Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's defense counsel has released documents to the press this week in an effort to quell the negative publicity surrounding his upcoming court-martial. The documents, which include debriefing interviews with Bergdahl with Army officials following his 2014 rescue, detail his rationale behind leaving his Afghanistan post in 2009.
As Army Times reports, Bergdahl believed that he and his fellow Soldiers were in danger due to the decisions of his superior officers. Specifically, Bergdahl was incensed following a mission to retrieve a vehicle that turned into a harrowing, days-long ordeal that included a firefight with Taliban operatives. Upon returning back to base, Bergdahl's commanding officer complained that he and his fellow Soldiers had not shaven, a violation of the uniform code.
Following this incident (and others that earned Bergdahl's concern), Bergdahl had planned to disappear from his post, trigger a brief "DUSTWUN" manhunt, then return to base. The need to debrief Bergdahl would then allow the then-private to leverage an audience with a general and bring his concerns and grievances. "The Soldier shows up ... People recognize him. They ID him," Bergdahl explained of his plan. "They go, 'What did you just do?' And that Soldier says, 'I am not saying anything about what I did until I am talking to a general.'"
Of course, things didn't work out the way Bergdahl planned: he was captured by the Taliban and held for five years—only to be released via a controversial Gitmo prisoner swap in 2014. He now stands accused of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, the latter of which could yield a lifetime prison sentence, if a conviction is reached.
"THE MORE AMERICANS KNOW... THE BETTER"
The decision to release the documents (which were already entered as part of the court record), according to defense counsel Eugene Fidell, is to combat much of the negative publicity surrounding Bergdahl's case. In the past weeks, another of Bergdahl's lawyers has had to request to interview GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump about his frequent, disparaging comments about Bergdahl during political rallies. Former POW Senator John McCain also told the press that Bergdahl was "a deserter." Both of these examples are prejudicial and completely unacceptable before a pending court-martial.
Perhaps most compelling revelation in the documents is Bergdahl's psychiatric diagnosis following his rescue. A document from July 2015 shows that the Army Sanity Board evaluation found that Bergdahl had schizotypal personality disorder. According to experts, this disorder makes it difficult for sufferers to pick up on social cues, develop trust of others, and properly assess risk. Bergdahl's counsel believes that making more people were familiar with facts like these will help combat the vitriol much of the public has been exposed to. "The more Americans know about this case, the better," Fidell wrote in an email.
SERIAL PODCAST UPDATE
Sarah Koenig's Serial podcast (which has covered many of the points revealed in the documents released this week over the last few months), continued this week with Episode 10, "Thorny Politics." In it, the Serial team tracks just how and why Bergdahl's case became the center of national bipartisan conflict.
"HONOR & DISTINCTION"
For the public, the first waves of controversy began with the announcement that Bergdahl had been rescued. That day in 2014, President Obama appeared in a brief White House Rose Garden ceremony with Bergdahl's parents. While he expressed relief and celebration, there was no mention of an investigation into Bergdahl's disappearance—an omission that, to many in or formerly in the armed forces, seemed suspect. Former Lieutenant Colonel Mike Waltz told Koenig the Rose Garden ceremony seemed "tone deaf" and misunderstood military culture. When Koenig spoke with former White House staff about the ceremony, they confirmed that it was not planned-- it was an off-the-cuff event that snowballed due to the Bergdahls' coincidental presence in Washington D.C. After Bergdahl's fate had seemed so tenuous for so long, White House staff had assumed that news that he had been recovered alive would be considered miraculous to most, if not all, Americans.
To make matters worse, nation-security adviser Susan Rice went on national TV shortly after and mentioned that Bergdahl had served his country with "honor and distinction." The sound bite enraged those in the military community who considered Bergdahl's disappearance intentional and reckless. Rice would later clarify that she meant that anyone who volunteers for service during a time of war distinguishes themselves—but it was too late: outraged military members started to convene online and even reach out to the press about their take on what Bergdahl had done.
Behind the scenes in Washington D.C., more controversy was swelling due to the news of Bergdahl's rescue, as well. According to the law, Congress has to be notified of any prisoner transfers out of Guantanamo Bay 30 days before they are scheduled to occur. In the case of the Bergdahl/Gitmo exchange, members of congress found out about it in the news the morning after it occurred. The violation caused a deep rift between congressional Republicans and the Department of Defense, which is still felt to this day.
Why violate the law? Koenig and her team seem to implicate that the White House knew that if anyone besides a few key players knew about the exchange, it would have been stopped-- congressional Republicans would have squashed it. Koenig spoke again to "Nathan," the military intelligence analyst who took a personal interest in Bergdahl's case. Nathan expressed regret that Bergdahl's case came down to the prisoner swap but is the second expert Koenig has spoken to who confirms that the five Gitmo prisoners released were of little importance to America's counter terrorism efforts. "Frankly, we got to do something with Gitmo. Them leaving Gitmo—they would have left anyway," Nathan said. "At least we made use of them."
RECOVERY IN GERMANY
While controversy continued to stir in America, Bergdahl was recovering in a hospital in Germany. He was healing from wounds and psychologically acclimating himself back to life outside captivity. He couldn't at first sleep in a bed or even speak to his visitors. In an interview, Bergdahl recalls a funny moment in which visiting officers, even a general, ask him to sit down. Not yet acclimated to chairs, Bergdahl instinctively sat on the floor, Indian-style. All of the officers joined him.
Those working with Bergdahl began to sense that their process of treating him was slowly being eclipsed by political pressures. Returning Bergdahl home suddenly became a priority. The medical team treating Bergdahl suddenly had to report to command on a daily basis and create colored charts to demonstrate Bergdahl's improving mental state. Most challenging was the task of breaking to Bergdahl (who had no idea had become both famous and infamous in the U.S.) that Americans were upset with him and that he had become the center of a bipartisan fight in Washington and throughout the country.
Serial returns with Season 2, Episode 11 on March 31 to explore perhaps the most important question surrounding Bergdahl's case: did any of his fellow Soliders die while looking for him? You can listen to all of "Thorny Politics" at the Serial site.
Joseph Jordan, Attorney at Law is a 10+ year veteran of the U.S. Army who now travels the world to advocate for accused members of our armed services. If you are a servicemember that has been accused of a criminal act or is facing an adverse administrative action, our firm is ready to hear from you.
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