A corrosive commander. An unclear mission. An inflated sense of his own abilities.
The factors that pushed Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to walk off his post in eastern Afghanistan in 2009 were the focus of the sixth and latest installment of the podcast “Serial,” which is examining Bergdahl’s case.
In a previous episode, the Army infantryman said that his disappearance was meant to draw attention to his troubled unit and that his plan was to run more than 20 miles to the nearest American base, Forward Operating Base Sharana. He says in the new episode that a toxic battalion commander was the driving force behind his decision.
Then-Lt. Col. Clint Baker, commander of the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, demoted one soldier in Bergdahl’s platoon and punished two others after a journalist published photographs showing them without their uniforms digging a foxhole on a hot day, according to soldiers interviewed in the podcast.
Baker also criticized his men’s unshaven appearance after they returned from a five-day mission to guard a crippled military truck on a steep mountainside, those interviewed said.
Bergdahl, in conversations with screenwriter Mark Boal, said Baker was a danger to his platoon. “Serial” draws on more than 25 hours of those conversations, recorded months after the soldier’s release in a controversial prisoner exchange in 2014.
“He was unfit for what he was doing,” Bergdahl told Boal. “And I wouldn’t put it past him to be the type of guy to purposefully put me and my platoon mates in harm’s way just because he has a personal grudge against us.”
Baker declined to be interviewed on air for “Serial” because of Bergdahl’s pending court-martial on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. If convicted, Bergdahl could face life in prison.
Others interviewed for the podcast suggested Bergdahl’s own feelings about the war and his sense of self-importance likely factored into his decision to walk away.
A model soldier with ambitions of joining Special Forces, Bergdahl was also an introvert who seemed to make a point of sticking out from his platoon mates, they said. He refrained from typical soldier banter, smoked a pipe instead of cigarettes and studied Pashto in his spare time.
Disappointed by his unit’s nicer-than-expected accommodations at its operating base in Paktika province, Bergdahl removed the mattress from his bunk and slept instead on steel bedsprings, one platoon mate said.
Like others in his unit, Bergdahl was frustrated by the lack of fight in their counterinsurgency mission, which emphasized being friendly to the same people they believed were targeting them.
His frustrations boiled over after the crippled-truck mission.
Sent to a remote district center to pull back a truck that had hit a roadside bomb, his unit ended up losing two of its own trucks to similar bombs. After holding tight for five days while the battalion debated how to get the trucks back, his platoon was ambushed on its way back.
“’We should’ve gone out there and we should’ve killed every single one of those guys,’” Josh Korder remembered Bergdahl saying. “He thought we were being cowards because we hid in our trucks and we didn’t do that.”
Bergdahl told Boal he was most angry about Baker’s shaving comment after the firefight and what it suggested about his priorities. The episode with the photographs sent him over the edge, he said.
“I saw that somebody had to do something about it,” he said. “Somebody had to do something that called the situation in check.”