Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl could have had a desk waiting for him in the Pentagon in the summer of 2014 when the Army asked him to figure out why Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl deserted his combat outpost in Afghanistan.
Dahl passed on the offer. He thought he had a better chance of finding the truth by taking his work back to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where he was the deputy commanding general of its I Corps headquarters near Tacoma.
That decision kicked off a two-month investigation at JBLM in which he interviewed 57 people and pulled together a team of 22 soldiers to help him understand the pressures troops faced on the ground in Afghanistan during Bergdahl’s fateful deployment.
“I thought it would be better to go back, you know, sort of separate ourselves from the noise and work with a team of people that I already knew,” Dahl said in court.
His investigation is not classified, but the Army has refused to release it to the public. Dahl opened a window on it last month at Bergdahl’s first pretrial hearing, where he testified he did not believe the Afghanistan war’s most famous deserter should receive a jail sentence on top of the five years he spent in Taliban captivity.
“I do not believe that there is a jail sentence that is at the end of this procedure,” Dahl said.
Bergdahl’s attorney, Eugene Fidell, recently released a transcript of the hearing. He’s also asking the Army to allow him to release Dahl’s full report, which would yield a comprehensive look at Bergdhal’s motivations and his background.
Its disclosure could soften a common depiction of Bergdahl as a traitor that has persisted since the Obama administration exchanged five detainees at Guantanamo Bay in May 2014 for the Idaho soldier’s release from the Taliban.
For example, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Thursday charged that Bergdahl should have been executed rather than freed from captivity.
“We’re tired of Sgt. Bergdahl, who’s a traitor, a no-good traitor, who should have been executed,” Trump said at a Las Vegas rally. “Thirty years ago, he would have been shot.”
So far, the Army has rejected Fidell’s requests to publish the report before Bergdahl’s court martial. By practice, the Army considers documents such as Dahl’s report to be part of an investigation that is not complete until a defendant’s conviction or acquittal.
But the lawyer wants the public to have an opportunity to read it because of what he called the “record-shattering yearlong campaign of vilification in part of the media” that Bergdahl has experienced since his release.
Fidell’s court filings tend to include exhaustive social media threads in which people insult Bergdahl.
“He thus has a compelling interest in making Maj. Gen. Dahl’s report … available to those in the American public who wish to inform themselves about what actually happened,” Fidell wrote in a Sept. 20 court filing.
Bergdahl, 29, faces a life sentence on charges of misbehavior before the enemy and desertion.
Dahl got the assignment to investigate Bergdahl’s June 2009 disappearance because the general was a senior-ranking officer with recent experience in Afghanistan.
He served in Afghanistan on two yearlong deployments between 2010 and 2013, one based in Kandahar and the other in Kabul. Dahl also had commanded an artillery brigade in Iraq 10 years ago.
Despite his time in the field, Dahl recognized that his perspective as a senior-ranking officer was far different from the challenges Bergdahl faced in 2009 at a small outpost called Forward Operating Base Mest in Afghanistan’s Paktika Province.
Accordingly, he built an investigative team with ground-level experts who could inform his questioning of Bergdahl and other soldiers.
For instance, he pulled an infantry platoon sergeant who’d recently served in the war to learn about what it was like to fight out of a small base in a remote corner of Afghanistan.
Dahl also drew on the robust Special Operations community at JBLM to gain perspectives about how military service members endure captivity. JBLM is home to four Army and Air Force Special Operations units composed of troops trained in survival, evasion, resistance and escape techniques.
He called on a psychologist from that field to help him understand how Berghdahl held up during his long captivity.
The group had a mix of men and women. Nine of its members were officers, 11 were enlisted soldiers and two were civilian doctors.
“When we would sit around the table and have conversations at the end of the day — and it was fairly open and good dialogue going on amongst everybody — it occurred to me that this is the kind of group of people that would provide a good deal of confidence, you know, at the end of the day, that we have found the truth,” Dahl said in court.
A full witness list has not yet been disclosed, but Dahl has said he interviewed members of Bergdahl’s family and soldiers from his Alaska-based infantry battalion. Many of the interviews took place by telephone. In some cases, witnesses traveled to JBLM to give their testimony.
That resulted in more than 300 pages of testimony and an additional 59-page summary that Dahl wrote. He spent about 60 days on interviews and another 45 writing his narrative.
Dahl had about two full days to interview Bergdahl at Joint Base San Antonio, where Bergdahl has been assigned since his release.
“I think he was truthful,” Dahl said.
Dahl characterized Bergdahl as an “unrealistically idealistic” young man who thought he could draw attention to leadership failures he perceived at his forward base by creating a crisis that he thought would allow him to meet with an Army general.
Dahl found no reason to believe reports that have circulated suggesting Bergdahl wanted to walk to China, or that he planned to join the Taliban. Bergdahl thought of himself as a whistleblower willing to sacrifice himself for a greater good.
He “perceived that there was a problem with the leadership in his unit,” Dahl said. “And the leadership of that unit — the problem with that leadership in his unit was so severe, you know, that his platoon was in danger. And he felt that it was his responsibility to do something to intervene.”
Dahl found that Bergdahl had excellent commanders, but that Bergdahl did not understand them or his role as a junior soldier in the war.
“I think he absolutely believed that the things that he was perceiving were true,” the general said. “And I equally believe that he was completely wrong in that, which is just, you know, the sad irony of it.
“But certainly, in his mind, there wasn’t any doubt.”