For the first time Thursday, the world heard from Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl about what it was like to be trapped in a dark room, held by a group affiliated with the Taliban for five years.
“It’s like, how do I explain to a person that just standing in an empty, dark room hurts? It’s like, well, a person asked me, ‘Why does it hurt? Does your body hurt?’ Yes, your body hurts, but it’s more than that. It’s mental, like, you’re almost confused. You know, there was times when I’d wake up and it’s just so dark, like I would wake up not even remembering what I was.”
That’s Bergdahl speaking to filmmaker Mark Boal, whose screenwriting and producing credits include the films “The Hurt Locker,” about an Army bomb technician in Iraq, and “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the mission to kill Osama bin Laden.
Bergdahl, of Hailey, spent five years as a prisoner of war in Afghanistan after walking away from his base in June 2009. He was returned to the U.S. in May 2014 as part of a swap for five members of the Taliban held in Guantanamo Bay. That swap and the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture have led to military charges and political controversy ever since.
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Enter “Serial.” The podcast, a production of National Public Radio mainstay “This American Life,” returned for its second season Thursday. And as rumored, the season will focus on Bergdahl’s case.
“This story — it spins out in so many unexpected directions. Because, yes, it’s about Bowe Bergdahl and about one strange decision he made, to leave his post. ... But it’s also about all of the people affected by that decision, and the choices they made,” Serial host and producer Sarah Koenig wrote in an email update to subscribers Thursday.
According to the season’s first episode, Boal began talking to Bergdahl a couple of months after Bergdahl’s return, conducting research for a possible movie. Boal accumulated about 25 hours of recorded phone interviews, “a lot of it rangy and raw,” Koenig said.
Boal and his Page 1 production company eventually approached “Serial” with the offer to listen to what he’d amassed. The two chose to partner for this season of “Serial.” Koenig notes that her podcast isn’t involved at all with Boal’s potential movie, but he put the “Serial” crew in touch with other sources used in her reporting.
The reporting includes speaking to some of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers and teasing an interview with Taliban representatives in the second episode. But the biggest news Thursday was the recordings of Bergdahl. Listeners heard him describe his reasoning for leaving his base and how things went wrong once he was out on his own and realized the “hurricane of wrath” he would face upon returning.
“I had this fantastic idea that I was going to prove to the world that I was the real thing,” Bergdahl says, raising a comparison to movie heroes such as Jason Bourne as he talks about planning to spy on insurgents deploying IEDs.
That was a late addition to Bergdahl’s plan to slip away from his remote outpost and hike to another base 20 miles away, all to draw attention to what he believed was dangerous and lax Army management, a concern previously reported in the course of his military hearings. He was captured hours after leaving his outpost; in the podcast, he says he got off his planned route and ended up in the desert with no cover.
“The idea was, I’d rather be sitting in Leavenworth than standing over the body of” a fellow soldier, he says at one point.
Fort Leavenworth is home to a U.S. military prison. Bergdahl still faces possible imprisonment; he currently awaits word on whether he’ll be court-martialed on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. In the meantime, he’s been reviled by military veterans and become a punching bag for presidential hopefuls. A planned celebration in Hailey shortly after his release had to be canceled as national public opinion turned.
His attorney, Eugene Fidell, told The Associated Press that the more the public can hear Bergdahl’s own words, the better.
“Some of the information that is going to come out is inevitably not going to be what we would have preferred in a perfect universe, but net-net, we’ll take it and allow people in our democratic society to form their own opinions,” Fidell said.
“Serial” helped lead the recent resurgence in podcasting; its first season was downloaded more than 100 million times. That season examined a complicated murder case in Baltimore and hinged on the main source’s proclaimed innocence — a slightly different “true crime” feel than Bergdahl’s story so far.
Attempts to reach “Serial’s” producers for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.
Along with Bergdahl’s pending military charges, political fallout from the prisoner swap that secured his freedom continues. On Wednesday, House Republicans released a report claiming that the Obama administration misled Congress about the trade. The report also concludes there’s no sign a ransom was paid for Bergdahl.
Listen with us
We’re following along with Season 2 of Serial as it revisits the case of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Starting next week, reporters with the Idaho Statesman and Boise State Public Radio will host a followup podcast, “Speaking of Serial,” discussing Bergdahl’s case, Serial’s reporting and what happens when an Idahoan becomes the center of international news.
More on the Web
On “Serial’s” website, take a digital flight over the area Bergdahl would have had to cross between the two military outposts.