Escaping, Episode 3 of the Serial podcast, covers Bowe Bergdahl’s first year of captivity and is bookended by two attempted escapes. We’re recapping each episode after it’s released. You can read our first post here for background on Serial and coverage of the first two episodes.
At the top of this week’s episode, host Sarah Koenig talks about “stray voltage,” all the rumors floating around after Bergdahl’s capture that painted him as a Taliban sympathizer, stories that he was allowed ride a horse, go rabbit hunting and play soccer with his captors. While they gained traction with online message boards, intelligence officers dismissed them as untrue. Boal admits that he originally assumed Bergdahl was a sympathizer based on those stories, but became curious once he heard from his government sources that Bowe was giving extensive intelligence briefings to the military once he was released.
Boal and Koenig agree that Bowe Bergdahl doesn’t sound like a traitor: if the horrific experiences he describes are real, there’s no way he was cooperating with the enemy. Bergdahl attempted an escape shortly after his capture but doesn’t get very far. After his recapture, his captors punished him with miserable living conditions. Bergdahl suffered from diarrhea for 3 1/2 years, developed bedsores from being strapped down in one position and endured beatings with a copper pipe. There were long stretches with no meaningful contact with other humans.
Bergdahl was being held by the Haqqani family in Pakistan. They interrogated him but asked weird, seemingly random questions: “How do the officers on your base get their prostitutes?” “What kind of alcohol do you drink?” “Is Obama gay and sleeps with men?” Serial host Sarah Koenig talked to her Taliban sources, who insist that Bergdahl didn’t give them anything useful and that they got most of their quality intel from Afghan interpreters who work for the U.S. military.
As Bergdahl tells this story to Mark Boal, the screenwriter observes that it’s understandable why the psychologists and SERE guys were surprised that Bowe wasn’t a total vegetable when he was finally released.
Bergdahl says he never stopped trying to escape but those attempts became so pathetic that his captors stopped watching him closely. He finally was able to run away from his captors and managed to stay on the run for nine days. He was trying to get to Pakistan, not realizing he was already there. With no food and only fetid water to drink, Bergdahl became weak and was recaptured. They didn’t beat him this time, recognizing the fact that he probably couldn’t survive the punishment. That escape was the last time Bowe Bergdahl saw the night sky until he was released four years later.
Leaving aside the profound stupidity of the initial decision to walk off post, Bergdahl comes off as both reasonable and sympathetic in this episode. Serial fans know how the program works, though: there are other voices to be heard, other perspectives to examine and inconsistencies that will be investigated. We’re only about 1/3 of the way through the series and there’s a lot more to come.