Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s first year in Taliban captivity was spent in isolation in several locations, most likely in Pakistan, while rumors spread around the world that he had converted to Islam and was consorting with the enemy.
Bergdahl—a native of the Wood River Valley—described in a “Serial” podcast Thursday the beatings he endured for trying to escape and the videos of beheadings and suicide bombings that he was forced to watch. He said that a year after being taken captive, he managed to break out of a remote prison, wandering starved, injured scared and lost for nine days before being recaptured.
“If I’m going to die out there from exposure, or get shot trying to escape, it’s still going to be better than getting my head cut off,” he said. “I had seen enough of those movies to know what that would be like.”
Bergdahl, 29, willingly left his military base in Paktika province, Afghanistan, in July 2009. He was captured and spent five years in Taliban captivity. He was charged in March with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Court-martial proceedings started this month. If convicted of the second charge, Bergdahl could spend his life in prison.
Four months after being released during a controversial prisoner exchange in May 2014 that freed five high-level Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Bergdahl began giving interviews to filmmaker Mark Boal. The interviews have been produced into weekly “Serial” podcasts that will parallel the court-martial.
“Is it risky? Absolutely,” said noted military lawyer Eric Montalvo in an interview with the Idaho Mountain Express. “It’s almost reckless. He’s accepting the responsibility of his own words, which will be used against him in court.”
Montalvo, whose work as a defense attorney was described in the documentary “The Kill Team,” said Bergdahl’s statements in public about the reasons he left his base makes a felony conviction for desertion more likely.
“In his role as an accused, he’s supposed to act in accord with a way that provides the greatest chance of success, but with the felony conviction, he’s making it easier for the government to get there,” Montalvo said.
“Serial” producer Sarah Koenig, who listened to 25 hours of interviews with Bergdahl, said the soldier did not sympathize with Taliban.
“He loathed the Taliban,” she said.
Bergdahl described an unsuccessful attempt to escape, after which he was chained and tied spread-eagle position on a bed.
“That’s how I spent the majority of the next three months,” said Bergdahl, who stayed as filthy as possible to keep his captors at bay. He said he was beaten over the head by a young boy with a chain for humming, and got shaved with a straight razor by the Taliban while in handcuffs.
Bergdahl was held by followers of Mullah Sangeen Zadran, an Afghan militant, and shadow governor of Paktika province and operational commander of the Haqqani network.
Bergdahl said his captors asked him how U.S. soldiers get their prostitutes, alcohol and drugs and “is Obama gay and does he sleep with men? How good are cameras on drones? Is it true that all American women are prostitutes and sleep with animals?”
Bergdahl said it soon became apparent that the Taliban did not need him for information because they get most of their information from Afghan interpreters who work with U.S. soldiers.
“Getting videos with me” was their primary goal, he said, made with great care by a Taliban who spoke with an English accent and coached Bergdahl with propagandistic messages that were critical of the United States and favorable toward Bergdahl’s “mujahedeen” captors.
The first of several videos posted by the Taliban on the Internet in July 2009 showed Bergdahl saying that he was caught while lagging behind while on patrol. Bergdahl said he made up the story to show the outside world that he was under duress.
“It was pre-staged … and had nothing to do with reality,” he said. “It was a desperate me trying to stay on the edge of not cooperating with them and cooperating enough with them so they would not shoot me.”
Boal said Bergdahl’s story is “overwhelming” and “incomprehensively dark.” He said the psychologists who debriefed him after his release were surprised that the experience had not turned him into “a vegetable.”
Boal said he was surprised to hear that Bergdahl supplied the U.S. military with valuable and detailed intelligence after enduring what the military called extended periods of “torture, abuse and neglect.”
Sami Yousafzai, an Afghan interpreter and journalist, told Boal that keeping Bergdahl was a stressful job for his captors.
“They had to keep him from drones, al-Qaida, Arabs and bandits, or they would be beaten or arrested,” Yousafzai said.
Bergdahl said each of the eight groups that held him during his captivity had its own collection of beheading and suicide bomber videos. He said one man called the “crazy talib” bragged about beheading several Afghans who had collaborated with American soldiers. He said his captors drank a lot of American sodas, especially Mountain Dew.
“If you want to piss those people off in that country, just shut off their sugar supply,” Bergdahl said.
Bergdahl said that about one year after he was first captured, he escaped from a second-floor room in a remote Taliban prison using a tool kit that he had scrounged over many months. It included a key, a PVC pipe, a sharpened nail, a wooden stick and a plastic Mountain Dew bottle.
“It was like a huge weight was taken off my back,” said Bergdahl, who trekked across high desert terrain before falling off a cliff and landing on his side in a dry riverbed.
“I couldn’t move the fingers of my left hand,” or walk, said Bergdahl, who dug holes to hide in and ate grass for eight days. He said he saw six American drones at night flying across the sky.
“It was not a nice feeling. You’re so close, but things are so stacked against you, it’s impossible, but you can’t do anything but keep going,” he said.
On the ninth day, he passed out on top of a mountain and was caught, beaten and taken to a meeting with Mullah Sangeen Zadran, he said.
He said “that escape was the last time I saw the stars” until the Special Forces brought him to safety four years later.
Koenig said that after Bergdahl’s first year in captivity, the Army realized it “needed to get out of the war” in Afghanistan.
“Then things got really interesting,” she said.
The next “Serial” podcast airs at 8 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 31.