’s reaction continues to puzzle and infuriate many people all these years later. It also led Lt. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, who investigated Bergdahl’s case, to assess that he was not only disillusioned with his battalion’s leaders, but self-deluded about what he could do to draw attention to them.
For his part, Bergdahl said the reaction of Baker pressed him to act.
“Because he was out of control from what I could see,” Bergdahl said. “He was unfit for what he was doing, and you know, and I wouldn’t put it past him to purposely put me and my platoon mates in harm’s way just because he has a personal grudge against us, just because we soiled his personal reputation, or whatever bulls— idea he had in his head.”