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Transcript

Episode 01: DUSTWUN

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.

Sarah Koenig

About a year and a half ago, clips from this video appeared on every major news broadcast.

[Man speaking Pashto]

It showed the rescue of a guy named Bowe Bergdahl. He was the US soldier who was captured by the Taliban and held captive for just shy of five years. The Taliban made the video. The first thing you see is a couple of guys in traditional Afghan clothes. They've got scarves on their heads or covering their faces, and they're holding machine guns.

They're standing next to a silver pickup truck. The front hood is up. In the backseat of the truck, the door is open. A bareheaded figure is sitting with his knees up against the seat in front of him. The camera closes in, and you see this pale, young man. And that's Bergdahl. His head is shaved. He looks sort of like a cult leader from a '70s movie. He can't keep his eyes open properly. They're bothering him. He keeps blinking and rubbing them.

A wider shot shows that the scrubby, rocky hills all around the truck are dotted with other guys—Taliban—holding rifles or rocket-propelled grenades.

[Chanting]

One or two of the guys lean in to where Bergdahl is sitting, and they're talking to him. He's looking at their faces. One guy says something in Pashto, which is translated on screen as "Don't come back to Afghanistan." What I've heard since is that the guy said, "Do not come back to Afghanistan. You will not get out alive."

Black spots appear in the cloudy sky, and you see that they're planes or helicopters. One gets closer and closer. It's a Black Hawk. And then you see Bergdahl again. He's out of the truck now, looking up at the sky. His clothes are too big, billowy.

[Sound of helicopter]

Then, at about six minutes in, right after some cows wander onto the scene, the helicopter lands, dust flies. Bergdahl walks forward, flanked by two men, while three men from the helicopter—the US Special Operations team—jog toward him. The two sides meet in the middle of the clearing, shake hands—like team captains right before the starting whistle.

Bergdahl steps forward. The Americans put their hands on him, pull him towards the Black Hawk while they're walking backwards. They don't want to turn their backs on the Taliban just yet. Bergdahl is walking stiffly, lumbering almost. At the helicopter, they pat him down one more time, and then he's on board. They're up and away. Takes less than two minutes. And it's done. The video cuts off.

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

Reporter

Good evening, everyone. Ordinarily, the release of an American serviceman after five years in wartime captivity would be a cause for universal celebration and joy, plain and simple.

Reporter

Pentagon sources tell NBC that Bergdahl vanished under mysterious circumstances.

Reporter

There have been rumors he left his base unarmed after turning against the war.

Reporter

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl: hero or deserter?

Reporter

—that these soldiers are engaging in a political smear campaign by raising questions.

Reporter

The parents of some fallen soldiers say their sons would be alive if Bergdahl had not gone missing from his post.

Donald Trump

In the old days, deserters were shot.

[Applause]

Bowe Bergdahl

The very last thing is just ... I'm a prisoner. I want to go home. Bring me home. Please. Bring me home.

Sarah Koenig

Bowe Bergdahl was rescued on May 31st, 2014. If you followed this story in the news, maybe you expected the usual things would follow: a big welcome home, and then his story would come out. We'd learn what happened to him, how he ended up with the Taliban.

And it did start out that way. President Obama announced Bergdahl's return in the Rose Garden of the White House with Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani, by his side.

President Obama

This morning, I called Bob and Jani Bergdahl and told them that after nearly five years in captivity, their son, Bowe, is coming home.

Sarah Koenig

Bergdahl's hometown of Hailey, Idaho—which for five years had Bring Bowe Home posters and yellow ribbons all over the place—they planned this big celebration for him. But then, so suddenly, the whole story flipped.

Within days—within hours of his rescue, in fact—people began saying that we shouldn't be celebrating him. Because Bowe Bergdahl deliberately walked off his post into hostile territory. That's how he got captured. Some of his former platoon mates called him a deserter. Others were saying he was a traitor, even, who might have collaborated with the Taliban. Some people took offense that in the Rose Garden event, Bob Bergdahl, who had grown a long beard in his son's absence, had spoken some phrases in Arabic and Pashto.

The celebration in Hailey was canceled. Congressional leaders condemned the trade the president made to get Bergdahl back—the release of five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay—saying the trade was not only ill-conceived but illegal. The army launched a big investigation into what exactly happened—why did Bergdahl leave his post? Even now, other soldiers are so enraged by what Bergdahl did that, for his own protection, he's got to have a security detail with him when he leaves his base in San Antonio.

Finally, the army charged Bergdahl with two crimes, one of which carries the possibility of a life sentence. And through all of this, Bowe Bergdahl himself was like a ghost, a blank. We never heard from him. He wasn't talking on TV. He wasn't quoted in the newspaper. So it seemed like that was that. His story was only going to live in that kind of antiseptic, upstairs realm of pissed-off politicians and military experts and cable TV commentators.

But last spring, I found out that Bowe Bergdahl had been talking to someone, for almost a year. He had been talking to a filmmaker named Mark Boal.

Bowe Bergdahl

Naturally, I have a very large sense of humor.

Sarah Koenig

That's Bowe.

Bowe Bergdahl

Y'know ... There's good times and good places for it, y'know.

Mark Boal

Right. You're pretty careful with it.

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah. Exactly.

Mark Boal

Like, I've noticed even with me, like, you don't crack many jokes.

Bowe Bergdahl

No.

Mark Boal

But you can, you know. I mean, I might not laugh, but you could try.

Bowe Bergdahl

[Laughs]. Yeah. If I see an opportunity, I might do it.

Mark Boal

Yeah, give it a try. If you see an opening, let's see what you got.

Sarah Koenig

Mark Boal is a screenwriter and producer. You've probably heard of his movies: The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty. Mark wanted to make a movie about Bowe's story. So a couple of months after Bowe came back to the U.S., Mark managed to contact him. And they started talking, about everything. About the Taliban, and motorcycles, and the existence of God, and how good spicy salsa is, and how memory works, and what a soldier should and shouldn't be.

Mark recorded the calls. Not for broadcast or anything, which is why you sometimes hear Mark making himself a snack.

Mark Boal

Yeah, they are really heavy.

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah. There was one bike I saw—

Sarah Koenig

... or the swoosh of Mark sending an email, or his dog scuffling around.

Mark Boal

Hold on one sec. Can you—um, hold on one second.

Sarah Koenig

It's roughly 25 hours of recorded conversations, a lot of it rangy and raw. Their rapport is sort of unexpected. Mark swears a lot. He can be blunt. While Bowe, the soldier, comes off as the softer one. His go-to expletive is "good grief."

These tapes are not like regular interviews, because Mark isn't so much after the facts of what happened—though he wants those, too—but more he's after the why of what happened, trying to get inside Bowe's head to understand how Bowe sees the world.

And Bowe is never monosyllabic or recalcitrant in these conversations. He's trying hard to explain himself. You can hear that Bowe is thinking through something: his so-far extraordinary life, basically, and what's become of it. Which is understandable, considering that any one piece of this story could keep a person's mind churning. Right now, Bowe is waiting to see if the army is going to drop the charges against him or take them all the way to court martial—to a trial—or something in between.

And then there's the stunning fact that Bowe was held by the Taliban for almost five years. I just want to pause on that for a second. Five years. Alone. That's longer than any American has ever been held by the Taliban. Longer than any American has survived being held by the Taliban.

He can't speak Pashto. The people handling him, for the most part, didn't speak English. So for five years, Bowe couldn't really talk to anyone. And then, here he is, in these calls with Mark, and he's describing things, vividly, that seem indescribable.

Mark Boal

Well, at one point they told me that they kind of had you in a really dark room—almost sounded like a basement, like, where there was no light.

Bowe Bergdahl

Um, there was a few rooms like that.

Mark Boal

Yeah.

Bowe Bergdahl

It's like, how do I explain to a person that just standing in an empty, dark room hurts? It's like, well, you know, someone asks you, "Well, why does it hurt? Does your body hurt?" Yes, your body hurts. But it's more than that. It's like this mental ... like you're almost confused. You know, there was times when I'd wake up and it's just so dark. Like, I would wake up not even remembering, like what I was.

You know how you get that feeling when that word is on the tip of your tongue?

Mark Boal

Yeah.

Bowe Bergdahl

That happened to me. Only it was like, What am I?

Mark Boal

Uh-huh.

Bowe Bergdahl

Like, I couldn't see my hands, I couldn't do anything. The only thing I could do is, like, touch my face. And even that wasn't, like, y'know, registering right. Y'know? To the point where you just want to scream. And you can't ... like, I can't scream. I can't risk that.

So it's like you're standing there screaming in your mind in this room. You're standing, like, in this blackened dirt room that's tiny. And just on the other side of that flimsy little wooden door that you could probably easily rip off the hinges is the entire world out there. It is everything that you're missing. It is everybody. Everyone is out there. You know, that breath that you're trying to breathe, that relief that you're trying to get. Everything is beyond that door. And, I mean, I hate doors now.

Sarah Koenig

On the other side of the door was relief, of course, but also all the various people and systems that had kicked into action after Bowe went missing: Bowe's parents and his friends back in Idaho, the military, intelligence analysts, diplomats in secret meetings with the Taliban, debriefers at Guantanamo Bay, the State Department, the White House.

At some point, after I'd been reporting out all these various threads of Bowe's story, interviewing lots of people at length about Bowe and about what he did and the consequences of what he did, this children's book I used to read to my kids popped into my head. It's called Zoom. There are no words. It's just pictures. And it starts with these pointy red shapes.

And then, next page, you realize those shapes are a rooster's comb. Next page, you zoom out, you see the rooster is standing on a fence with two little kids watching him. Next page, zoom out again, they're in a farmhouse. And then, zoom further, you realize that all of it—the rooster, the kids, the farmhouse—are toys being played with by another child, and that that whole scene is actually an ad in a magazine, and the magazine is in the lap of someone napping on a deck chair, and so on.

Out and out it zooms, the aperture of the thing getting wider and wider until the original image is so far away it's unseeable. That's what the story of Bowe Bergdahl is like. This one idiosyncratic guy makes a radical decision at the age of 23 to walk away into Afghanistan. And the consequences of that decision—they spin out wider and wider. And at every turn, you're surprised. The picture changes. To get the full picture, you need to go very, very small, into one person's life. And also very, very big, into the war in Afghanistan.

Mark Boal

Nobody even really knows who he is. Like, nobody knows why he did it.

Sarah Koenig

It was filmmaker Mark Boal and his tape that got me interested in all this. We were talking the other day on the phone about what got him interested in Bowe.

Mark Boal

He has this, like ... he's a ... he's a mystery, you know? He poses this really mysterious dilemma, because he did something that's—from a military perspective, from a lot of people's perspective—is unforgivable. He commits a cardinal sin in walking off and leaving his post.

Sarah Koenig

Right.

Mark Boal

And yet it's not that simple, because he says that he did it for a really ... not just really good reasons, like the most important, profound reasons you could possibly think of. So how do you judge somebody like that? How do you judge him?

Sarah Koenig

For this story, we've teamed up with Mark and his production company, Page One. They'd come to us saying, Hey, we've been doing all this reporting on the story, and we've also got this tape. Do you think you might want to listen? And yes, we did, and we were kind of blown away. And so we began working with them. They shared their research with us and also put us in touch with many of their sources, especially soldiers.

We don't have anything to do with their movie, but Mark and Page One are our partners for Season Two. You might hear Mark and me talking from time to time during the course of the season so we can compare notes. Bowe Bergdahl is currently an active-duty soldier. He's got a clerical job at his base in San Antonio, Texas, where he's waiting out his legal situation. Again, Bowe isn't talking to the press. But he did give us permission to use the taped phone calls with Mark.

So let's start at the beginning. Why'd he do it? Why'd Bowe leave his platoon? That's where Mark started too.

Bowe Bergdahl

Like, I can tell you the story.

Mark Boal

Well, give me—

Bowe Bergdahl

I can tell you—

Mark Boal

Give me the 30-second version first.

Sarah Koenig

This is from Mark's first taped phone call with Bowe.

Bowe Bergdahl

Thirty-second version. You know what DUSTWUN is, right?

Mark Boal

What what is?

Bowe Bergdahl

DUSTWUN. The radio signal.

Sarah Koenig

DUSTWUN stands for duty status whereabouts unknown. It's the army's version of "man overboard."

Bowe Bergdahl

DUSTWUN is the radio signal that's put out over the radio when a soldier goes missing in a combat field.

Mark Boal

OK.

Bowe Bergdahl

Or a soldier is taken captive.

Mark Boal

Right.

Sarah Koenig

Bowe says what he was trying to do was to cause a DUSTWUN, which already sets him apart, because it means Bowe doesn't fit into any of the AWOL or desertion scenarios we're used to hearing. He wasn't cavorting. He wasn't drunk or goofing off. He didn't drop his weapon and flee in the middle of a firefight. He didn't decide in a burst of panic or confusion to go walkabout.

Instead, slow-simmering and methodical, Bowe formulated a plan. He would create a crisis, a DUSTWUN, in order to call attention to another crisis. Bowe says he had serious concerns—concerns that began back in basic training and which persisted throughout his deployment in Afghanistan—regarding bad leadership within his unit.

Bowe Bergdahl

And what I was seeing—from my first unit all the way up into Afghanistan—all's I was seeing was basically leadership failure to the point that the lives of the guys standing next to me were literally, from what I could see, in danger of something seriously going wrong and somebody being killed.

Sarah Koenig

This is a big point of conflict, maybe the big point of conflict in Bowe's story: the question, generally, of Bowe's true motives for leaving his post; and, specifically, whether his description of what was happening around him is accurate or believable. Because of course this explanation could be a story he invented. You could argue that he did have five years to come up with it. Or he could be expressing the genuine beliefs of a whistleblower.

Or the truth could be something else entirely. And I'm definitely going to get into that—precisely what Bowe says he was seeing during his deployment and how he reacted to it. But all that will make more sense once you know more about Bowe himself.

So for now, I'm going to jump over that and just give you the bare bones of what Bowe says happened. And that is, he was so alarmed by what he considered crappy and potentially dangerous leadership that he needed to act. He needed to let his command know at the highest levels.

Bowe Bergdahl

Now, as a private first class, nobody is going to listen to me.

Mark Boal

Of course.

Bowe Bergdahl

Nobody is going to take me serious if I say an investigation needs to put under way that this person needs to be psychologically evaluated.

Mark Boal

Right.

Sarah Koenig

Bowe's solution is the DUSTWUN. At the time, Bowe was at a tiny outpost known as OP Mest. Mest was the name of the town right across the road from the OP. A few thousand people lived there. Mest was in Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan, right near the Pakistan border.

Next to the town, the soldiers set up a sort of campsite—a scrubby, rocky clearing about the size of a football field. A couple of supply roads come together right there. One of the roads leads back to the battalion's big forward-operating base at Sharana, FOB Sharana, where there's relative comfort: beds, internet, Burger King, basketball courts.

The other road leads to the Pakistan border. The earth there is this fine, fine dirt. The soldiers I talked to called it "moon dust."

Ben Evans

The one time I saw Mest—and this would have been a couple days before Bergdahl disappeared—I looked at it, and I got chills that, wow, that place sucks.

Sarah Koenig

That's a guy named Ben Evans. He never even went to OP Mest, but driving by it was enough to take in the bleakness.

Ben Evans

It was four trucks surrounded by C-wire crammed up in a little runoff ditch. So it gave me the willies, just seeing the place.

Jon Thurman

OP Mest—it's probably the worst place humanly imaginable.

Sarah Koenig

That's Jon Thurman. Jon was in the same company as Bowe, known as Blackfoot Company—different platoon. Like other soldiers I talked to, Jon remembered Mest mostly for what it lacked: trees, plumbing, electricity, water, shade.

Jon Thurman

But OP Mest was built on the side of a hill. And on top of the hill, there was a cemetery. And ... so granted, this place is spooky from the get-go. And the quality of life was extremely low. Um, everybody pretty much got some sort of GI illness while we were out there, just because we couldn't keep things clean enough. We didn't have the resources.

Sarah Koenig

But what was the dirty ... just dust and ...

Jon Thurman

Dust, flies, the—

Sarah Koenig

Oh, flies. Yeah.

Jon Thurman

Flies, definitely. The open toilets, the burn pit.

Shane Cross

A burn pit, which we called the pit of hell.

Sarah Koenig

This is Shane Cross, who was a friend of Bowe's at the time—same platoon. The pit of hell was this large hole they dug, and they'd throw the trash in there and burn it.

Shane Cross

We called it the pit of hell because we started it and it never went out, and it just burned continuously all through the night and days.

Sarah Koenig

Different from ... did you have to burn your ... um, shit, for lack of a better word?

Shane Cross

Yes. Good old, uh—

Sarah Koenig

That seems like that would be the pit of hell more than this, like, the regular garbage pit.

Shane Cross

You did that right next to the pit of hell, so it was all connected. Uh, they took an empty hesco. A hesco is like a large basket you fill with dirt.

Sarah Koenig

Uh-huh.

Shane Cross

Like, you know, eight feet tall kind of thing. Took an empty one of those and made a little, uh ... a little room. And you had the little bucket that everyone shit in. Then pull it out, mix that with some fuel, and it was someone's job to stand there with a stick and stir it as it burned.

Sarah Koenig

No.

Shane Cross

As you're stirring it, sometimes if you didn't have a metal rod, a wooden, you know ... a large wooden stick, like a one-by-one, y'know, it would ... your stick eventually burns down, too, and it starts getting closer and closer as you're stirring it.

Sarah Koenig

[Laughs] Whose job would it be to do the stirring? Like, did you have to draw straws for the stirring? Or did you just take turns?

Shane Cross

Between the privates, the NCOs would always pick one of us. And usually you could rely on them picking the private they don't like.

Sarah Koenig

Bowe's company, Blackfoot Company, had set up the OP in the first place. It was supposed to help the Afghans keep the insurgents in check. Because the two roads there—the U.S. called one of them Route Audi and the other Route Dodge—were used as supply routes for Taliban fighters and their weapons and IEDs, Improvised Explosive Devices. They were the big threat in Afghanistan.

Bowe's platoon leader said there was an IED hotspot about 1,000 meters out along Route Audi. The Afghan National Police had their own little outpost further up the hill there as well. The American soldiers had strung all this concertina wire around the place. And their job was really just to be there, in the middle of nowhere, making their presence felt. Keeping a lookout for suspicious vehicles, watching the rooftops of Mest for snipers.

Some of the guys I talked to said that occasionally someone would shoot at them and they'd shoot back, but none of them said there was much action there. They didn't discover anyone transporting weapons or bombs. Mostly it was just fruit vendors or farmers or families passing through.

Bowe's platoon would go to the OP for three or four or five days at a stretch, sometimes doing patrols into Mest or the other nearby town, Malak, or pulling around-the-clock guard duty, either from the trucks or from the hilltop up near the cemetery, where they'd dug out a small foxhole bunker. There were long, long stretches of boring, of wondering what the hell they were doing there.

All of the soldiers I talked to said they just hated being at Mest. The OP was about 20 miles southwest of FOB Sharana. So Bowe's idea was that he'd sneak away from Mest—which Bowe refers to as a TCP, for traffic control point—and run all the way back to the FOB. He says he figured he could make it to Sharana in maybe 24 hours or so. Here's Bowe again.

Bowe Bergdahl

A man disappears from a TCP, and a few days later, after DUSTWUN is called up, he reappears at a FOB? Suddenly, because of the DUSTWUN, everybody is alerted. CIA is alerted. The navy is alerted. The marines are alerted. Air force is alerted. Not just army.

Sarah Koenig

Which means that when he reappears, it'll be such a big deal. There'll be such a commotion. Everyone will want to know why he left and why he's back. And so he'll be able to get an audience with whomever he wants—a general, even—and they won't be able to ignore his complaints.

Mark Boal

Weren't you afraid they were going to, like, throw you in the jail or whatever?

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah. That's actually what I'd ... you know, that's what I figured they'd do.

Mark Boal

And then how long did you figure you'd stay in there?

Bowe Bergdahl

Well, I figured I'd stay in there until people got the situation cleared up, you know? I was fully confident that when somebody actually took a look at the situation, and when people started investigating the situation, that people would understand that I was right. You know, what was going on was a danger to the lives of the men in that company. The idea was I'd rather be sitting in Leavenworth than standing over the body of Nascimento or Coe or somebody like that. And understanding that if somebody had done something, they'd still be alive.

Sarah Koenig

Nascimento and Coe were guys in Bowe's platoon.

Mark Boal

So, gutsy move, dude.

Bowe Bergdahl

Gutsy, but still stupid.

Mark Boal

Well, yeah. They're not ... that's not mutually exclusive.

Bowe Bergdahl

[Laughs] No.

Sarah Koenig

Bowe makes preparations. Back at the FOB for a spell, he goes to the Sharana post office and sends some of his things back to Idaho: some books, his new laptop, his Kindle, a journal. In the likely event that he gets in trouble, he doesn't want his personal stuff seized by the army.

There's a shop run by the locals at the FOB. They called it the haji shop. They sell DVDs and clothes. Bowe buys a local outfit, a sort of robe.

Bowe Bergdahl

Because I knew there was a possibility of me being out in the open in the daytime. So, obviously, a big white guy in a uniform walking through the desert by himself is gonna, you know, attract a lot of attention.

Mark Boal

Yeah.

Bowe Bergdahl

However, a person with a traditional ... like a local dress on, and a local headscarf wrapped around his head, that's not going to draw as much attention.

Sarah Koenig

He also took out $300 from his bank account in U.S. and Afghani money, just in case he'd need to bribe someone. At the end of June, 2009, Bowe's platoon was on its very last rotation at OP Mest. The company was getting ready to hand the place over to the Afghans, which really just means they were going to take their trucks and leave.

In any case, this would be Bowe's last chance to execute his plan. And this plan—it's risky, obviously. It's difficult, and it's dangerous. But, technically, it's not impossible to do it. Physically, Bowe was capable. He was a good runner. He'd run similar distances before, plus he was used to running in high altitudes in Idaho. He did well in the heat.

When he talks about it now, he'll sometimes acknowledge the wrongheadedness of it—that he overestimated his ability, that he wasn't aware of the other ways he could have registered concerns about leadership. But there was this other idea Bowe was testing out: Yes, he says, he wanted to bring attention to the plight of his platoon. But he also admits that his plan was part crucible.

Bowe Bergdahl

I was trying to prove to myself—I was trying to prove to the world, to anybody who used to know me—that I was capable of being that person.

Mark Boal

Like a super-soldier, you mean.

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah. I was capable of being what I appeared to be. Like, doing what I did was me saying, I am—

Mark Boal

Right.

Bowe Bergdahl

—like I don't know, Jason Bourne.

Mark Boal

Right. A character in a book or whatever. A character.

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah. So I had this fantastic idea that I was going to prove to the world that, you know, I was the real thing. You know, I could be, you know, what ... I could be what it is that every ... you know, all those guys out there who go to the movies and watch those movies, they all want to be that. But I wanted to prove that I was that.

Mark Boal

Why not just wait and see if you got the opportunity to prove that, like, on a mission? You know? Because you hadn't even been there that long. Like, why not—

Bowe Bergdahl

No, I hadn't been there very long.

Mark Boal

Why not wait a couple months and see if you get a chance to prove yourself in a, you know, some kind of tactical engagement?

Bowe Bergdahl

Because it was a combination of situations. The situation that I was in was an extremely bad situation. I saw things falling apart as far as my command was—

Mark Boal

Right, right, right.

Bowe Bergdahl

—was concerned. So it wasn't that I just decided, hey, I'm going to do it to prove that I can do it. I was trying to find a solution to the problem at hand.

Mark Boal

Right.

Bowe Bergdahl

And I just tied—I tied into it this idea, you know, kind of like two birds with one stone.

Mark Boal

I was just going to say two birds with one stone.

Sarah Koenig

On the morning of June 30th, 2009, Bowe had been scheduled to take over guard duty. The soldiers would keep watch from the turret of one of the MRAPs, which is a big armored truck. Bowe was supposed to take over from Austin Lanford. But Lanford comes to the end of his shift: no Bowe. So he gets down from the big truck—which he's not technically supposed to do until he's relieved, but whatever. He steps down and shakes Bowe's little tent, which is right near the MRAP, to wake him up for duty. Then Lanford goes back up in the truck. Still no Bowe.

Austin Lanford

So I went back down and then opened his tent, and he wasn't in there. So I was like, OK, well, he probably went to the bathroom or something.

Sarah Koenig

Lanford shouts to a guy headed to the toilet, says, "See if Bergdahl's in there." Guy comes back, "Nope." Then Lanford remembers that Bowe had a reputation for sometimes hanging out with the Afghan National Police guys, who also had an outpost up on the hill.

Austin Lanford

So that was my next thought, was he might be up there. So I radioed up to the OP, said, "Hey, is Bergdahl there?" They said, "No, Bergdahl is not up here."

Sarah Koenig

Someone alerts Shane Cross, since he's buddies with Bowe. And now Shane starts looking.

Shane Cross

So I got up and I said, "Yeah, I'll get him." And I looked around and poked around for him a little bit. And so I went over to their trucks where a few people were awake and tried to ask them, "Hey, where's Bowe?" And they all said, "I don't know, I don't know."

And then after I check a few more trucks, I started to get concerned. And that's when I, uh, I went back and I woke our PL. And I told him what ... what had happened, that I knew he was gone.

Sarah Koenig

Who was the PL?

Shane Cross

Lieutenant Billings.

Sarah Koenig

John Billings was the PL, the platoon leader. He testified at a military hearing that he thought Shane and Austin and the other guys were just messing with him. He said he thought, quote, "They just want to see me get all spazzed out, freak out, you know, call higher headquarters," unquote.

Instead, Billings realizes with horror that it's real, freaks out, and calls higher headquarters. He told an army prosecutor that he felt a, quote, "internal franticness," unquote. He can't find his guy. He types out a message to his company commander back at Sharana to the effect of, "We're not up," meaning not 100% accounted for. I have a missing soldier.

At the other end of that message is Captain Silvino S. Silvino, who tells him, look again ... there's got to be a mistake. Billings writes back: not a mistake. Silvino sets the DUSTWUN in motion, just as Bowe had planned. The news starts circulating at the OP, obviously, then back at the FOB, up the chain of command, and then all over Afghanistan.

Bowe's fellow soldiers immediately tried to piece together what had happened. Here's Austin Lanford, the guy who Bowe was supposed to relieve from guard duty.

Austin Lanford

I knew in my mind that he had ... nobody came in and took him. 'Cause they would've either been seen, they wouldn't have been able to get through the concertina wire, he would've fought back ... Like I didn't imagine him being taken as an option.

Mark McCrorie

And he left behind all his sensitive items in a nice, neat little pile. Sensitive items meaning—

Sarah Koenig

That's Mark McCrorie.

Mark McCrorie

—serial-numbered gear that would be a problem. Like his weapon, his ... the laser for his weapon, the optic, you know, his night optics—stuff like that that would be a big problem if it went missing. He left it in a nice, neat little pile with a note.

Sarah Koenig

Of course, mixed in with the facts, there was just a ton of conjecture. For instance, there's actually no evidence Bowe left a note. And Bowe himself says he didn't leave one. So it's not clear to me where that detail came from.

Other people said Bowe had been acting too cozy with the Afghan National Police guys.

Josh Korder

The way that he'd been talking to the locals, and the way that he'd been, you know, he'd been showing up late to guard shifts because he was busy talking to the locals ...

Sarah Koenig

That's Josh Korder. Here's Daryl Hansen. His guesses were expansive.

Daryl Hansen

We were like, man, is he like CIA or what? I mean, is he like this crazy, like, mole?

Sarah Koenig

Right, so, like, what was the discussion? Yeah, like what were you guys thinking?

Daryl Hansen

That's what ... we didn't ...yeah, that's what we were just thinking, like ... I mean, those were the things. Like, it was either like this guy is a complete lunatic, or is he, like, CIA? Like, we were trying to, like ... we couldn't figure it out, you know?

Sarah Koenig

Some of these guys, they'd seen so many strange and terrible things on deployments. But this was unheard of. I talked to Josh and Ben and another Ben and a guy I'm calling Scott—it's not his real name—and Ken and Jon and Jason and Mark and Zach and Austin and Shane and Daryl. They remember Bowe differently. They remember what happened after he left differently. They have different feelings about it. They do not speak with one voice. But, to a man, they said they were gobsmacked when they heard someone was missing.

Soldier 1

And I was like, this has got to be a drill.

Soldier 2

Like holy crap, like, is this a dream? I was like, what? Like, you know, what? It's just the craziest thing that could ever happen.

Soldier 3

Because it was so ludicrous at the time to think about it. Like, what do you mean?

Soldier 4

'Cause nobody walks off. Nobody walks off a FOB, or a ... not even a FOB, a combat outpost.

Soldier 5

Where are you gonna go? I mean, it's not like you can go hide out, you know, at the mall or something. I mean, there is nowhere but Taliban.

Sarah Koenig

One of Bowe's friends told me that he was always a meticulous packer. This trip, from Mest to Sharana, was no exception. Bowe's got his wallet and his camera—he always had his camera on him—two small knives that clip onto his belt, plus his utility knife. He's got a notebook—inside are a few poems and journal entries—plus a newspaper clipping about a guy who'd set a record for sailing: 1,000 days or something. Bowe loves boats.

For water, he'd filled the bladder from his camelback—about three liters. He'd grabbed a pack of nuts from his trail mix and some vacuum-packed chicken meat from an MRE. (It stands for meal ready to eat, the soldier's field ration.) And he had his compass. His Afghan clothing he'd shoved into his pocket. He figured he wouldn't need it until the sun rose.

Sometime after midnight on June 30th, Bowe walks about halfway up the hill, toward that second lookout, and climbs over the concertina wire in a spot where someone had thrown a plastic crate down on top of it. He skirts past the Afghan and U.S. posts on top of the hill, knowing it's a blind spot for them. It's late, for one thing, so people are probably tired. And if they're looking out at all, they're looking into the distance, not directly below them. Plus, the Afghans don't have night vision gear, anyway.

Once he clears that hill, he heads northwest toward the town of Malak, passes a school there, until finally he's out in open desert. And that's when it hits him, when he suddenly feels the magnitude of what he's done.

Bowe Bergdahl

So basically what I decided to do ... the first plan was go from point A to point B.

Mark Boal

Yeah.

Bowe Bergdahl

And that was it. However, 20 minutes out, I suddenly ... you know, 20 minutes out, I'm going, good grief, I'm in over my head, this is ... you know, they're gonna ... when I get back to the FOB, they're gonna to hit me with everything they can. I knew that was going to happen, but suddenly, you know, this really starts to sink in that I really did something bad. Well, not bad, but I did ... I really did something serious.

Sarah Koenig

Also, he's profoundly scared. He's a world away from anything he knows in a country whose culture is alien to him, where people want to kill him. And he's outside the wire in the dark.

When I picture him standing there, I imagine a free-floating astronaut, no comforting tether attaching him to the mothership. The thought crosses Bowe's mind, should he just go back to the OP? But he's not at all sure he could sneak back in. After all, the guys there are watching for people coming toward them, and they're manning big machine guns. He might get shot.

Instead, Bowe figures he's just got to clench his jaw and go for it. And here again, he makes a decision that is not the one you expect, or at least not the one I would expect. Because not only does he keep going, but he alters his plan, complicates it, makes it a little grander and more ambitious.

In hopes of mitigating the momentous trouble he now realizes he's in, Bowe figures he'll try arrive back at the FOB with some extra thing, a gift in the form of valuable intel. He knew that on the road from FOB Sharana to OP Mest there were sometimes IEDs. Bowe had heard someplace that the guys who were planting the IEDs were doing it at night. So he decides he'll make like a special-forces guy and try to catch someone planting an IED, or about to plant an IED. He'll look for flashlights bobbing up and down, listen for the crackle of radios.

Bowe Bergdahl

The idea would have been, if I had seen somebody in the darkness who looked like they were doing something suspicious, I would then slowly, quietly follow them in the night. And then, in the morning, pick up their trail and track them to wherever it is that they're going. Then I'd get that information, and so that when I got back to the FOB, you know, they could say, you know, well, you left your position.

But I could say, well, I also got this information, so, you know, what are you going to do? I have this information of this person who is doing this on this night, and they live here. And so that would be like justifiable, like: He left his post, you know, he left the TCP, but he collected intel that helped us stop, you know, somebody who was putting an IED in the road. You know, that would've been the bonus point that would have helped me deal with the whole, basically, hurricane of horror—or not hurricane of horror, but hurricane of wrath—that was gonna hit me once I got back to the FOB.

Sarah Koenig

Up until this point, Bowe says he had been walking in open terrain, between the road and a swell of hills. His idea was to make a slight detour, to shift a bit more toward the hills, where some houses were, thinking he'd have a better chance there of catching someone moving around in the dark, unawares. But before he knows it, he's in the hills. He says he got completely tangled in there, forgot to check his compass for two hours, which is a rookie move. And so what was meant to be a slight detour turned into a major detour.

By the time he'd straightened himself out and gotten out of the hills, he'd lost valuable time.

Bowe Bergdahl

It was just ... the next morning was, you know, where I got ... you know, where I got myself screwed.

Sarah Koenig

By the time the sun was up, Bowe was in open desert with no cover.

Bowe Bergdahl

And, you know, that's what put me into the line of sight of the Taliban.

Mark Boal

And what happened? Some dudes drove up and just snagged you, or what?

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah. I mean, I was just walking along, and there was a road probably ... I don't know, it was far off, 100 meters maybe. And a line of motorcycles—probably about five motorcycles. There might have been a couple guys on the back of a couple of the motorcycles. There was probably at least six or seven guys with the AK-47s. One guy had a ... it was a bigger one. It didn't shoot the 7.62 by 30, it shot the 7.62 by 41.

Mark Boal

Uh-huh.

Bowe Bergdahl

But he had one of those. And they were driving along the road. And I can't tell you what set them off, I can't tell you how they spotted me. I don't ... I don't know. They just ... they deviated. They turned off the road, came towards me, and maybe they were just ... maybe they just saw somebody walking through the desert, and they wanted to see who he was, or they were seeing if they needed help. Or ... I don't know what it was, but there I was in the open ... open desert. And I'm not about to outrun a bunch of motorcycles.

Mark Boal

Yeah.

Bowe Bergdahl

And so there's ... I couldn't do anything against, you know, six or seven guys with AK-47s. And they just ... they pulled up, and that was it.

Mark Boal

But they said you fought like crazy.

Bowe Bergdahl

[Laughs] No, I didn't. I'm not stupid enough to try and fight off ... you know, all's I had was a knife. I'm not stupid enough to try and knife off a bunch of guys with AK-47s.

Mark Boal

So did they basically just tie your hands and toss you on the back of one of the bikes or something, or what?

Bowe Bergdahl

Pretty much.

[Dial Tone]

Mujahid Rahman

Hello?

Sarah Koenig

Hello. This is Sarah.

That's me, calling the Taliban.

Mujahid Rahman

Hello?

Sarah Koenig

Hello. Is that Mujahid Rahman?

Interpreter

[Speaking Pashto]

Mujahid Rahman

[Speaking Pashto]

Interpreter

Yes, yes. Thank you very much. How are you doing?

Sarah Koenig

The Taliban's version of Bowe's capture? Next time, on Serial.

Serial is produced by Julie Snyder, Dana Chivvis, and me, in partnership with Mark Boal, Megan Ellison, Hugo Lindgren, Jessica Weisberg, Page One, and Annapurna Pictures. Ira Glass is our editorial adviser. Whitney Dangerfield is our digital editor. Research by Kevin Garnett. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris, copy editing by Anaheed Alani. Editing help this week from Joel Lovell, Chana Joffe-Walt, and Nancy Updike.

Our music is composed by Nick Thorburn, with additional music from Mark Phillips and Fritz Myers, and the show is mixed by Kate Billinski. Kristen Taylor is our community editor. Other Serial staff: Seth Lind, Emily Condon, Elise Bergerson, and Kimberly Henderson. Special thanks to Steve Sigmund, Chad Hunt, Carl Burton, Rich Orris, Matt Dorfman, and Sara Barrett.

Our website is serialpodcast.org, where you can listen to all our episodes, sign up for our newsletter, read articles by the Serial staff, and check out maps, videos, and more. This week we've got a 3D map, where you can fly over OP Mest and FOB Sharana. It is very cool. 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

You know, these people do ... they have no hesitation. They have no problem killing you.

Taliban

And what are we going to do with him? Are we going to kill him? To behead him?

Soldier

I mean, like literally, we were charging into these towns, just running out of our trucks.

Soldier

OK, now we're gonna fly you into this Bedouin village, and you're gonna check all the women's faces to make sure that they're not hiding him in women's clothing.

Soldier

The team went in and looked up and saw the ceiling lined with C4.

Taliban

He's asking about Kabul or asking about police. And we told him that we are police.

Taliban

What's your name?

Bowe Bergdahl

My name is Bowe Bergdahl.

Taliban

How old are you?

Bowe Bergdahl

I'm 23 years old.

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