After a two-week break — “one story told week by week, sort of,” as the new intro says, referring to the show’s new biweekly schedule — Serial is back with its latest episode. This time, rather than hearing about Bowe Bergdahl’s captivity first-hand, Sarah Koenig and her staff zoom out on the story. Or maybe a better way to put it is that the focus moves from Afghanistan back to the United States.
What was happening back here in the U.S. while Bergdahl went missing? What sorts of efforts were being on his behalf, not just to expedite his release but to find him? As it turns out, Bergdahl had plenty of friends and family, along with people in the government concerned about his welfare.
Koenig first talks to Kim Harrison, a longtime friend of Bergdahl’s whom the soldier put down as an emergency contact in case he ever got injured or went missing with the Army. (Think long and hard about who you choose to put down on those forms. That stuff matters.) At one point, Harrison contacts a friend who works for Interpol, hoping the international police agency can get involved. But to open up an investigation, Bergdahl has to be declared missing somewhere. So as preposterous as it might sound, with Bergdahl lost in Afghanistan, Harrison goes to a Portland, Ore. police station to file a missing person’s report.
Unfortunately, Interpol runs into a brick wall put up by the Department of Defense, who basically said that such an investigation would compromise their own efforts. But since those efforts seemed to be going nowhere, Harrison didn’t accept that answer and pursued other means to find Bergdahl or somehow make contact with him. Amazingly, she managed to get her phone number to someone associated with the Taliban, who claimed to know Bergdahl’s whereabouts and wanted to trade that information for getting him and his family out of Pakistan.
Eventually, the FBI got involved — believing Harrison’s source to be legitimate — but the deal ultimately fell through because no agency wanted to be responsible for getting what would have been nine people out of the country and being responsible for them in the States. What’s even more incredible than a woman in Idaho being able to make this contact is that the conversation (which went on for two years) was essentially the best lead that the FBI ever had in the Bergdahl case.
In the meantime, a former analyst with the military was also aware of the Bergdahl situation and frustrated with the lack of movement. No one in any position of power, whether in government or the military, seemed to care. “This shit’s bad,” he said to Koenig.
The analyst eventually contacted Bergdahl’s parents (through Facebook), told them what was happening (or not happening) and encouraged them to take action. Bergdahl’s father, Robert, did just that, recording a video addressed directly to the Pakistani military and people, asking for his son’s release. (If you’re wondering about his beard, Robert Bergdahl grew it in solidarity with Bowe’s captivity.) They also contacted several politicians and officials, hoping to raise enough attention that Bergdahl’s case would make its way all the way up to the President — the only person in power who could get something done.
Additionally, Koenig spoke to two women who work for Central Command (CENTCOM) and were the only ones tasked with U.S. personnel recovery (referred to as “PR”) in Afghanistan. Bergdahl’s case was unfortunately lost among many other things going on in the region at the time, notably airstrikes on Pakistan, the bombing of a U.S. embassy, other Americans being taken captive, and the killing of Osama Bin Laden. In one instance, the CENTCOM worker describes a scene in which she was wearing a t-shirt with Bergdahl on it and encountered a general who had never heard of him or his case. That’s how little attention these efforts were receiving.
The theme running through each of these accounts is similar: Bergdahl’s recovery was lost amid the tangle of bureaucracy and agencies continually passing the case off to other departments, hoping they could deal with it instead. So the investigation just got buried while Bergdahl’s captivity in Afghanistan become longer. It took drastic measures by those with a personal stake or frustrated with a process that clearly needed more effort to finally get something done.
But besides bureaucracy, Harrison, the military analysts and CENTCOM workers also had to battle cynicism and apathy. The attitude toward those captured in Afghanistan was that those people got themselves in such situations. Why were they traveling to Afghanistan or Pakistan, and what did they expect to happen? Why did a soldier leave his post and wander off base into Taliban territory? Fortunately, there were people behind the scenes working to make sure that Americans weren’t really left behind in this war.
However, in the next episode, it appears that Bergdahl himself will address some of the cynicism and anger directed at him — at least from his fellow soldiers. Bergdahl says he understands anyone reluctant or refusing to help him, but also believes it hasn’t been fully explained as to why he left his post. What was he seeing? What did he feel might happen under what he viewed as poor, dangerous leadership? Yet another part of this black-and-white picture will hopefully be colored in soon.
You can read all of our Serial recaps here.