Should Bowe Bergdahl have been accepted into the Army?
That is the question at the heart of most recent episodes of the Serial podcast (titled “Hindsight” Parts 1 and 2), in which Sarah Koenig and her team delve into Bergdahl's childhood, his military aspirations, and even his state of mental health. As Stars and Stripes recaps, Bergdahl—who currently stands accused of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy—admitted that his time in Taliban captivity reminded him of his lonely and somewhat aimless childhood.
"I literally grew up by myself, in the middle of nowhere ... being completely isolated from human beings," Bergdahl told screenwriter and filmmaker Mark Boal. "I just wandered around." Bergdahl grew up in rural Idaho, home-schooled with his sister and, by the time he was 13, was already finding every excuse he could to get out of the house. He eventually gravitated towards the Harrison family, which included Kim, a mother and cafe owner, and her daughter Kayla.
The Harrisons became close to Bergdahl, who they described as a sensitive young man who loved the outdoors and developed an "impossibly realistic" moral code. As a teenager, Bergdahl seemed to wrestle with big questions of virtue and thought that it was unacceptable if someone wasn't doing all they could to right the wrongs of the world. This romantic idealism manifested in different ways: at first, a failed attempt to French Foreign Legion and then a big cycling trip that was derailed by a collision with an RV. By the time Bowe was 19, he was thinking about the military.
Kim Harrison believed that the military would not be a good fit for Bowe, due his disposition, is lack of social integration with other boys, and his rigid personal view of right and wrong. Bowe compromised with Kim and instead of joining the US Army, he joined the Coast Guard. Three weeks into boot camp, however, Bowe was found him shivering in his barracks, in the fetal position, suffering from a bloody nose.
"I just freaked out one night because of the stress," Bergdahl admitted to Boal. He was later diagnosed with "adjustment disorder with depression" and discharged. To save face, Bowe told his family and the Harrisons that he had faked a psych discharge, but Kim Harrison told Koenig that she knew there had been more to the story.
BERGDAHL'S ARMY WAIVER
Two years later, in May 2008, Bowe was interested in joining the Army. Personally, he felt that the Army was closer to crucial conflicts that would allow Bowe to act on his aspirations of heroism and to “do good.” However, because Bowe had already been separated from the Coast Guard, he would need to secure a waiver to be accepted by his Army recruiter. According to records and to Bowe himself, he was transparent about his experience in Coast Guard and his discharge, but asserted that he had learned from that experience and was ready to re-enlist.
It was good timing for Bowe: there was a surge occurring in Iraq at the time and the Army, in need of recruits, was overlooking blemishes in people's records (such as criminal records and psychological issues) in order bolster recruitment numbers. In fact, in that year, nearly 17% of all Army recruits were cleared for service via waivers.
Bergdahl was cleared for Army service and even went on to excel in basic training, but Koenig spoke about Bergdahl's candidacy to Dr. Michael Valdovinos, an Air Force veteran and clinical psychologist that helped Bergdahl re-acclimate himself after his Taliban captivity. Valdovinos believes that, during the recruitment process, Bergdahl's separation from the Coast Guard should have been a bigger deal.
"That's a pretty big deal to be separated from the military," he told Koenig. "At the very least I would think that this recruiter would be a little bit more concerned about that and would have taken maybe a few steps further to say hey, let's make sure that this guy's a good fit for what he's about to get into."
"FIVE O'CLOCK SHADOW"
Bergdahl's time in the military, including his assignment in Afghanistan (which is recounted in the previous Serial episode "Five O’Clock Shadow") was not what he expected. He had believed that soldiers would be heroes overseas and that he would finally see the action he had been craving for years. Instead, he experienced the usual doldrums of an Afghanistan deployment and felt helpless as an Army private with no decision-making power. In 2009, the Army was focused not on combat missions, but on the humanitarian efforts of COIN, “counter-insurgency,” to win the hearts and minds of the Afghani people.
When Bergdahl did see action, it only resulted in more disillusionment. After finally making it back to his base following a harrowing five-day mission guarding a bombed truck—which included a firefight with Taliban operatives—Bergdahl's commanding officer's only remark was that his soldiers had returned to base unshaven, a violation of the uniform code.
According to Bergdahl, this callousness towards the well-being of his unit was the final straw. Because of this event, and others, he began to believe that he and his fellow soldiers were in danger: that his commanding officers would go so far as to send troops on suicide missions just to purge the unit of "unsatisfactory" soldiers and protect their professional reputations.
To others, both stateside and in his unit, Bergdahl had already been acting peculiarly: sending cryptic emails back home, revealing plans to become indoctrinated into the Russian mafia, and preoccupying himself with the lofty philosophies of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. One fellow soldier who was stationed with Bergdahl recently testified that he had gone to a sergeant with concerns over Bergdahl's well-being. According to the testimony, Bergdahl's sergeant responded with "Shut the f*** up. No one needs to hear what a f***ing E-5 has to say about a guy in my company."
"SCHIZOTYPAL PERSONALITY DISORDER"
In Bergdahl's recent court hearings, there have been vague references to his psychological status. In 2009, a "neutral army psychiatry board" concluded that Bergdahl suffered from schizotypal personality disorder. When Koenig asked Valdovinos about the diagnosis, he explained that it is probably accurate and that the disorder is characterized by paranoia, grand ideas about one's self, and frequent misinterpretations of events.
Does this, then, explain why Bowe Bergdahl suddenly left his post in 2009 to seek intervention from other military leaders? Many of his fellow soldiers have revealed that they, too, shared his concerns and grievances with their higher-ups in 2009—but none of them dissented to the point of desertion.
To Koenig, the diagnosis sheds an important light on the source of Bergdahl’s motivations and further casts doubt on the idea that he left his post specifically to flee the country or collaborate with terrorists. As Boal points out in a conversation with Koenig—noting the many items Bergdahl left behind on base— "he didn't pack for that."
Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law is a 10+ year Army veteran who has dedicated his firm to the protection of the rights, interests, and reputations of accused members of our armed services. He has traveled the globe to advocate for his clients and consistently ensures that the best possible outcome is secured on their behalf.
If you are a military service member accused of a criminal offense, we invite you to contact our firm at (866) 971-4355 today.