Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl told the senior investigating officer in his closely watched desertion case that he had mixed feelings about deliberately leaving his infantry platoon’s base in Afghanistan, but felt like he could not go back because he could be mistaken for a Taliban fighter, according to the newly released transcript of the interview in his Army investigation.
The transcript was published late Wednesday by Bergdahl’s lawyers on a website they have set up to release documents from the controversial soldier’s case. In an interview spanning two days last August, Bergdahl described to then-Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl his disillusionment with his Army leaders before he left his patrol base late June 30, 2009, and was subsequently captured by the Taliban. He left with plans to cause enough chaos that he would be able to speak to a general about problems he saw in his battalion when he arrived at a larger base 20 miles away, he said.
“The idea was to make as much — to cover as much ground as possible,” Bergdahl told Dahl, who has since been promoted to lieutenant general. “However, I knew what I had set myself up for. Definitely, fear is a very general word. I had mixed feelings about what I was doing. Of course, there was going to be fear of doing it and there was going to be all these — my mind is always going to question what I was doing because I knew how dangerous it was. And I knew, basically, by that point, it was too late to return because I knew I was going to try to get back on.”
Bergdahl, now 29, was captured by the Taliban the following morning and held hostage in Pakistan by the Haqqani network, a brutal group affiliated with the Taliban, for the next five years. He was recovered in late May 2014 by a U.S. Special Operations team in Afghanistan as part of a controversial swap in which the White House approved releasing five Taliban officials from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, into supervised release in Qatar.
Bergdahl now faces a court-martial at Fort Bragg, N.C., scheduled in August for charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Many of the details of his case have emerged either in an Army hearing in which Dahl testified last year or in Bergdahl’s interviews with the “Serial” podcast, but this marks the first time that the full Army interview has been released. Bergdahl faces up to life in prison if convicted.
Bergdahl’s civilian attorney, Eugene Fidell, told The Washington Post that he and his fellow lawyers on Bergdahl’s case decided to release the full transcript after the Army recently disclosed a couple pages of it in a legal filing and as Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump continues to call Bergdahl a traitor while campaigning. Getting a fair trial for Bergdahl will be difficult, Fidell said.
“Clearly, we have believed from the very beginning that transparency was a very important interest in this case, and the more the American people know about this case, the better,” he said.
After interviewing Bergdahl, Dahl recommended during a hearing last September that the soldier should not receive a prison sentence despite the dangerous months-long manhunt for him by U.S. forces afterward. There is no evidence that Bergdahl was sympathetic to the Taliban, Dahl argued, in part citing his interview with him.
Bergdahl, who was a private first class when captured, told Dahl he will “happily talk about what a joke” the Taliban are, rejecting that he ever planned to join them. He was captured while looking for evidence of what they were doing after having some misgivings about his initial plan to cause a manhunt for him to draw attention to trouble in his unit, he said.
“Sympathizer to the Taliban is a complete joke and you can talk to me all day about it and I will happily rip it up one side and down the other, and leave it completely lacking in any theories,” Bergdahl said.
The transcript also shows that the Army considered charging Bergdahl with fraudulent enlistment, a crime in which someone typically misrepresents who they are to join the Army or secures a separation from the Army by knowingly misrepresenting his eligibility to leave the service. That appeared to center on whether Bergdahl disclosed that he had previously washed out of Coast Guard recruit training for what he called in the interview with Dahl a panic attack.
Bergdahl said that although parts of his enlistment paperwork didn’t reflect it, he did tell his recruiter about his problems in Coast Guard training and the recruiter typed up a statement that Bergdahl signed. It read as follows, according to Dahl’s interview with the soldier:
“I joined the Coast Guard in January of 2006. While in recruit training I had a hard time adapting to change. I had a lot going on with things at home and I do not feel that I was prepared on my own. I couldn’t take care of issues at home and was able to obtain a discharge to do so. They did discharge with a reentry code of 3L. I have no ties to home anymore that would hinder my performance while in the military. I have matured and know that I am prepared to go into the Army. Please do not allow my past record to prevent me from coming into the Army.”
The recruiter did not do anything wrong, Bergdahl said. He ultimately was not charged with fraudulent enlistment.