"Is Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl a hero or deserter?" a female broadcaster is heard saying among a montage of news clips compiled in the latest episode of the popular Serial podcast series. The clip, taken from the frenzied period after the US Army soldier returned home, following a prisoner exchange deal with the Taliban in May 2014, goes straight to the heart of what the creators of the series plan to dig into during its highly anticipated second season.
The first episode titled "DUSTWUN" opens with the scene of Bergdahl's handover, in which producer Sarah Koenig describes the soldier's gaunt frame, his paleness, and shaved head that made him appear like a "cult leader from a '70s movie" after five years in militant captivity.
The 29-year-old Hailey, Idaho native previously described the torture he underwent while being held by the Taliban and Haqqani Network allies in a statement from March 26. The statement was released a day after Begdahl was charged with deserting his base in Paktika province in 2009 and "misbehavior before the enemy," which carries a possible life sentence.
But in Serial, Bergdahl, who was 23 when he walked away from his base, is given the opportunity to verbally recount his side of the story. The series will prove contentious for those — including some platoon mates — who have accused Bergdahl of being a "deserter" or "traitor" or have made unproven claims he endangered the lives of fellow soldiers who went looking for him.
The first words from Bergdahl in the podcast is a clip of a desperate plea he made while still in captivity.
"I'm a prisoner. I want to go home. Bring me home, please. Bring me home," the soldier says.
The podcast later features more clips from Bergdahl's taped interviews with filmmaker Mark Boal in which the soldier recalls the terror and confusion he felt while being held in a small and completely dark room. In captivity, Bergdahl says he was shackled, tortured, and subject to sensory deprivation to the point where he sometimes could not remember who or "what" he was.
Later, the meaning of the episode's title is revealed when the soldier describes his reasons for walking off his base, which he said was to create a "DUSTWUN" — short for duty status whereabouts unknown; a radio call issued when a soldier goes missing in combat or is taken captive. Bergdahl claims his actions were intended to call attention to a larger issue: his serious concerns over leadership in the military.
"What I was seeing from my first unit, all the way up into Afghanistan… 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," Bergdahl says in one of the taped interviews with Boal.
Koenig says that this version of accounts is a major point of conflict. It could be a story he concocted, as some claim, or "he could be expressing the genuine beliefs of a whistleblower."
"As a private first class, nobody is going to listen to me," Bergdahl says. The soldier claims he tried to create the DUSTWUN so that top officials could no longer ignore his concerns and would be forced to investigate the situation. At the same time he was well aware that he would probably be imprisoned over the action.
"The idea was I'd rather be sitting in Leavenworth [prison] than standing over the body of [a fellow soldier]," he said, later saying the move was "gutsy but still stupid."
But the soldier also admits his actions were also driven in part by a desire to prove a point or execute a personal mission of sorts. Bergdahl says was trying to prove to those who knew him that he was capable of being a hero or a "Jason Bourne"-type character from a movie.
"I was going to prove to the world that I was the real thing — I could be what it is all those guys who go to the movies and watch those movies — they all want to be that, but I wanted to prove that I was that," he said. "I was trying to find a solution to the problem at hand and I tied into it this idea… to kill two birds with one stone."
In the end, the move took an unintended turn, when Bergdahl was captured by militants. The soldier was kept in isolated captivity until 2014 when he was finally released in exchange for five Taliban commanders who were being held at the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Intense political and media scrutiny followed the high-profile prisoner exchange, heightened by assertions from Republican lawmakers that the swap, made without Congress' approval, was illegal.
The wildly successful Serial podcast, made by producers of public radio's This American Life, is set to explore the Taliban's side of Bergdahl's capture in the next episode. The first season, which focused on the story of Adnan Syed who was accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend, garnered roughly 1.5 million listeners an episode, and eventually led to a court agreeing last month to hear new evidence in the case, 15 years after Syed was imprisoned.
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields