“Serial” wrapped up its second season, which focused on Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, with a question that’s been brought up many times since the soldier was captured in 2009: Did U.S. soldiers die trying to find him?
Six and sometimes eight names in particular have been passed around, labeled as soldiers whose deaths would have been avoided if Bergdahl, of Hailey, hadn’t walked off his base.
But it’s hard to determine whether those soldiers actually died while searching for Bergdahl because the situation was so nebulous, argues “Serial” producer Sarah Koenig. Missions involving a search for the soldier that resulted in deaths weren’t only about that search.
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Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Ken Wolfe, who was involved with the searches, told Koenig that Bergdahl’s disappearance did not result in any deaths.
“Ken’s not being protective of Bowe here,” Koenig said on the episode. “He just thinks the record ought to be set straight. And he doesn’t want the memories of the guys who died to be dragged into the Bergdahl morass: to be sullied by it, by the politics of it. He thinks it’s not fair to those men or their families.”
The missions that involved searching for Bergdahl were not wholly about Bergdahl, Wolfe said. Others went further and said that leaders pushed missions under the guise of looking for Bergdahl, while prioritizing other agendas. A source Koenig called “Scott,” who was “attached to an elite unit” and did not use his real name on the podcast, said that before Bergdahl left his post, it was harder to justify certain missions without “good actionable intelligence,” Koenig said.
“But when he disappeared, those limits, those thresholds for going out became much, much lower,” he told Koenig.
That reflects reporting done by Reuters in 2014 and Newsweek starting in 2015, suggesting that U.S. military leaders already knew by the time of the missions involving soldiers’ deaths that Bergdahl wasn’t in Afghanistan, and that Bergdahl’s name was regularly invoked regardless to ease along other goals.
Before Bergdahl went missing, “we were walking through markets buying goats because we had nothing else to do,” Army Sgt. Johnathan Rice told Newsweek’s Michael Ames for a story in April 2015. After Bergdahl’s capture, “we had excuses to hit high-value targets or hit people of interest.”
But others on “Serial” pushed back against that idea, saying that if a mission’s goals included searching for Bergdahl, the soldiers involved would have to spend at least a little time on that. The Army apparently did have some intelligence to suggest that Bergdahl might still be in Afghanistan somewhere or have crossed back over, and sources said regardless of whether certain deaths were or weren’t related, the search led to injuries and altered the way a number of events were carried out over those weeks.
“I’m absolutely adamant in my mind that soldiers were either put in harm’s way or were harmed looking for him,” Maj. Mike Waltz said on the podcast.
That intelligence might not have been complete; Koenig documents one instance of an intelligence analyst who told a supervisor — two weeks after Bergdahl’s disappearance — that they believed he was in Pakistan. But they weren’t allowed to put it into a report for another 30 or 40 days.
The military has not conducted its own investigation into the question, according to “Serial,” but top officials have repeatedly said they have no evidence of any deaths directly linked to the search for Bergdahl.
Retired Lt. Col. Paul Edgar, who helped manage the Bergdahl search, said Bergdahl’s walking off base was a normal part of war.
“When you sign up for war, as a society, you sign up for this. You sign up for disillusioned youth. You sign up for all the things that attend war,” he said on the podcast.
What did we learn from ‘Serial’?
Eleven episodes of the podcast’s second season reaffirmed details of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s capture and broke some news of their own. Next Wednesday, join us for the last episode of “Speaking of Serial,” our companion podcast with Boise State Public Radio where we discuss the topics that “Serial” raises. Then later next week, watch for highlights from “Serial” and fact checks about Bergdahl in the Idaho Statesman and on IdahoStatesman.com.