Our new show, S-Town, is now live! Listen to all 7 chapters →

Transcript

Episode 07: Hindsight, Part 1

Note: Serial is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Bowe Bergdahl

You know, I wanted that adventure. I wanted that action. I wanted that moment of adrenaline. I wanted that moment of—

Ira Glass

Previously, on Serial...

Man 1

We all felt like, why are we up here?

Bowe Bergdahl

You know, you can't do anything but just keep going.

Man 2

Going out and shaking hands and—

Man 3

Oh, yeah. That's a classic—I love it. And this is the one where I said, "And I don't want to see any more of this fucking Lawrence of Arabia shit."

Man 4

And I...I said out loud, I said, "Let's do this."

Bowe Bergdahl

First thing that comes out of our battalion commander's mouth is "What? You couldn't shave?"

Man 5

There was a manipulation game going on.

Man 4

The whole entire army is just pussies. Everyone's a pussy.

Woman 1

NGA, DIA, CIA, FBI, NSA

Man 6

A false assumption that America doesn't leave Americans behind.

Mark Boal

Your statement is 380 pages?

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah.

Woman 2

Excuse me, can I—[IMITATES RADIO CRACKLE]—talk to somebody? I need to report a missing person.

Sarah Koenig

From This American Life and WBEZ Chicago, it's Serial, one story told week by week. I'm Sarah Koenig.

If I were a soldier with some pride, with principles, and I had to come up with a reason for walking off into Afghanistan, for causing a crisis on so many levels, I might engineer something like Bowe's explanation—that I was sacrificing myself for the team because I thought they were in danger. It's a way to save face, to say, my intentions were noble and good.

Over the months of reporting this story, I have wondered about this—whether Bowe was really telling the truth about why he left his platoon, or if he was telling the version he could live with. Mark and I have also debated this, of course. Once when we were talking, Mark took the microphone and started to interview me.

Mark Boal

Well, I guess I meant, just in a more narrow sense, do you think he's lying? I mean, I'm just asking.

Sarah Koenig

Umm...I feel like...'cause I...the kuchi tent still bothers me. [LAUGHING] The kuchi tent still bothers me.

Remember the kuchi tent? The Taliban said they first captured Bowe when he wandered into a kuchi tent or near a kuchi tent, which wasn't part of Bowe's telling at all. It made me think if Bowe had walked into a kuchi tent, maybe he wasn't really headed to FOB Sharana to tell someone about leadership problems. Maybe he was just trying to run away, and looking for help.

Mark and I had that conversation back in September. I've since moved on from the kuchi tent. I don't think it's verifiable, or that much of a discrepancy with Bowe's version of what happened, actually. So I let it go. But all this is to say I can understand why some of the people Bowe served with, when I first talked to them, they didn't buy Bowe's story. They thought maybe he concocted it in hindsight.

When I put it to one of Bowe's platoon mates, Shane Cross, he said, quote, "He had some years to work on that," unquote.

There's a litany of reasons why someone could be skeptical of Bowe's explanation. First, his premise: that leadership was dangerously bad. For the most part, the soldiers we talked to didn't agree. In fact, most of them said they actually loved some of their leaders, thought they were great. And Lieutenant Colonel Clint Baker, the battalion commander Bowe responded to so negatively—again, overall, they didn't think he was putting them in situations that were crazy risky or that they couldn't handle.

Then, the notion that Bowe would have to do something so dramatic to be listened to—also not true, they said.

Mark McCrorie

...Which is so utterly outlandish it's insulting. I mean, it doesn't make—

Sarah Koenig

Wait, why is that outlandish?

Mark McCrorie

Oh, man, because of where they were. And...a couple of days prior, they were on FOB Sharana, which is huge and has all sorts of officers, any one of whom he could have gone and talked to.

Sarah Koenig

That's Mark McCrorie. There's an open-door policy that allows you to approach any officer at all with a problem—doesn't have to be in your chain of command. Though whether an officer would have taken Bowe seriously, I have to say, is doubtful, and Bowe knew that.

A big one I heard from quite a few people was that Bowe either was in cahoots with local Afghans or even wanting to contact the Taliban. Here's Daryl Hansen and Jon Thurman.

Daryl Hansen

I mean, for him just to like walk out where he did, like he wasn't afraid of them—he had to have had some kind of compassion for them, um, and didn't like us, for him to walk away, you know? Like—

Jon Thurman

I mean we're...again, I have to go back to the question, where are you gonna go? 'Cause there's...there's no other option. You've either got our side or the Taliban's side.

Sarah Koenig

A lot of people pointed out that Bowe hung out with the Afghan police, who were also stationed at the outpost at Mest. He had tea with them, ate meals with them. Other people did, too.

Jon Thurman

It was great. It was great food.

Sarah Koenig

But some people said Bowe was there more often, seemed more interested in them than other people did. Josh Korder said that Bowe was once late for a guard shift, and he had to go looking for him. And he found him having tea with the Afghans.

Then, the day Bowe went missing, Josh says he heard that two of the ANP guys were also unaccounted for. Two Afghan police were missing as well.

Josh Korder

So that seemed very logical to me. That all seemed to kind of make sense, because OK, well, now, he may have two guides, or he has two people he is looking to meet up with.

Sarah Koenig

Maybe Bowe had made a deal with these ANP guys, and someone betrayed him or sold him out to the Taliban. I tried to check this intel. I called the former governor of Paktika Province in Afghanistan, a guy who'd worked pretty closely with the leaders in Bowe's battalion, but he wouldn't talk to me on a cell phone. He did invite me to visit in person, which was very nice, but not immediately helpful.

I did not see anything about the missing cops in the WikiLeaks reports or in General Dahl's investigation. The executive officer of Bowe's battalion told me he'd heard this rumor, too, about some missing Afghans, but he did not know if anything came of it.

Sami Yousafzai, the Afghan reporter, asked around about it as well. He told us there was a report of some missing Afghan police, but it was later discredited.

Mark had heard this rumor, too. He asked Bowe about it.

Mark Boal

And then the idea was you had some ANP guys who were going to help you out or no? Or a...or...or—

Bowe Bergdahl

No.

Mark Boal

—or local police?

Bowe Bergdahl

No. There...I couldn't trust...I knew I couldn't trust anyone. I knew enough of the culture. I knew enough of the situation going on that you do not trust those people. And, you know, I was right, because those were the guys who were, you know, turning on us. You know? And they have every reason to, unfortunately.

Sarah Koenig

Bowe said the reason he hung out with the ANP sometimes was because that was part of the mission: build a rapport in case they ever ended up in a firefight together. He was trying to do COIN. He says that's also why he tried to learn a little Pashto, which some soldiers also said made them suspicious.

The evidence people point to most often, though, to support the idea that Bowe was simply deserting, that he had no higher purpose, was that he had talked about doing exactly that: taking off. Several people told General Dahl they'd heard Bowe say things about walking into the mountains of Pakistan or heading to India. He told one person something like this even before he deployed, while he was still in Alaska. Here's Chris Ingalls, probably Bowe's closest friend in the platoon.

Chris Ingalls

I remember him talking about, you know, the mountains and how great they look and, you know, imagining just walking out there. I remember all that stuff. I mean, I was right there when he was talking about it.

Sarah Koenig

Shane Cross said he'd had a conversation with Bowe the night before he left the OP. It was evening. Some of the guys were sitting around in the shade of a truck, just talking. And the topic came up, how would you fake your death?

Shane Cross

I don't know—jump off a cliff? Then he tells me that he would fake his death in Afghanistan in war. That would be the best place to do it at. You could just disappear. And everyone would assume you're a casualty. And he says that his goal, that if he was to fake his death, would then be then get through Pakistan into India, and join up with a gang over there.

Sarah Koenig

Austin Lanford was there, too. And this was the first time he'd ever talked to Bowe, the night before he left the OP. And Austin remembers the conversation about the same way Shane does.

Austin Lanford

Wanting to be a mercenary of sorts. And it was something along the lines of, uh, he was going to join a group, uh, go up in their ranks, and then kill the leader. And then, uh...and then he'd be known for being a mercenary or something like that.

Sarah Koenig

That's what you remember.

Austin Lanford

That's what the gist I got.

Shane Cross

Uh, he says, you know, "Russia...Russian mobs have big influence in India with gangs." And, I mean, he told me he spoke Russian, that he'd work his way up through the gang and then into the Russian mob and become a hit man.

Sarah Koenig

Bowe also asked about a weapon. He was issued a SAW, a big heavy machine gun. Shane carried a pistol, an M9.

Shane Cross

And he tells me, "Hey, what would happen if your nine-millimeter disappeared?"

Sarah Koenig

Mm-hm.

Shane Cross

And I told him, "I'd get in trouble."

Austin Lanford

We were like, "That's a stupid question." Like yeah, of course. Um, and then, uh...

Shane Cross

And he says, "No, what if it wasn't your fault? What if someone took it from you?" I said, "I'd get in trouble." And he's like, "Oh, OK."

Sarah Koenig

Bowe didn't take a gun with him when he left. Looking back on it now, though, Shane says it's like if an ice cream truck drove by, and somebody said, "Hey, I'd like some ice cream." And then the next thing you know, the person's gone. You're gonna figure they went after the ice cream truck.

For his part, Austin was reluctant to tell me about this conversation, because, obviously, he knows how it sounds.

Austin Lanford

It's a little extreme. And, uh, I kind of don't want to make him seem like he was crazy or...or, you know, not in his right mind, because we all had weird thoughts while we're over there, isolated from anybody.

Sarah Koenig

In other words, wanderlusty comments like this, maybe they didn't seem all that strange. So many people told me fear plus stress plus boredom plus war zone means...

Jason Fry

You say some really off-the-wall stuff.

Sarah Koenig

Another platoon mate, Jason Fry, told me he wrote letters to a friend when he was in Afghanistan. And he got them back years later. And when he went through them, he thought, What was I thinking? Who was I? Here's Mark McCrorie.

Mark McCrorie

The things that we get away with saying to each other are completely ludicrous. To give you an example, the Fort Hood shooting was...went on while we were there. And, uh, I remember, we were watching it on some grainy television in the...on the Armed Forces Network in the chow hall. And my buddy looks over at me and he goes, "If we have to go back out again tonight, I'm gonna make Fort Hood look like church."

Sarah Koenig

Oh.

Mark McCrorie

[LAUGHS] Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

Yeah, just something super dark and creepy.

Mark McCrorie

So dark. But at the time, it's...it's the only kind of humor we understand. I mean, we're wound up pretty tight.

Sarah Koenig

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

General Dahl considered all the evidence pointing to the idea that Bowe was deserting permanently. He heard about the weird comments, about the intel. And he concluded Bowe was telling the truth. Bowe's, quote, "stated motive was well-meaning in his mind," Dahl wrote. "Ironically, the basis for his stated motive was incorrect," unquote.

Mark spent about a year thinking it through. And he also ended up believing Bowe, for lots of reasons—partly just for practical reasons. For instance, Bowe was such a careful planner. He was an outdoor kid who'd grown up in the mountains. If he intended to just disappear or permanently desert, why wouldn't he bring more food, more water?

Bowe sent his computer and some other stuff home in a box before he left the OP, which some people see as evidence he was leaving for good. Mark sees it as the opposite.

Mark Boal

Then take it with you if you're going to India. Throw it in a backpack and a charger, you know? He sent stuff home. Yeah, because he thought he was going stateside, because he thought he was gonna have an audience with a general, and then they were gonna throw him in Leavenworth.

Sarah Koenig

Yeah.

Mark Boal

But I think it's probably true that he anticipated getting his computer back. Um...that's why there's nothing really, at the end of the day, that points to the idea that this was a permanent departure, as he just...it's...he just didn't pack for that.

[SARAH LAUGHING]

Mark Boal

You know?

Sarah Koenig

That's a funny way to put it.

Mark Boal

And that's like..it's just...it's that simple.

Sarah Koenig

But details like this—that's ultimately not what convinced Mark. He's logged something like 25 hours of taped conversations with Bowe, and many more hours of conversations not on tape.

Mark Boal

The more I learned about Bowe and the more I learned about how his mind worked and the more I talked to him about not just his story, but other subjects, and realizing that, yeah, of course, I would never walk off a base, you know? And, yeah, most of his platoon never would. So if that makes sense, it is a totally whack-a-doodle conclusion to make. But...but not if you're Bowe Bergdahl. Then it makes perfect sense.

Sarah Koenig

So how does it make sense if you're Bowe Bergdahl? When Bowe finally sat down for an interview with General Dahl, he didn't just go back pre-deployment to explain what happened once he got to Afghanistan. He went all the way back—to home, to Idaho, to his childhood there.

He'd done a lot of thinking while he was locked up in that cage with the Taliban.

Bowe Bergdahl

You know, I was looking at myself. I was looking at the situation, going, how did I get here? And that question took me back into my childhood, because it was like, I got here because I made a choice. But that choice was followed...you know, that choice followed another choice, which followed another choice. And it just kind of stair-steps backwards.

Sarah Koenig

Bowe sorted through his upbringing and found it wanting.

Bowe Bergdahl

I'll give you a bit of a backstory. I literally grew up by myself, in the middle of nowhere. And growing up homeschooled and out in the middle of nowhere, I grew up by myself, taking care of myself, being completely isolated from human beings.

Mark Boal

So you just grew up like fucking around in the woods and like stuff like that?

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah. Pretty much. I mean, I grew up following cats, you know? I had...there was usually like six cats, and, you know, we had dogs and horses and guns. We had chickens. So I grew up wandering around the wilderness with guns—BB guns, air guns, .22s, shotguns. And just, that was it. I just wandered around.

Sarah Koenig

Bowe grew up on 40 acres, down a dirt road in a valley, outside the small town of Hailey. His father worked at UPS, and his mother homeschooled him and his older sister. Bowe had a hard time with the school work. He couldn't read very well then. He couldn't take in what was on the page. And so he wasn't good at his work, or he wouldn't do it. And he says he'd get punished for that, and for other things, in a way that he says felt unpredictable to him.

Bowe says he was scared all the time of getting in trouble, and that he didn't have the greatest relationship with his parents. His dad is a strong personality.

Bowe Bergdahl

If you met him personally, you'd probably like him. It's just that he's, you know...'cause he's a pretty cool person.

Mark Boal

Uh-huh.

Bowe Bergdahl

But it's just—

Sarah Koenig

It's just...complicated. Bowe's solution was the same one teenagers have used for centuries. Get out of the house.

Bowe Bergdahl

I started working officially when I turned 13, 'cause that was the legal age. And so I started, you know, spending more time at work than at home, 'cause work turned into my, you know, saving grace, basically, 'cause it got me out of the house for an official reason.

So at age 13, I kind of basically started moving out. I spent more time at work and went home to sleep and eat maybe, dinner or breakfast, and then go back to work.

Sarah Koenig

When he was about 15, Bowe fell in with a family that was pretty different from the one he'd grown up with. Someone he met through his job convinced him to take fencing classes at a little performing arts school in Ketchum, the next town over from Hailey.

Kim Harrison—she's the one from episode five who told the story about contacting Interpol—Kim was helping run the school. Her son also took fencing classes there. And her daughter Kayla took ballet. Soon, Bowe was around all the time.

Kayla Harrison

He ended up becoming attached to our family.

Sarah Koenig

That's Kayla. A few people told me, if you want to know about Bowe, talk to Kayla. She understands him. Kayla says with her, Bowe was watchful and serious and very sweet.

Kayla Harrison

Like, one birthday, for my birthday card, he went around our small little town with a card, and just asked random people to sign it for me.

Sarah Koenig

Oh, really?

Kayla Harrison

And write a little message. Yeah, it was the coolest idea. And knowing Bowe and how shy he is and how little he wants to, you know, be noticed and have strangers know who he is, that was an even bigger gesture than it seemed like, because, you know, because that's hard for him. He doesn't want to do that. I know he doesn't like that.

Sarah Koenig

Right. This is like teenager Bowe, like 16, 17?

Kayla Harrison

Yeah, teenager Bowe is super quiet. He...he would blush very easily. He's gonna be very mad at me for saying that, but he blushes really easily. And so he was really easy to embarrass. And, uh, he just...he didn't...he wanted...I don't know. He was just...gentlemanly is a good word. He was very much a gentleman and very, very conscious about saying the wrong thing or being inappropriate or anything like that.

Sarah Koenig

The Harrisons opened up a tea place in Ketchum, which is a ski town. The tea bar was called Strega, and they served food and had a little boutique and held movie nights or hosted performances. It was a hangout, basically. Kayla and her brother worked there. They were both homeschooled, too. And Bowe worked there.

Kayla Harrison

He'd help me make crêpes sometimes. Or, uh...mostly he would hide weapons everywhere and like sit in a corner and watch people.

[LAUGHTER]

He was like security. [LAUGHTER] Like, I remember, we had...we just had like random weapons like hidden everywhere. Like, there was like a...he called it like a flail—like the spiked ball on the end of a chain—I think was underneath a cabinet somewhere. And there was like an ice pick hidden next to cash register.

Sarah Koenig

Like as a joke, tongue in cheek?

Kayla Harrison

No, no, no. Well, I mean, kind of. We thought of it as kind of funny. But...but to him, it was like, you know, you need weapons available when you need them. He never had to use them, obviously. But, you know, he was in charge of being the safety guy and knowing that everything was cool. He wanted to be...uh...I'm sure you've heard my mom say this, but he's the protector.

Sarah Koenig

I have heard her mom say this. In fact, all the friends I spoke to from that circle say the same thing: that he wanted to protect people. Ketchum was kind of far from Bowe's house. So Bowe began staying at the Harrisons' for stretches. For a while, he even slept at Strega.

Kim says, especially when he was younger, it was like Bowe was studying their family to see how they operated—how they got along, how they argued, what action would lead to reaction. Other people wandered into Strega, began working there, and also became part of the family. There was Chad and Nick. All these people love Bowe. They talk about how unusual he is, how smart, how playful, how creative, and how totally annoying he could be. He might argue with you unrelentingly just to see how far he could push. Or he'd tape his mouth shut for a couple days to see what would happen.

Bowe was a teenager who'd never been to school. And now, with the Strega crowd, he was testing out ideas, testing out behaviors. And maybe more than most people, he worked on improving himself, as if he were in training. His friends said it was sometimes a little overboard. He might punch trees or bricks to toughen up his hands. He wanted to get better at things, at reading or dancing or writing. He wrote stories. Mostly, though, he was trying to figure himself out.

Nick

It really mattered to him, the seeking and knowing what kind of man he was gonna be.

Sarah Koenig

Nick was about five years older than Bowe. He also worked at Strega. He and Bowe would talk and talk, for hours sometimes. Nick says it wasn't so much that Bowe was searching for something concrete, like a profession. He was wrestling with the big existential questions.

Nick

And I...you know, I really think so much of it had to do with questions of...of virtue, of what was right. More than anything, I think that's what he...that's what he was really working on and focused on all the time, was coming up with this...these values for himself.

Sarah Koenig

Mm-hm.

Nick

And he just did a lot of watching to see what everyone else did and...and reflected against it. And he didn't want it to be anyone else's.

Sarah Koenig

Bowe wasn't gonna take anyone else's word for it, about what was right, what was moral. He was gonna forge his own code. And Kayla says the one he ended up adopting for himself, it was strict, and it was uncompromising.

Kayla Harrison

And I've had arguments about...with him about this many times. And he gets really, you know, passionate about it. Like, you know there's a problem in the world, but what kind of human are you unless you're doing something about it? Like, you're not a good person if you know that there's something wrong and you're not doing everything in your power to fix it.

Sarah Koenig

Really?

Kayla Harrison

Mm-hmm. He holds the world and everybody in it to unrealistically high expectations. And if you don't live by those expectations, or by those morals and that honor that he thinks you should and he tries to live himself, then he has no respect for you.

Sarah Koenig

Yeah.

Kayla Harrison

And he doesn't...he doesn't understand.

[LAUGHS]

Sarah Koenig

It just sounds sort of impossibly idealistic, to the point where it kind of is, um...sort of [LAUGHS] strangles how you move through the world or something.

Kayla Harrison

Yeah. It's really handicapping to him. Like, it's a handicap. He's constantly struggling to understand how people are OK with everything.

[LAUGHS]

You know what I mean? Like, he doesn't have an understanding of how differently they view the world.

Sarah Koenig

Yeah.

Kayla Harrison

I think he's slowly understanding that not everybody can accept the way he thinks.

Sarah Koenig

Uh-huh.

Kayla Harrison

But that's never going to change the way he thinks.

Sarah Koenig

I get it. Yeah.

Kayla Harrison

Like, his...he has the least flexible system ever.

Sarah Koenig

During his late teens, early 20s, Bowe would work for a while in Idaho, and then take off somewhere for a job or a trip, then come back, then go off again. Kim, Kayla's mom, says Bowe had a hunger, and an urgency about him—to see the world, to gain experience. He wanted adventure. He loved boats. He loved water. He went off salmon fishing in Alaska, but he didn't like that too much.

He went down south to work at a military training camp, a place where special-forces guys would go for a week, an experience that taught Bowe he'd rather be doing what they were doing than what he was doing.

Bowe Bergdahl

And you listen to all the stories they have, and they listen to all the places they've been, and then after the week is up, they disappear to go off and do, you know...do things that are just gonna give them more stories and, you know, take them more places.

Sarah Koenig

So he left. He went to Florida to complete a charter boat course. At some point, he left for France to join the French Foreign Legion, which Kim says she knows he did arrive in France. She's just not completely sure what happened after that. Bowe didn't really talk much about it.

Kim Harrison

They probably thought he was out of his mind for going there. You know, this...here's this kid with blond hair, this young, cute kid from Idaho with blond hair and blue eyes: "I'm gonna join the Foreign Legion. Hey, sign me up." And they probably thought he was completely bonkers for doing that—because he was, for doing...that was just like a really bad choice. And of course, when he tells me about it, I think part of the reason he did it was just to see my face. Like—

Sarah Koenig

Because he didn't tell you about it beforehand.

Kim Harrison

Oh, he did. And I was like, "Are you kidding me? That is the dumbest thing I've ever—" You know, that was the beginning of me getting incredulous at his choices. That was the first...no, maybe not the first—the first of many, or one of many.

Sarah Koenig

He trained on his bike—Nick said Bowe wore a lot of Spandex in those days—for a cycling trip down the West Coast, which, like the Foreign Legion, didn't pan out. A few days in, he got hit by an RV. And he was OK, but his bike was ruined. So he came back to Ketchum and started in on the next idea.

Eventually, the next idea became the military, which wasn't a huge surprise to his friends. Bowe's brother-in-law was in the navy. And Bowe had that strong protector quality—a romantic version of it, to be sure. He wanted to be invisible, Kayla said, someone who'd be unnoticed in the shadows, looking out for the innocent, and swooping in when they needed him.

And they knew Bowe wanted to put himself in situations that would require courage and grit, that would test his mettle, so that he could come out the other side and know what kind of man he was. So they understood it, which is not the same as thinking it was a good idea.

Kim Harrison

Please, don't do that.

Sarah Koenig

That's Kim, who, it should be noted, is a pacifist to begin with.

Kim Harrison

And he knew how I'd react. It's totally predictable. And I'm, you know, asking him, "Are you sure this is something you want to do? I think it's a horrible, horrible idea—um, not just for...you know, not for everyone, but, you know, for you."

Sarah Koenig

For all the above reasons—his romantic expectations, his rigid code of conduct, his judgmentalness—she worried he wouldn't be able to just suck it up, join the crowd, follow orders.

Kim Harrison

I said, "Look. I know if you wanna do that, you're not gonna listen to me. Of course, you're over 18. You can do whatever you want. But if you're going to do that, look into the coast guard, because at least then you'll be helping people. You'll be saving people's lives, saving vessels, patrolling waters, being on the ocean. Those are all things that you like. So if you must, if you absolutely must, then that's probably a good option."

Sarah Koenig

Had he thought of that already?

Kim Harrison

No.

Sarah Koenig

So he did. He joined the coast guard. In January of 2006, Bowe went to Cape May, New Jersey, and started training. He was 19. It lasted only a few weeks.

Bowe Bergdahl

Coast guard boot camp is, uh, still kind of the traditional boot camp. I mean, they're basically...they put as much pressure on you as they possibly can. Um, they're not supposed to swear at you, but, you know, they can still yell and scream. And they...they definitely get the...they're very good at keeping the pressure on people.

Kim Harrison

He didn't want to be weak. He didn't want to not be able to participate in that system to achieve those goals. But his sensitivities and his way of pondering and overthinking things made it incredibly difficult, in that environment, to survive.

Bowe Bergdahl

So as far as I was concerned, you know, I've never actually, you know, succeeded at anything. I've just been a failure. And then I got to the coast guard, it was like listening...you know, seeing what was going on there, as well as the fact that, growing up the way I grew up, I was always by myself, and then suddenly I'm in a room full of men and being yelled and screamed at—

Kim Harrison

It didn't take him long to realize he wanted to get out of there, that he'd made a mistake. And in the communications that I had from him at the time, they were becoming increasingly more worrisome. I was just in pain for him. You know, I'd read these little notes—they were only...you know those little spiral notebooks you flip?

Sarah Koenig

Yeah, like the little teeny ones?

Kim Harrison

They're about three and a half by five—maybe this was a four-by-five or four-by-six—with the ripped-off spirals at the top, and just writing really small. And the writing would change, too, you know, as his stress level increased.

Bowe Bergdahl

But at the same time, I was thinking how important the coast guard's job is, and seeing that it's not just the people who are out there whose lives, you know...who, you know, they're depending upon me to save their lives; but it's also the shipmates next to me. You know, their lives are depending upon me being able to keep their backs safe.

Kim Harrison

The tone was changing. It was more rambling. It was more desperate. It was just rapidly, you know, eroding. I think I wrote a couple letters back, like, you know, "Are you OK? I'm getting really worried. This needs to end." You know, "What can I do?"

Bowe Bergdahl

And so I just...you know, I finally got to the point where I just freaked out one night, because, you know, it was too much stress.

Sarah Koenig

One day, out of the blue, Bowe shows up at Strega, the tea bar. He's back. They're all thrilled to see him, and also confused. What happened? Why are you back? He told them something about a psych discharge, which he said he pretty much faked. But Kim and the others, they didn't really believe him.

According to General Dahl's investigation, what happened is that on Bowe's third week of training, he was found on the floor with blood on his hands and face. It wasn't serious. It was a nosebleed. Bowe says now he doesn't remember how he ended up on the floor, but that he was told later he was in a fetal position and shaking and crying.

He was taken to the hospital. He told the intake people there he felt overwhelmed. He spent the next day there, where a psychiatrist assessed him and, according to Dahl's report, quote, "observed that PFC Bergdahl's mental status is significant for situational anxiety," unquote. And he recommended discharging him, noting he would need to receive stress management counseling and have, quote, "clearance by a psychiatrist prior to reenlistment," unquote.

So Bowe gets disqualified for continued service in the coast guard because of a diagnosis of adjustment disorder with depression. And he goes back to Idaho.

Bowe Bergdahl

That got me washed out, but, you know, that didn't sit right with me, which is one of the reasons why I ended up joining the army, was because I wanted to prove myself in the army, you know, to family in general—you know, father, mother, sister, in-laws—all the people who like basically I knew when I wasn't there—you know, because I heard things from people that were just friends of the family. They basically thought I was the failure, the black sheep of the family that just wouldn't listen and wouldn't do the right things and all that, so...

And I figured I could do the army, because the army was more, you know, mili...it was more my field. The coast guard really wasn't, because the coast guard's mission is more of, uh, lifesaving, whereas the army is more of a military, you know, mission.

Mark Boal

Yeah.

Bowe Bergdahl

Well, obviously—

Mark Boal

Yeah.

Bowe Bergdahl

—it's a complete military mission. And I was older, and I had...you know, I had worked. After the coast guard. I saw what I was lacking, and I needed to work on social skills and needed to work on a lot of other things. So, you know, I set out to do that. So when I joined the army, you know, I thought I was in a much better position. I ended up being in a much better position.

Sarah Koenig

Because of the way that Bowe had been what's called separated from the coast guard, there was a code in his military record indicating he'd need a waiver if he ever wanted to reenlist. In other words, the army would have to waive its usual standards to let Bowe in.

And May 2008, when Bowe signed up, happened to be a good time to get a waiver. There'd been a surge in Iraq. There'd be another one coming in Afghanistan. The army was hurting for recruits, easing up on restrictions, such as criminal records, that might have disqualified people in the past.

To give you a sense, in 2001, about 4 percent of army recruits got waivers. By 2007, it was 20 percent. 2008, the year Bowe enlisted, it was about 17 percent.

Because his coast guard discharge was labeled uncharacterized, it seems pretty much all Bowe had to do to get a waiver was write a paragraph explaining to the Boise recruiter why he'd been separated from the coast guard.

So he said he'd had a hard time adapting to change, didn't feel prepared to be on his own, had some family stuff going on—all true. The statement, which was typed up by the recruiter as he was speaking with Bowe, says, quote, "I have matured and know that I am prepared to go into the army. Please do not allow my past record to prevent me from coming into the army," unquote.

A week later, Bowe also showed the recruiter his DoD medical history form. But apparently it didn't include any mention of his panic attack or his hospitalization or the doctor's note saying he needed clearance by a psychiatrist prior to reenlistment.

And Bowe didn't mention this note to the army recruiter, either. He says he didn't even know about it. So evidently, that note was never seen by the army. It's not clear, in fact, if anyone ever took notice of it apart from the doctor who wrote it.

So, spring of 2008, Bowe is accepted into the army. This time, he hadn't told anyone in advance.

Kim Harrison

He was being very evasive. And I just was getting really annoyed. I'm like, all right. What's going on? You're lying. I can tell you're lying to me. You're not telling me what's going on. And this went on for a couple months. And then, all of the sudden, he shows up in his uniform.

Sarah Koenig

Oh.

Kim Harrison

Yeah. I launched—literally launched myself. I'm like, "Agh!" and grabbed his shoulders, and like shaking his shoulders: "What are you doing? Did you sign the thing already? Is this a done deal?" And he's like being really quiet, and kind of got this smirk...smile on his face, like, I knew you would react like this. That's why I didn't tell you.

And I was just out of my mind. I just freaked out.

Sarah Koenig

And this is because, again, you'd had these fears about his suitability before he went to the coast guard.

Kim Harrison

Yes.

Sarah Koenig

Those fears were borne out.

Kim Harrison

Yes.

Sarah Koenig

And now he was doing it again.

Kim Harrison

Yes.

Sarah Koenig

And you just knew this is not—

Kim Harrison

This is a really bad idea. This is just the worst idea ever. And it was the army.

Sarah Koenig

Setting aside the question of whether it was a good idea for Bowe to join the army, should the army have let Bowe in? Next time, on Serial, which, actually, we will release tomorrow. I know—you weren't expecting that. It's part two of this episode.

Serial is produced by Julie Snyder, Dana Chivas, and me, in partnership with Mark Boal, Megan Ellison, Hugo Lindgren, Jessica Weisberg, Page One, and Annapurna Pictures. Ira Glass is our editorial advisor. Whitney Dangerfield is our digital editor. Research by Kevin Garnett, fact checking by Michelle Harris, copyediting by Anaheed Alani. Emily Condon is our line producer. Our music is composed by Nick Thorburn, Fritz Myers, and Mark Phillips. The show is mixed by Kate Bilinski.

Kristen Taylor is our community editor. Other Serial staff: Seth Lind, Elise Bergerson, and Kimberly Henderson.

Special thanks this week to Joey Palacios, Capt. Nicole Eldridge, Heather Hansen and Ben Mannion. And a big thank you to Jonathan Menjivar and Robyn Semien—our great colleagues at This American Life, for helping us out so much this week and last week. Thanks you guys so much.

Our website is serialpodcast.org, where this week, you can find a chart about army recruits and waivers, which gives a really good picture of the surges in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Again, that's serialpodcast.org.

Serial is a production of This American Life and WBEZ Chicago.

Ira Glass

Coming up, on the next episode of Serial—

Bowe Bergdahl

I wanted to be a soldier, but I wanted to be a soldier back then.

Woman 2

And he's writing these things, these notes, sending emails, he's sending all these cryptic things. He's, um, in a state of mind that was obvious to me, it was stretched.

Man 7

They incorrectly interpret events...belief in special powers, persistent and excessive social anxiety.

Man 8

It's something so huge and such a big decision, I feel like you almost have to be God to make that kind of decision.

Man 9

That's not something you can ever come back from. I don't care where your head was. Bowe, you still fucking did it.

Man 7

It really does tell the story of Bowe, unfortunately, you know?

Follow Serial