'Serial' podcast: Bergdahl feared his commander might kill him
Bowe Bergdahl believed in an honor code that demanded action to right wrongs, no matter how futile the effort. He believed that a man should never bow to a corrupt system. And he also believed that his brigade commander might try to kill his own soldiers by sending them on a suicide mission.
Bergdahl’s belief about his brigade commander was a paranoid symptom of his “schizotypal personality disorder,” a serious mental health condition diagnosed last year by an Army psychiatrist, the podcast “Serial” revealed on its Friday program.
Friday’s podcast was the second of a two-part episode that explored Bergdahl’s motivations in walking off his Afghanistan combat outpost in 2009. The U.S. Army sergeant was recovered in a controversial 2014 prisoner swap after five years of torture, starvation and isolation by his Taliban captors.
Symptoms of the personality disorder, experts say, include paranoia, incorrect perception of and interpretation of events, magical thinking, eccentric dress and speech, and extreme social anxiety. Personality disorders usually become apparent after adolescence and are difficult to treat.
“It really does tell the story of Bowe — unfortunately, you know?” said Michael Valdovinos, a psychologist who was part of the debriefing team that met with Bergdahl after the soldier’s recovery.
Valdovinos — who podcast host Sarah Koenig said had Bergdahl’s permission to speak about him — was critical of how the Army allowed the soldier to enlist in 2008 after he’d washed out of Coast Guard boot camp two years earlier, diagnosed with “adjustment disorder with depression.”
“Somewhere, the ball was dropped,” Valdovinos said.
Yet Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a forensic psychiatrist and formerly the psychiatric consultant to the Army surgeon general, told the program that Bergdahl’s waiver was not unusual or especially alarming. She said the Army relies on recruits to self-report problems — which Bergdahl apparently did — and that any interview with a psychiatrist usually wouldn’t determine a recruit’s mental fitness. The stress of basic training tests a recruit’s suitability, she said, and Bergdahl did well.
Bergdahl was, by all accounts, an odd young man, from an isolated, home-schooled background, steeped in romantic ideas about principled warriors. Friends described him as gentlemanly and protective, but they also found that he had unrealistic expectations and was prone to making severe judgments when disappointed.
His platoon mates also noticed his unusual behavior — he removed his mattress to sleep on the bed frame, and smoked a pipe instead of hanging out with them.
But no one anticipated that he’d walk off the base because doing so was so foolhardy and presumptuous and a betrayal of his fellow soldiers. “He broke this intimate bond that we all share with each other,” John Thurman, a platoon mate, told the podcast.
Bergdahl told officials that he planned to hike 20 miles to a larger base to report what he viewed as his commander’s dangerous leadership. Bergdahl had concluded, after the men had been reprimanded for a photograph taken out of uniform, that the commander might send them on a suicide mission because they’d made him look bad.
The psychiatrist’s diagnosis was alluded to in the U.S. Army sergeant’s preliminary hearing on desertion and misconduct charges in September, when his lawyers discussed what they called an unspecified “severe mental disease or defect.” The Army’s position is that Bergdahl is responsible and accountable for his actions because he understood what he was doing. Charged with desertion and misconduct, he is headed to court-martial in August.
Screenwriter Mark Boal, who taped some 25 hours of interviews with Bergdahl, told Koenig that the soldier’s diagnosed personality disorder should not obscure what he regarded as Bergdahl’s legitimate criticisms of the Army. Of course his commander wasn’t planning to send his soldiers on a suicide mission, Boal said, but he had put their lives at risk to retrieve a piece of equipment.
“To simply say, ‘That’s just the everyday, normal Army life’ and shrug it off and say ‘Who cares?,’ that’s a huge problem,” Bergdahl says on the podcast. “That shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone.”