Bowe Bergdahl

Here’s what Bergdahl’s personality disorder may mean for his case

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, left, and defense lead counsel Eugene Fidell, center, look on as then-Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl is questioned during a Sept. 18, 2015 preliminary hearing to determine if Sgt. Bergdahl would be court-martialed.
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, left, and defense lead counsel Eugene Fidell, center, look on as then-Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl is questioned during a Sept. 18, 2015 preliminary hearing to determine if Sgt. Bergdahl would be court-martialed. AP

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, of Hailey, saw serious issues with the leadership of his platoon, believing they were endangering lives. He concluded that leaving his post in Afghanistan and hiking 20 miles to another U.S. installation was his best shot at informing higher-ups of the situation and bringing change.

He told investigators that he planned to come back and knew he would be charged for his actions, possibly with desertion. Even if officials thought he was delusional, officials “were going to be forced to investigate the entire situation,” Bergdahl told now-Lt. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, who headed the Army’s investigation into Bergdahl’s 2009 disappearance, captivity and release nearly five years later.

It turns out Bergdahl, 29, suffered from schizotypal personality disorder at the time of his capture, an Army Sanity Board evaluation concluded in July 2015. The popular “Serial” podcast, which is examining Bergdahl’s case in detail, revealed the diagnosis in mid-February; Bergdahl’s attorneys posted a copy of the evaluation online this week.

Read the Sanity Board report, Dahl interview transcript here

Folks with schizotypal personality disorder are often viewed as odd or eccentric, said Kyle Davis, a psychologist with St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center. They’re often described as “beating to their own drum” and often have odd beliefs about how the world works or how they interact with the world, he said.

“They’re oftentimes more paranoid than an average person would be. They’re kind of suspicious about the world and oftentimes see themselves as being persecuted by others or the government or the world,” said Davis, who has not studied the Bergdahl case.

Michael Valdovinos, a former Air Force psychologist who led a team that helped reintegrate Bergdahl while he was being treated at a hospital in Germany, told “Serial” the diagnosis seemed valid.

“Because it very much fits, you know, some of the things that he struggles with,” Valdovinos said. “It sort of permeates a lot of what’s going on. You see this a lot play out through his life, you know, from development, through his teenage years, to his young adulthood. It really does tell the story of Bowe, unfortunately.”

Follow "Serial" with us: Click here for the Statesman/KBSX podcast "Speaking of Serial"

In the 371-page transcript of his interview with Dahl, Bergdahl said he grew up in Hailey as a loner in a “strict and very religious setting” that stressed personal ethics. He was home schooled, which didn’t give him much in the way of social interactions with other people, he said. Bergdahl said he was “more comfortable in the mountains.”

“I am an introvert,” he said. “I have to actually put a lot of effort into being a conversationalist in social environments. I can’t go to parties because that just drains me. It takes a lot of effort to carry on in a regular conversation with somebody.”

Those with schizotypal personality disorder are likely born with it, Davis said. Differences in their personality are often seen in adolescence and other kids will pick up on that.

“These kids are often isolated and bullied early on and also can become really socially anxious because they’re used to getting bullied by people for their different beliefs or behaviors,” Davis said.

Bergdahl told Dahl that his family, especially his father, told him “I can’t succeed in anything, that I am a failure.”

He traveled to Paris to join the French Foreign Legion because it “was an adventurous-sounding idea,” but he said he was rejected because of his vision.

He later enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard because he loved the ocean and felt the service had an “extremely prestigious, honorable mission.” He was given an “uncharacterized discharge” — his attorneys describe it as a “psychological discharge” — following a panic attack after three weeks of training. Bergdahl said he felt overwhelmed at the thought he might not be able to save people in an ocean rescue.

Bergdahl came back to Hailey, where he learned to meditate and joined a dance group. Studying eastern philosophy taught him to face things that frightened him.

“One of the reasons why I was focusing on dancing was because that put me in an environment that forced me to actually interact on a social level that I was never used to,” he said.

He joined the Army in spring 2008, when he was 22. He was given a waiver from rules that bar the enlistment of those with certain psychological problems. At the time, the Army had relaxed its recruitment standards because it was stretched thin by the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By several accounts, his Army stint was successful until he walked off and fell into the hands of associates of the Taliban, with one sergeant testifying last September: “He was a great soldier.”

You were one of the best soldiers, arguably the best soldier in your platoon. Your service up until that point was exemplary.

Lt. Gen. Kenneth Dahl to Bergdahl, as quoted in a transcript of their interview

The Sanity Board evaluation states Bergdahl still understood that his actions in walking away from his unit were wrong. The board also found he does not currently suffer from psychological problems that would prevent him from standing trial.

On Thursday, Bergdahl’s lawyer Army Lt. Col. Franklin Rosenblatt declined to discuss with The Associated Press how the psychiatric issues figure in the defense’s strategy for Bergdahl’s court-martial. But defense arguments at his 2015 Article 32 hearing — similar to a civilian grand jury proceeding — shed light on the role his mental health may play.

Defense attorney Eugene Fidell told the officer presiding over the hearing that mitigating factors in the case include “the psychological diagnosis that’s before you, and the need for continuing medical and psychiatric or psychological care. This is totally undisputed.”

Bergdahl’s diagnosis could garner sympathy from jurors if it is allowed as evidence during the guilt-or-innocence phase of the court-martial, said retired Army Maj. Gen. Walt Huffman, who served as the branch’s top lawyer and later as dean of the Texas Tech University School of Law. Some legal experts said the diagnosis may not be allowed in at that stage, but it’s likely to also give the defense a strong argument for leniency at sentencing.

Such sympathy would likely disappoint Bergdahl’s critics among the public, who fear that details of his background distract from the magnitude of his actions in Afghanistan.

“Sometimes juries hear things and say, ‘We understand the law and all that, but it’s not right to punish this guy,’” Huffman told the AP.

The Associated Press contributed.

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @IDS_Sowell