Deconstructing Bergdahl’s Uniform

You can learn a lot about a soldier from looking at his service uniform. Is he enlisted? Take a look at his wrists. Has he been overseas? Check above his left-hand breast pocket. Bowe Bergdahl’s uniform is a roadmap to his official army career—past and present—and hints at his captivity and, as with many aspects of this story, points to some controversy.

Take, for instance, the sergeant’s stripes on his upper arm. In the summer of 2009, the army investigated the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture, but it didn’t come to a conclusion about whether he had deserted, a charge that is now at the heart of the court-martial. That meant that his status remained “missing-captured” for the next five years. Missing soldiers are promoted based on how long they have served and how long they are in a particular grade. When he was captured, Bergdahl was a private first class. Two automatic promotions meant that when he was released, he was a sergeant. 

Rank and awards matter in the military. People notice them. Online, where some of the most negative comments about Bergdahl live, people have decried his combat infantryman badge, for example. His defense team, on the other hand, doesn’t think he has all the awards he deserves. They argue that he should receive four more: the NATO award, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, the Prisoner of War medal, and the Purple Heart, the last of which is given to soldiers wounded in combat. In a pretrial hearing in January, one of Bergdahl’s attorneys, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Rosenblatt, said the absence of these decorations “is prejudicial. It casts a presumption of guilt, and we urge the government to help us correct that.” The army has said that it won’t determine Bergdahl’s eligibility for additional awards until after the court-martial.

Hover over the different insignia, ribbons, and awards to find out what they mean.

Bergdahl has 10 overseas service bars, which represent each six-month period in which he was deployed in a combat zone. Most of that time he was in captivity.

The two service stripes show that he has served in the army for at least six years. Each stripe, also called a hash mark, represents three years of service.

While in captivity, the army promoted Bergdahl to the rank of specialist and then, on June 12, 2011, to sergeant. The three chevrons are his sergeant’s stripes.

The blue shoulder cord indicates that Bergdahl is an infantry soldier.

Enlisted personnel wear a narrow braid around the wrists of the jacket.

After Bergdahl’s reintegration process, the army assigned him to U.S. Army North (Fifth Army) at Fort Sam Houston, Tex., where he’s been doing administrative work. The blue mosque on U.S. Army North’s insignia refers to the unit’s activation in Morocco in 1943, and the fleur-de-lis to its service in Italy.

The insignia of U.S. Army North also appears on his shoulders.

The Army Superior Unit Award with an Oak Leaf Cluster represents two awards given to U.S. Army North—mobilizing and training units to deploy to the Middle East and the other for support work in the states, including relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy. All soldiers currently assigned to the unit are authorized to wear the award, regardless of whether they participated in the assignments.

The Combat Service Identification Badge indicates the unit he served with in Afghanistan, the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division.

As an enlisted soldier in the infantry, Bergdahl wears the U.S. pin on his right lapel and the infantry branch insignia on his left lapel. The blue border is unique to the infantry.

Enlisted soldiers place the insignia for their current unit—in Bergdahl’s case, U.S. Army North—in the middle of the beret flash, the blue badge with 13 stars for the original 13 colonies.

The Combat Infantryman Badge, First Award, is given to infantrymen and Special Forces who satisfactorily performed as part of a unit during active ground combat. A soldier in Bergdahl’s platoon told us that they all received one after the firefight at Omnah.

According to the army manual on awards, the Good Conduct Medal is given to soldiers who distinguish themselves by “exemplary behavior, efficiency, and fidelity.” In reality, the army grants the ribbon more freely than the guidelines convey. The two knots signify the two three-year periods in the army that Bergdahl has met the criteria.

The National Defense Service Medal signifies active service during the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and in Bergdahl’s case, the war on terrorism.

Bergdahl received the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal for his time as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

The Army Service Ribbon represents completion of entry-level training.

The Overseas Service Ribbon designates the completion of an overseas tour.

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