Bergdahl was released on May 31, 2014, as part of a prisoner exchange for five Taliban members who were being held at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. This exchange and the ceremony announcing it, held in the White House Rose Garden, generated controversy in the United States. On December 14, 2015, the U.S. Army announced that Bergdahl would be tried by general court-martial on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. In 2016, Bergdahl's case was the focus of Season 2 of the podcast Serial.
Bergdahl was born in 1986, in Sun Valley, Idaho, to Robert Bergdahl, a commercial truck driver, and his wife Jani (Larson) Bergdahl. He is of Norwegian and Swedish ancestry. He has an older sister, Sky Albrecht. Both Bergdahl and his sister were home schooled by their mother in Hailey, Idaho. The family attended Sovereign Redeemer Presbyterian Church, an Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He received a GED certificate through the College of Southern Idaho. As an adult, Bergdahl studied and practiced fencing and martial arts before changing to ballet classes at the Sun Valley Ballet School in Ketchum, Idaho. He has never owned a car, and rode his bicycle everywhere. He spent time in a Buddhist monastery between 2007 and 2008.
In 2006, Bergdahl entered basic training in the United States Coast Guard but was discharged after 26 days for psychological reasons and received an "uncharacterized discharge".
In 2008, Bergdahl enlisted in the United States Army and graduated from the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He was then assigned to the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.
According to a fellow soldier, Specialist Jason Fry, Bergdahl was a loner. "He wasn't one of the troublemakers – he was focused and well-behaved." Bergdahl was isolated by choice from his fellow soldiers; for instance, instead of socializing with his comrades during Thanksgiving, he studied maps of Afghanistan. Bergdahl told Fry before their deployment to Afghanistan, "If this deployment is lame, I'm just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan."
Bergdahl's unit was deployed to Afghanistan in May 2009. His unit was sent to an outpost named Mest-Malak in Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. Bergdahl began learning to speak Pashto, and according to Fry, Bergdahl "began to gravitate away from his unit", spending "more time with the Afghans than he did with his platoon". Bergdahl's father described his son to military investigators as "psychologically isolated".
On June 25, 2009, Bergdahl's battalion suffered its first casualty: First Lieutenant Brian Bradshaw was killed in a blast from a roadside bomb near the village of Yaya Kheyl, not far from Bergdahl's outpost. Bergdahl's father believes Bradshaw and Bergdahl had grown close at the National Training Center, and Bradshaw's death darkened Bergdahl's mood.
On June 27, 2009, Bergdahl sent an e-mail to his parents before he was captured:
The future is too good to waste on lies. And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be american. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting. [...] [Three good sergeants had been forced to move to another company] [...] and one of the biggest shit bags is being put in charge of the team. [...] [My battalion commander was] a conceited old fool. [...] In the US army you are cut down for being honest... but if you are a conceited brown nosing shit bag you will be allowed to do what ever you want, and you will be handed your higher rank... The system is wrong. I am ashamed to be an american. And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools. ... The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs are getting out as soon as they can, [...] I am sorry for everything here. These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live... We don't even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks... We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them [...] I am sorry for everything. The horror that is america is disgusting. There are a few more boxes coming to you guys. Feel free to open them, and use them.
Bob Bergdahl responded to his son's final message not long after he received it:
OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE!
Dear Bowe, In matters of life and death, and especially at war, it is never safe to ignore ones' conscience. Ethics demands obedience to our conscience. It is best to also have a systematic oral defense of what our conscience demands. Stand with like minded men when possible. dad.
A former senior military officer briefed on the investigation into Bergdahl's disappearance said that on the night he went missing, Bergdahl left a note in his tent that said he was leaving to start a new life. It was reported that the letter said that Bergdahl wanted to renounce his citizenship. According to Senator Saxby Chambliss, the White House said there was no note during a meeting with Congress on the release of Bergdahl. Bergdahl himself stated in an interview broadcast on Serial that he left no note.
Bergdahl walked away from his battalion on the night of June 30, 2009, near the town of Yahya Kheyl in Paktika Province. Accounts of his capture differ. In a video, Bergdahl stated that he was captured when he fell behind on a patrol. Taliban sources allege he was ambushed after becoming drunk off base; U.S. military sources deny that claim, stating, "The Taliban are known for lying and what they are claiming [is] not true". A Department of Defense spokesperson said, "I'm glad to see he appears unharmed, but again, this is a Taliban propaganda video. They are exploiting the soldier in violation of international law." Other sources said Bergdahl walked off base after his shift or that he was grabbed from a latrine. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Defense attributed his disappearance to "walking off his base in eastern Afghanistan with three Afghan counterparts and was believed to have been taken prisoner".
General Nabi Mullakheil of the Afghan National Police said the capture occurred in Paktika Province. Other sources say that he was captured by a Taliban group led by Mullah Sangeen Zadran, who moved him to Ghazni Province. He was held by the Haqqani network, an insurgent group affiliated with the Taliban, probably somewhere in Pakistan.
Bergdahl was a Private First Class when captured; he was promoted in absentia to Specialist on June 19, 2010, and to Sergeant on June 17, 2011. According to soldiers in Bergdahl's platoon, the morning when Bergdahl was discovered to be missing, his equipment was found neatly stacked, with his compass missing.
A Pentagon investigation in 2010 concluded that Bergdahl walked away from his unit. Bergdahl wrote e-mails to his parents in which he reported having become disillusioned with the war effort and bothered by the treatment of Afghans by American soldiers. He said in his e-mail he was ashamed to be American. Some sources say he left an explanatory note before leaving, though this was denied.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey said: "The questions about this particular soldier's conduct are separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity" and that the military will investigate how Bergdahl was captured. "Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty.[...] Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred. In the meantime, we will continue to care for him and his family."
Some soldiers who served with Bergdahl have called him a deserter. Nathan Bradley Bethea, a member of Bergdahl's battalion wrote a Daily Beast article stating that there was no patrol the night that Bergdahl went missing, and that Bergdahl had talked about his desire to walk to India. Bethea wrote that the brigade received an order not to discuss Bergdahl due to safety reasons, but now that he has been found there is not a need for further silence. Cody Full, a member of Bergdahl's platoon, said, "He knowingly deserted and put thousands of people in danger because he did. We swore to an oath and we upheld ours. He did not." Full said that Bergdahl had mailed his computer and other possessions home prior to his disappearance.
On July 18, 2009, the Taliban released a video showing the captured Bergdahl. In it, Bergdahl appeared downcast and frightened. A Department of Defense statement issued the following day confirmed that Bergdahl had been declared "missing/whereabouts unknown" on July 1, and that his status had been changed to "missing/captured" on July 3. In the 28-minute video, his captors held up his dog tags to establish that the captured man was Bergdahl. Bergdahl gave the date as July 14 and mentioned an attack that occurred that day.
On December 25, 2009, five months after Bergdahl's disappearance, the media arm of the Taliban released a video of "a U.S. soldier captured in Afghanistan" titled "One of Their People Testified". The Taliban did not name the American, but the only U.S. soldier known to be in captivity was Bergdahl. U.S. military officials had been searching for Bergdahl, but it was not publicly known whether he was being held in Afghanistan or in Pakistan. On December 25, another video was released showing Bergdahl wearing sunglasses and a combat uniform and helmet. He described his place of birth, deployment to Afghanistan and subsequent capture, and made several statements regarding his humane treatment by his captors, contrasting this to the abuses suffered by insurgents in prisons. He finished by saying that the United States should not be involved in Afghanistan and that its presence there is akin to the Vietnam War.
The Taliban originally demanded $1 million and the release of 21 Afghan prisoners and Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani scientist convicted in a U.S. court on charges of attempted killing of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Most of the Afghan prisoners sought were being held at Guantanamo Bay. The Taliban later reduced its demand to six Taliban prisoners in exchange for Bergdahl's release. After Taliban commander Awal Gul died of a heart attack at Guantanamo Bay on February 2, 2011, the demand was reduced to five Taliban prisoners.
On April 7, 2010, the Taliban released a third video of Bergdahl, with a full head of hair and a beard, pleading for the release of Afghan prisoners held at Guantanamo and Bagram. In November 2010, Bergdahl appeared briefly in a fourth video and in May 2011, in a fifth video.
In June 2010, Bergdahl managed to escape his captors but was recaptured after five days. In August 2010, it was reported that a Taliban commander named Haji Nadeem said Bergdahl was helping to train the Taliban in bomb-making and infantry tactics. The Pentagon dismissed the reports as Taliban propaganda.
In December 2011, it was reported that Bergdahl had managed to escape again the previous August or September but was recaptured after three days. In June 2013, Bergdahl's parents received a letter from him through the Red Cross. In January 2014, the United States received another proof of life video dated December 14, 2013. In it, Bergdahl mentioned the death of South African president Nelson Mandela, showing that the video had been filmed after December 5.
In early 2014, it was suggested that the United States had attempted to secure the release of Bergdahl by paying a ransom, and that the intermediary absconded with the money. The Pentagon states that a ransom was not paid, but there was a payment made for intelligence, that did lead to the release of Bergdahl.
After Bergdahl was confirmed to be missing, the Army initiated a DUSTWUN search to find him. According to soldiers from Bergdahl's platoon, fellow soldiers described an increase in attacks against the United States in Paktika Province in the days and weeks following Bergdahl's disappearance. Significant resources were deployed in an effort to find Bergdahl. Two Pashto-language leaflets were distributed by the U.S. military in seeking Bergdahl. One showed a smiling GI shaking hands with Afghan children, with a caption that called him a guest in Afghanistan. The other showed a door being broken down and threatened that those holding Bergdahl would be hunted down.
According to soldiers involved in the operations to find Bergdahl, at least six soldiers were killed in the search; this includes six soldiers in the same battalion as Bergdahl. A spokesman for the Pentagon said that it is impossible to confirm whether anyone's death was directly linked to the search for Bergdahl, but said the Pentagon will look further into the circumstances of the deaths being associated with the search.
Due to resources being diverted to find Bergdahl, the closing of Combat Outpost Keating was delayed, which may have led to eight American soldiers being killed on October 3, 2009, after 300 Taliban insurgents overran the base. A former senior military officer disputed that the diversion of resources led to the attack, noting that COP Keating was in "a dangerous region in Afghanistan in the middle of the ‘fighting season’" and that "it is 'difficult to establish a direct cause and effect.'” According to The New York Times, "A review of the database of casualties in the Afghan war suggests that Sergeant Bergdahl’s critics appear to be blaming him for every American soldier killed in Paktika Province in the four-month period that followed his disappearance."
According to a senior U.S. official, Bergdahl told military officials that he had been tortured, beaten, and held in a cage by his Taliban captors in Afghanistan after he tried to escape. He told medical officials that he was locked in a metal cage in total darkness for weeks at a time as punishment for trying to escape.
On May 31, 2014, Bergdahl was released by his captors and recovered by Delta Force, a Special Mission Unit component of the Joint Special Operations Command in eastern Afghanistan. The release was brokered by the American, Qatari, and Afghan governments with the Taliban, in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detainees transferred to Qatari custody for at least one year. At 10:30 a.m. (EDT) on May 31, 2014, Bergdahl was handed over by 18 Taliban members to a special operations team in eastern Afghanistan, near Khost on the Pakistani border, in what was described as a "peaceful handover." A video of the handover was later released by the Taliban.
Bergdahl was treated by U.S. military medical staff at an undisclosed base in eastern Afghanistan. He was then transferred to Bagram Airfield before being flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, for medical treatment. On June 13, 2014, he was flown by military plane to San Antonio, Texas, where he was taken to the Brooke Army Medical Center to complete his recovery and reintegration.
The Taliban detainees – known as the "Taliban Five" – who were transferred from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to custody in Doha, Qatar, are Mohammad Fazl, Khairullah Khairkhwa, Abdul Haq Wasiq, Norullah Noori, and Mohammad Nabi Omari. They were the Taliban army chief of staff, a Taliban deputy minister of intelligence, a former Taliban interior minister, and two other senior Taliban figures.
Some Republican members of Congress have said that the prisoner swap that led to Bergdahl's release may have been illegal. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (NDAA) mandates that all prisoner transfers from Guantanamo Bay require 30 days' notice to Congress, which was not done in this case. When President Barack Obama signed the bill, he released a signing statement saying that the restriction interfered with the president's executive power as commander-in-chief. The White House released a statement acknowledging that the release of the Guantanamo prisoners did not comply with the NDAA provision, but cited the president's signing statement and "unique and exigent circumstances" as justification. One year earlier, Jay Carney (then-spokesperson for the White House) had assured the press that the decision to free Bergdahl would be made only after consulting Congress, in accordance with said law.
For months, U.S. negotiators sought to arrange the transfer of five Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo Bay detention camp to the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. The transfer was intended as one of a series of confidence-building measures designed to open the door to political talks between the Taliban and Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government. That move – at the center of U.S. strategy for ending the long, costly conflict in Afghanistan – was supposed to lead directly to Bergdahl's release. The Taliban has consistently called for the United States to release those held at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for freeing Western prisoners. But the Guantanamo transfer proposal ground to a halt when the Taliban rejected U.S. conditions designed to ensure transferred Taliban would not slip away and re-emerge as military leaders. Ultimately, the Obama administration agreed to the prisoner exchange, allowing Bergdahl to be released on May 31, 2014.
On May 31, 2014, President Obama appeared with Bob and Jani Bergdahl in the White House Rose Garden where he delivered a speech about the prisoner swap that resulted in the recovery of their son.
On July 13, 2014, it was reported that Bergdahl would return to duty at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. This was confirmed by Army officials on July 14, with a spokeswoman saying that "He will now return to regular duty within the command where he can contribute to the mission." He is currently serving as a clerk; however, the "military taboo surrounding desertion is such that he has to have a security detail to guard him from possible attacks from his fellow soldiers."
Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said he was "extremely troubled" and that "This fundamental shift in U.S. policy signals to terrorists around the world a greater incentive to take U.S. hostages". This sentiment was repeated by Congressmen Buck McKeon and James Inhofe, who released a joint statement saying that terrorists now have a "strong incentive" to capture more soldiers. Ted Poe, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, stated that the Bergdahl exchange appeared to violate the United States policy of not negotiating with terrorists. Anderson Cooper asked White House spokesman Jay Carney if it can "still be said that the United States does not negotiate with terrorists" to which Carney replied:
It can be ... because when you put on the uniform of the United States and you go and fight on behalf of your country in a foreign land at war, and you’re taken captive by the enemy, the principle that we don’t leave our men and women behind doesn’t have an asterisk attached to it depending on who’s holding you.
Cooper followed up by asking "Even if it was a group like Al Qaeda, there would be negotiations with them?" to which Carney replied:
What I’m saying is he was a prisoner in an armed conflict, and we were engaged in an effort for five years to try to recover him. As an admiral said on TV today, he said when one of your shipmates goes overboard, you go get them. You don’t ask whether he jumped or he was pushed or he fell. You go get him first and then you find out.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Bergdahl was a "prisoner of war" and that "We didn't negotiate with terrorists". Time magazine published an article stating that the Taliban are:
[N]ot really a 'terrorist' enemy as we commonly understand the word. The group is not on the State Department’s official list of terrorist organizations and has long been a battlefield enemy in the ground war for control of Afghanistan. It is not plotting to, say, hijack American airplanes—even if it does have sympathies with people who are. Ditto the Taliban leaders released over the weekend.
Time pointed out that the United States and other countries have "negotiated with terrorists" multiple times in previous years. In February 2014, CNN published an article discussing the possibility of releasing Bergdahl in exchange for the five Taliban, and concluded that "discussions about the release of Bergdahl with the Afghan Taliban are not directly with a terrorist organization per se, but instead with an insurgent group that has a terrorist wing". In August 2014, the Government Accountability Office published a report stating that the Pentagon broke the law when conducting the prisoner exchange because it failed to notify U.S. Congress in advance, as required by the law.
National Security Advisor Susan Rice appeared on ABC News' This Week on June 1, 2014, several days after the exchange, saying Bergdahl "served the United States with honor and distinction." Following the announcement that Bergdahl was formally charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, much debate regarding the administration's handling of the negotiations resumed, centered on Rice's comment and then-State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki's statement in late March 2015 that the swap was "absolutely" worth it.
In September 2014, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 249 to 163 (with 22 Democrats joining the Republican majority) to pass a nonbinding resolution condemning President Obama for failing to give Congress thirty days' notice before exchanging Bergdahl.
On June 16, 2014, the U.S. Army said that it had begun investigating the facts and circumstances surrounding the disappearance and capture of Bergdahl in Afghanistan. On June 25, 2014, the U.S. Army stated that there is "no evidence" that Bergdahl "engaged in any misconduct" during his years in captivity. The 2010 Pentagon investigation referred to above dealt with events leading up to his capture. In July 2014, Bergdahl was returned to active duty.
In August 2014, it was announced that an investigation headed by Major General Kenneth Dahl would be conducted. During the course of Dahl's inquiry, Bergdahl told investigators that he left his position in June 2009 to report on "misconduct in his unit" and that he had intended to return quickly. During a 59-day investigation, Dahl interviewed 57 witnesses, including Bergdahl.
According to Bergdahl's lawyer, Eugene Fidell, Bergdahl told him that he "had concerns about certain conditions in the unit and things that happened in the unit and he figured that the only way to get any attention to them would be to get that information to a general officer." Fidell opined that Bergdahl was actually AWOL when he was captured, rather than a deserter.
In December 2014, the Army referred Bergdahl's case to a four-star general for a possible court-martial. On March 25, 2015, the Army announced that Bergdahl had been charged with two counts under the Uniform Code of Military Justice: one count of “desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty" and one count of "misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place"; the more serious misbehavior charge can be charged with a life sentence.
According to documents released by his defense team, Bergdahl was diagnosed with schizotypal personality disorder following an Army Sanity Board evaluation. A July 27, 2015 memorandum from the sanity board stated "Though Sgt. Bergdahl did have a severe mental disease or defect at the time of the alleged criminal conduct, he was able to appreciate the nature and quality and wrongfulness of this conduct."
In September 2015, following earlier postponements, an Article 32 hearing (similar to a preliminary hearing in the civilian system) was held at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. At the hearing, Dahl testified that he found no evidence suggesting that Bergdahl was "sympathetic to the Taliban" or intended to desert. Dahl also testified that Bergdahl had "idealistic and unrealistic expectations" of people, identifying with Ayn Rand's character of John Galt. Dahl testified that he had found no evidence that any soldiers had been killed while specifically engaged in the effort to retrieve Bergdahl. Dahl also testified that imprisonment would be an "inappropriate" penalty for Bergdahl.
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Visger presided over the hearing and made a recommendation on whether Bergdahl should be court-martialed. On October 2015, Visger "recommended that the charges be referred to a special court-martial and that a punitive discharge and confinement would be inappropriate given all the circumstances." A special court-martial is a lower-level court-martial handling cases that would be a misdemeanor in the civil system (carrying penalties of no more than one year in prison), in contrast to a general court-martial, a higher-level court-martial handling cases that would be felonies in the civil system (carrying higher penalties). Visger's recommendation was reviewed by General Robert B. Abrams, the commander of United States Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the "convening authority" in Bergdahl's case. In December 2015, Abrams rejected the recommendation and ordered that Bergdahl face a general court-martial on the two charges. His trial was first set for February 2017. Regarding these charges, Bergdahl had sought a pardon from President Obama, which was not granted.
On President Donald Trump's inauguration day, Bergdahl's lawyers sought to use the president's words to end the prosecution. Specifically, Trump had denounced Bergdahl during the presidential campaign as a "dirty rotten traitor." The defense attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the desertion and endangerment charges against Sergeant Bergdahl, saying it was now impossible for him to get a fair trial. They contended that the effect of Trump's statements violates a prohibition on unlawful command influence, a legal concept in military justice. Colonel Jeffery Nance declined to dismiss the case in February 2017, then it was appealed and was denied by the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals on March 13. On March 24, the defense team filed a third motion, again asking to dismiss the case over the comments from Trump. Bergdahl returned to court for a pre-trial hearing on May 5, 2017, where the judge said he intended to start jury selection on October 16, 2017.Combat Infantryman Badge
Army Good Conduct Medal
National Defense Service Medal
Afghanistan Campaign Medal
Global War on Terror Service Medal
Army Service Ribbon
Overseas Service Ribbon
10 Overseas Service Bars