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Bergdahl recalls escape and capture in third 'Serial' episode

The 'Serial' web page for the third Bowe Bergdahl podcast.

By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 24, 2015

Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl learned during his first year in captivity that filth and stink were his best weapons and that it was best to be forgotten, even if sick, hungry and lonely.

And in the months after his capture by the Taliban in the summer of 2009, Bergdahl said, he was sick and hungry practically all of the time, neglected and treated worse than an animal. “Picture someone taking a bag, throwing it into the closet, shutting the door and just forgetting about it. That was basically how they treated me.”

Bergdahl’s vivid, often horrific descriptions of his first year in captivity make up much of the third episode of the Bergdahl “Serial” podcast, which aired Thursday.

Bergdahl, 29, was held by the Taliban for five years after he walked off his base in Afghanistan. Vilified by some politicians and servicemembers for putting at risk those who tried to find him, he was charged with serious military crimes on his return to the United States. The Army announced Dec. 14 that he would face a general court-martial on charges of desertion and endangering troops.

The Taliban have denied that they tortured Bergdahl, saying he was treated and fed well and was even allowed to play soccer with his guards.

“Serial” podcast host Sarah Koenig summed up the soldier’s first year in captivity “as the twin torments of isolation and sickness.” Bergdahl developed a chronic case of diarrhea six months after his capture, a condition that persisted for about 3 1/2 years. Food was unpredictable and scant.

During that first year, he attempted twice to escape.

His first escape lasted 10 to 15 minutes; the punishment was brutal. The second escape lasted almost nine days; by then he was so weak, his captors likely realized a brutal beating would have killed him and pulled out most of his hair as punishment.

Bergdahl’s recollections — which he shared in phone conversations recorded earlier with movie producer Mark Boal — make up the bulk of the podcast’s third episode on the former Army private.

After his capture, Bergdahl was held by the Haqqani network, a radical group allied with the Taliban, in North Waziristan, Pakistan’s tribal region on the border with Afghanistan.

During his first week in Taliban custody, he managed to manipulate the slack in the chain around his wrists to free his hands and then undo a lock by sticking his hands into a crack through a wooden door.

After he was caught, Bergdahl told Boal, the consequences were severe. His guards took turns beating the soles of his feet with a rubber hose and copper cables. He was moved to a new location, where he was blindfolded and chained spread eagle to a bed, a position in which he would spend the next three months, except to take bathroom breaks and to shower and wash his clothes every three to four weeks.

“The time deprivation, too much light or too much darkness, and too much randomness, just wears away at you and just drives your nerves into the ground,” Bergdahl said. “You know, and the constant worry of, ‘Am I going to die today?’ ”

He said his captors interrogated him using a line of questioning he said was mostly bizarre. They asked how officers on his base got prostitutes; where they got their alcohol and drugs; and whether President Barack Obama was gay.

“They’re trying to find every dirty little secret,” Bergdahl said.

He told Boal he tried to remember every detail of his surroundings and the men who held him — their daily patterns and how their families worked.

Terrence Russell, a senior official at the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, and others who debriefed Bergdahl testified at a military hearing that soldier was eager to share intelligence and praised his recall, Koenig said in the podcast.

Bergdahl was moved often. Near the end of his first year in captivity, he said, he was taken to a fortresslike Taliban prison in the mountains.

Koenig said that Bergdahl’s escape, this time through a second-story window using bed sheets tied to a makeshift cross-bar, “puts all of the talk about Bowe being a Taliban sympathizer to rest.”

He had already been punished for escaping the first time, he doesn’t have any food, she said. “Still, he goes out the window.”

Bergdahl said he would rather risk dying while on the loose than being beheaded. He eluded capture for almost nine days. When his captors tracked him down, they said they would kill him if he tried escaping again.

Boal asked whether Bergdahl ever apologized to his captors.

Never, Bergdahl said. “That escape was the last time I saw stars until the night that special forces picked me up. That was a long time.”

It would be four years until Bergdahl saw stars again.

svan.jennifer@stripes.com

 

Accused Army deserter Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is shown in this undated file photo.
U.S. ARMY

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