Even in Spokane Valley, 320 miles away from his hometown of Hailey, Idaho, the image of Taliban captive Bowe Bergdahl hung from a billboard on Sprague Avenue. Bring Bowe Bergdahl home, the billboard pleaded.
But when Bergdahl was finally released in a prisoner swap on May 31, 2014, after nearly five years in captivity, not everyone gave him a hero's welcome. As reports about the reason for his capture began circulating — he walked off base intentionally — outrage flowed from conservative quarters. There are those, like Donald Trump, who say Bergdahl should be hanged for treason.
In March, the military charged Bergdahl with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy — actions that could leave him sentenced to life in prison. The charge raised the grim possibility that five Taliban prisoners had been released so a deserter could be freed from captivity in Afghanistan, only to be sent to captivity in America.
But on Saturday, Bergdahl's lawyer announced that Lt. Col. Mark Visger, in charge of Bergdahl's preliminary hearing last month, had recommended that Bergdahl not face jail time or a punitive discharge.
In a revelatory transcript from last month's hearing, Kenneth Dahl, deputy commanding general at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, spoke about how he'd been tasked to investigate Bergdahl's disappearance. His investigation took nearly 60 days. He and his team interviewed 57 people. Just speaking with Bergdahl himself, Dahl says, lasted a day and half.
"Frankly, at the end of that, I had no more questions to ask him and he had [no] more story to tell me," Dahl says. "So we exhausted each other, and we were done."
Dahl describes what he learned about Bergdahl's past and personality, about his weak interpersonal skills, his idealism and his "outsized impressions of his own capabilities."
Bergdahl's intense sense of morality, Dahl argues, was shaped by works like Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and in particular its hero John Galt, a genius individualist willing to risk arrest and torture to strike a blow against a merciless bureaucratic machine.
Even before he landed in Afghanistan, Bergdahl began developing contempt for the military leadership. While still in Alaska, Dahl recounts the battalion command sergeant major telling Bergdahl's unit that they all had joined the Army to "rape, kill, pillage, plunder."
"You know, so did I," the sergeant major said, according to Dahl. But that's not what they were going over to Afghanistan for, he continued. They were there to help the Afghans.
Bergdahl, unlike the rest of his unit, interpreted it literally — that the sergeant major had actually joined the army to be a thieving racist. As wildly wrong as Bergdahl's interpretation was, Dahl said, Bergdahl truly seemed to believe it. In Afghanistan, his concerns about leadership only intensified.
"He felt that it was his responsibility to do something to intervene before something dangerous or something negative happened, you know, to his platoon," Dahl said.
Since Bergdahl didn't trust his immediate command, Dahl said, his plan was to sneak off base and run to Forward Operating Base Sharana, then demand to speak to a general about his concerns. Instead, hours after leaving the base, he was captured by the Taliban.
Terrence Russell, with the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, testified that he had debriefed Bergdahl extensively about Taliban captivity.
Bergdahl told Russell he was starved, tied to a bed frame to let his muscles atrophy, and beaten with copper cable. For more than three years, Bergdahl had "uncontrollable diarrhea," lived in filth and had to use his own urine to clean his muddy hands.
"The children, one of them Mullah Sangeen's son, has a chain, and he beats Sergeant Bergdahl with the chain on the way to the toilet and back," Russell said. "Sergeant Bergdahl was held in conditions that if it were a dog, you'd be thrown in jail for pet abuse."
Russell said Bergdahl never gave up trying to escape. During one attempt, he managed to last for more than eight days, eating grass to survive, before being recaptured.
Military prosecutor Margaret Kurz stressed that the hearing was not just about Bergdahl's experience. "[It's about] the unit, the soldiers, the task force who searched for him for months in the heat, and dirt, and sweat, and misery of Afghanistan in July and August 2009," she said.
Despite claims to the contrary in the media, Dahl said he did not find any evidence that the search for Bergdahl had resulted in a soldier being killed.
"I think he recognizes he was young and naïve and inexperienced," Dahl said. Prison, Dahl said, would be an "inappropriate" punishment.
Bergdahl's ordeal isn't quite over yet. Visger's recommendation against jailing Bergdahl will be reviewed by a four-star general before the final decision is made. But among those who've spoken with him, there's no question that Bergdahl is no longer the naïve idealist he once was.
"His experience ranks at the same echelon of the most horrible conditions of captivity that we've seen in the last 60 years," Russell said. ♦