JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Tex. — Army Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl was fed up. He was five weeks into a deployment in southeastern Afghanistan and frustrated with his mission and his leaders. He and his fellow soldiers weren’t going after the Taliban as aggressively as he wanted, and his sense of disillusion added to the disgust for the Army that he had begun developing while still in basic training.
Looking to make a stand, Bergdahl hatched a plan: He would run away from his platoon’s tiny outpost in Paktika province late on June 29, 2009. He would stay away from the Army a day, maybe two, and then reappear about
19 miles away at a larger installation and demand to air his grievances with a general. He knew that the region was crawling with insurgents, but he had “outsize impressions of his own capabilities,” according to an investigating officer, and was determined to create enough chaos to get the attention of senior commanders.
Those were among the details that emerged in a preliminary hearing here late last week. The soldier, carrying just a disguise, a knife and some provisions, was captured by insurgents by 10 a.m. the following morning, beginning four years and 11 months of captivity and torture by the Haqqani network, a group affiliated with the Taliban, according to Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, the senior officer who carried out an investigation of Bergdahl’s actions and interviewed him at length.
The case against Bergdahl, who is charged with desertion and misbehaving before the enemy, is the most closely scrutinized desertion prosecution in the military in decades — perhaps since that of Pvt. Eddie Slovik, a soldier who became the only American executed for desertion since the Civil War. The officer overseeing the Bergdahl hearing, Lt. Col. Mark A. Visger, is expected to make a recommendation in the coming days to U.S. Army Forces Command, at Fort Bragg, N.C., about whether Bergdahl should be court-martialed.
Bergdahl, now 29 and a sergeant, was recovered in May 2014 in a controversial swap in which the White House approved the release of five Taliban detainees from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They are now in Qatar.
Emotional testimony has underscored the relentless brutality that Bergdahl had to endure, as well as the chaos caused by his disappearance and the lingering resentment of some of his comrades.
The case has also raised questions about the Obama administration’s handling of it, which included inviting Bergdahl’s parents to speak at the White House after the soldier was recovered, with national security adviser Susan E. Rice saying he served with “honor and distinction.”
The White House has since concluded that it badly misplayed the optics of Bergdahl’s release, according to administration officials. Bergdahl’s parents were in Washington the day he was recovered, and a quick decision was made to include them in a Rose Garden announcement, with little thought given to the ramifications of making Bergdahl appear to be a hero, the officials said.
Bergdahl joined the Army a few years after washing out of initial training for the Coast Guard. The Washington Post reported previously that it was for psychological reasons, but Bergdahl’s lawyer and Dahl were more specific in the hearing: The future Taliban captive was diagnosed with depression and sent home after he was found in distress in a Coast Guard barracks, sitting on a floor with blood in his hands, possibly from a bloody nose, Dahl testified.
“He wasn’t ready for it,” Dahl said of life in the Coast Guard. “He was overwhelmed, found himself in the hospital and was released.”
Bergdahl received a waiver to enlist in the Army. He was physically fit and well regarded for his work ethic, but quickly became disenchanted with his fellow soldiers and the Army’s training program. Among his gripes: He couldn’t believe higher-ranking soldiers wanted him to lock his wall locker to prevent theft and saw pre-deployment training at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., as “lame,” Dahl said.
Bergdahl was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, of Fort Richardson, Alaska. There, he took offense to a motivational speech made by the senior enlisted soldier to the entire battalion. The command sergeant major said in jest that, like other soldiers, he liked to pillage and plunder, but Bergdahl took it literally, Dahl said.
In Afghanistan, there was another misunderstanding, Dahl said. Soldiers from Bergdahl’s unit weren’t all wearing their whole uniforms one day, a violation that upset then-Lt. Col. Clinton Baker, Bergdahl’s battalion commander.
Baker launched into a tirade to get his point across, kicking rocks in the process. Bergdahl was convinced that Baker had disturbed an Afghan grave, a suggestion that perplexed the others present, Dahl said.
The general found that Bergdahl’s childhood living at “the edge of the grid” in Idaho in relative isolation hurt his ability to relate to other people. As a result, he was an extremely harsh judge of character and “unrealistically idealistic,” Dahl said.
“I think he absolutely believed that the things he perceived were absolutely true,” he added.
Bergdahl could have gone to a number of people in his chain of command with concerns about his platoon. But he thought that they were in the Army for the money, or otherwise incapable of responding, Dahl said.
In some ways, the soldier did consider others before running away from Observation Post Mest, Dahl said. He told Dahl that he picked the night he disappeared in part because he knew another platoon already would be on the way in the morning to relieve Bergdahl’s, thus providing additional manpower to deal with his vanishing. He didn’t want to take his 5.56mm squad automatic machine gun with him alone outside the wire because he figured it would draw attention, but also decided against stealing a 9mm pistol because that would have gotten a fellow soldier in trouble, Dahl said.
Bergdahl’s disappearance was noticed around dawn, when he was due to take a guard shift. Capt. John Billings, his former platoon leader, testified that he was in shock that one of his men could have vanished, and initially thought his soldiers were pulling a joke on him. Reality eventually set in, though, and he informed his company commander, then-Capt. Silvino Silvino.
“I felt sick to my stomach,” said Silvino, now a major. “I didn’t know what was going to come after that. . . . I instructed him to go look high and low, and everywhere he could.”
Coalition forces across eastern Afghanistan altered their operations that summer looking for Bergdahl, exposing soldiers to additional and dangerous missions. That remains a sensitive point, amid allegations from Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers that at least six U.S. troops died because of his actions. Dahl said he examined a variety of evidence, and found nothing that connected the deaths directly to Bergdahl. But the search-and-rescue operations undoubtedly altered security in the region, military officials said, and plunged the units involved into hastily planned missions.
Baker, the former battalion commander, recalled that one platoon conducted 37 consecutive days of operations — long enough that new socks and T-shirts had to be delivered to the soldiers, since theirs were rotting on their bodies.
Bergdahl, meanwhile, was already in Pakistan. He was relentlessly beaten in captivity with rubber hoses and copper cables. He repeatedly tried to escape, said Terrence Russell, an official with the Pentagon’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, who interviewed Bergdahl after his return.
Bergdahl was moved to at least six different locations, including one referred to as a Taliban prison. After escaping once for nearly nine days, Bergdahl was put in a 7-foot cage, blindfolded and left there for most of his last 3½ years in captivity, Russell said.
Bergdahl has been accused often of cooperating with the insurgents or even seeking them out, but Russell said there is no evidence to support those claims. The Haqqani network forced him to make videos that were released online.
Russell grew visibly agitated while describing the conditions Bergdahl faced, wiping tears away at one point. While the sergeant has been accused of many things, Russell said, he was “an organization of one,” with no fellow prisoners who could keep his spirits up.
“He did the best job he could do,” Russell said, “And I respect him for it.”
Bergdahl’s attorney, Eugene Fidell, argued during closing arguments at the preliminary hearing that his client should not be court-martialed for either of the charges he now faces. There is probable cause, Fidell acknowledged, to charge him with a lesser offense, being absent without leave for one day, but the moment he was taken captive, Fidell said, that designation should have ended. The maximum penalty for being AWOL for one day is 30 days of confinement.
An Army prosecutor, Maj. Margaret Kurz, said that Bergdahl’s actions hurt the Army, his fellow soldiers and the mission in Afghanistan, and he must be punished.
“One does not just walk away into the Afghan wilderness,” she said, “and then return as though nothing happened.”
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.