People, especially those who have served in the military, are drawn to the Bowe Bergdahl case mainly because of the ramifications of his decision to leave his post while serving in Afghanistan. His decision to willingly leave his post put men in harm’s way while attempting to locate him. Berghdahl ultimately paid a heavy price and spent five years in Taliban custody. He now may also serve time in a military prison. One has to question what Bergdahl’s perspective was, and what could have compelled him to endanger his life and the lives of others. Most see him as a deserter who put others in harm’s way, while he apparently sees himself quite differently.
Bowe Bergdahl’s lawyer recently released his interview transcript from the AR (Army regulation) 15-6 investigation conducted on August 06, 2014. The prosecution is accusing his lawyers of violating the court protective order by releasing the interview transcript. The 373-page document consists of an interview of Bowe Bergdahl by the appointed investigating officer, Major General Kenneth Dahl. Others in attendance during his interview were Mr. Eugene Fidell (civilian defense counsel), CPT Alfredo Foster (defense counsel), and the court reporter. The investigating officer lists the charges against him as: being absent without leave, desertion, and fraudulent enlistment.
Many have referred to Bowe Bergdahl’s decision to leave his post in Afghanistan as a result of a mental breakdown. Yet it appears to be more than a one-time-only type of mental breakdown. He had panic attacks in Coast Guard basic training, which ultimately resulted in an uncharacterized discharge. The social and emotional challenges of the Coast Guard basic training seemed to overwhelm him due to his conservative background and his lack of life experiences. He did not feel ready to be responsible for other people’s lives. Bergdahl said,
They came in and asked me some questions. And I believe I said something about–I was trying to say, basically, “I can’t save these people.” Because the pressure was, honestly, all the way up until that point, the information I was getting from my family, especially my dad, was that I can’t succeed in anything, that I am a failure. So, when I got to–that never played a part until I got to that point in my life and I was looking around and I had seen what I was supposed to do as a team member. These people are in this ocean. We have to save them. My team members are next to me. They are relying on me to keep [sic-have] their back. So, the pressure that was in that Coast Guard basic was me and what I know of me as a failure. And suddenly I am responsible for someone else’s life. So that added to the pressure and that’s what kind of brought about the panic attack and that’s when I did my best. I mean, I think I did my best to convey that to whoever was talking to me. What they ended up doing was they ended up–I think he was a psychiatrist because he ended up having me sign something. After that, that [panic attack] is what dropped me from–I got an uncharacterized discharge from the Coast Guard.”
The investigating officer seemed to be trying to get more information regarding Bergdahl’s prior Coast Guard enlistment and Army enlistment. The charge of fraudulent enlistment presumes that Bergdahl may have lied during his enlistment in the Army. During the interview, Bergdahl does not allude to any falsifying of facts in this regard, just that this incident was a significant period of time in his life. He saw this as a huge failure that he needed to over come by enlisting in the Army.
After reviewing his interview, you are left with an impression of a man that has very limited social capacity and an inability to see the gray areas in life. To him, it appears that everything is either black or white—nothing in between. He doesn’t have the capacity for sarcasm or jokes, as everything he experienced was taken in the literal sense. Multiple examples are found throughout his interview. Like the following incident, during his pre-deployment inspections: his command sergeant major opened up with a sarcastic remark that Bergdahl took very literally.
So here we are, we’re standing here, the sergeant major and the lieutenant colonel are doing their talks. The sergeant major is going to do his. He opens with, “I know you all joined because you want to rape, pillage, and kill. That’s why I joined. However, you need to think about COIN.” Now, what hit me about that immediately this was the first time I had heard anything from the sergeant major. Like, I saw him in NTC. He was going around pulling privates to go clean things up. All right. But I never had any actual interaction with him. So this was the first time I actually heard him talk about anything, about what’s going on here. And when he said that, immediately what popped into my mind was basically what you’re saying is, “You joined because you want to be a rapist, a thief, and a murderer.” Because that–to kill–you say, “Rape, pillage, and kill,” that’s literally going back to Genghis Khan. Now, the issue of Genghis Khan in Afghanistan is a completely different subject that we’re not going to get into. But so it was like I was a little taken aback by it because that’s not why I joined. I didn’t join to be a rapist, murderer, and killer.”
Additionally, Bergdahl seemed to have unrealistic expectations of the Army and his role as a lower-ranking infantryman. He ultimately saw himself going into Special Forces and regretted the normal duties a PFC was assigned, such as cleaning details or guard details. When asked about wanting to become Special Forces during the interview, he replied, “Yeah, so I just needed the rank. I just needed a certain amount of time in country to get the rank and I didn’t want to waste my time in a regular unit that was just playing gate guard, which is what we were getting. When I could be somewhere else doing something else.” He wanted to prove himself as a potential Special Forces candidate during his deployment, and getting off the base to challenge his command was his chance to do just that.
The main problem Bergdahl had with his chain of command was his battalion commander. Bergdahl received a disciplinary action called an Article 15 for being out of his protective gear while out on an OP. Bergdahl and a couple of others took off their gear in order to better fortify their position and to create shade by digging a foxhole. On an inspection, the BN commander saw the men without their gear and he immediately confronted them. The commander lost his temper and kicked a rock that was part of a grave stone.
Bergdahl thought that he unfairly gave him an Article 15 without inquiring why he was not wearing his full gear. Additionally, he believed that the BN commander disrespected the local Afghan community by kicking the grave stone. His only other interaction with his BN commander was shortly after returning from a multi-day operation that included an ambush by the Taliban. He felt that the commander showed little if any gratitude or positive feedback for what the men just went through. This, combined with what he described as poor NCO leadership, were the reasons for him going off post to get his commander relieved of duty.
There were several culminating factors that caused Bergdahl to leave his post in Afghanistan:
- Wanting to prove himself as Special Forces material (track across the Afghan mountains undetected without equipment or support)
- Unrealistic expectations of the Army, Army life, and his role as a PFC infantryman
- A tendency to see things in only a black and white dichotomy and taking statements more literally than intended
- Anger at his leadership for receiving an Article 15
The interview transcript gives you the perspective of Bergdahl’s reality and what brought him to the decision to leave his post. His decision-making process seems to be warped due to these factors.
He had made up his mind and started to create a plan to discredit his leadership and report them to the next echelon. DUSTWUN was the codeword Bergdahl describes as being used when someone disappears from their post. He knew that when he was reported missing from his guard shift rotation, everyone would be looking for him. That would hopefully draw attention to his cause and force the commanding general into seeing him at the neighboring post. Even though he grew up doing outdoor activities, he overestimated his abilities in the mountains of Afghanistan. Even with the traditional Afghan clothing, he was still spotted and captured by the Taliban.
The official interviews of his leadership and peers have not been released yet and only limited information has been published from those individuals. Other than his odd comments here and there, I wonder if they noticed any other warning signs from his behavior. As a former Army military intelligence officer, I can say that we as a whole attract a very eclectic group of people in the military intelligence corps. I say this because I have had a few soldiers with some of the same issues as Bergdahl, and I had to set very hard left and right limits for them, otherwise their decisions could have had disastrous results. Infantry is a different branch and they probably don’t attract the odd variety that MI does. If he had chosen a different MOS or job, would he had made a similar decision?
His court date is set for August, 2016. More information will probably come out as a result of the proceedings as this interview transcript is only his point of view. The transcript offers just a glimpse of Bergdahl’s perspective and the factors that drove him to leave his post. Bergdaul’s defense might have wanted to paint Bergdaul in a different light by releasing this transcript but there are still huge red flags in his view of reality.
Image courtesy of AP
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