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Who Is Bowe Bergdahl? A Quick Primer On Serial's Latest Subject

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Sarah Koenig has turned her investigative attentions to Bowe Bergdahl for this season of the massively popular true-crime podcast Serial. To get you caught up on this ongoing story, here is some brief background on the former prisoner of war's story.

WHO IS BOWE BERGDAHL?

Bowe Bergdahl is a 29-year-old U.S. Army Sergeant (promoted from private in absentia) who served with the 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division in southeast Afghanistan. On the night of June 30, 2009, Bergdahl disappeared from base and was eventually captured by Taliban-affiliated insurgents in the Patika province. He was held captive for almost five years before being released On May 31, 2014 as the result of a controversial prisoner exchange involving five U.S.-held Taliban members who were being held at Guantanamo Bay.

Bergdahl told U.S. officials that he tried to escape while in captivity, but was re-captured by the Taliban-affiliated fighters. He says he was tortured and abused because of this attempt, and that he was locked in a metal cage in total darkness for weeks at a time. After his release and medical evaluation, officials told The New York Times that, while “physically able to travel,” Bergdahl was “not yet emotionally ready for the pressures of reuniting with his family.”

WHAT'S SO CONTROVERSIAL ABOUT HIS STORY?

Since his release, much of Bergdahl’s story—most notably the events surrounding his disappearance—has faced intense scrutiny. In a video released by his Taliban captors in 2009, Bergdahl said he was captured while lagging behind on patrol. This was later refuted by multiple sources, including Nathan Bradley Bethea, who served in Bergdahl’s battalion. In a 2014 Daily Beast article, Bethea wrote, “Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.” Bethea also asserted there was no patrol the night Bergdahl says he lagged behind.

Adding to the confusion, Bergdahl had sent home his computer and other personal items shortly before his disappearance, leading some to believe that it had been pre-planned. According to The New York Times, Bergdahl had left a note behind “saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life.” The very existence of this note is also a matter of debate, as members of the Senate Intelligence Committee were told that there was “no statement.”

WHAT DO POLITICS HAVE TO DO WITH ALL THIS?

Soon after President Obama announced the release and corresponding prisoner exchange deal, many Republican politicians (and some Democrats) criticized the move, even though Bergdahl was America’s last prisoner of war at the time. They cited the many unknowns about his disappearance and subsequent capture, as well as other issues like the White House’s failure to give Congress 30 days' notice about the Guantanamo prisoner swap.

After sitting in on a briefing about Bergdahl's release, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin told the press, “I think we can all agree we’re not dealing with a war hero here.” The issue became so divisive, some politicians deleted their earlier tweets celebrating the serviceman’s return (these tweets were easily archived, of course).

His hometown of Hailey, Idaho cancelled a homecoming celebration, even though they had held an annual “Bring Bowe Back” event during the years that he was held captive. According to Politico, this was due to “security concerns over the prospect of big crowds—both for and against the soldier.”

WHAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE HE RETURNED TO AMERICA?

On March 24, 2015, representatives of the U.S. Army announced Bergdahl will be charged with desertion. The charges—one count of “desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty” and one count of “misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place”—can result in a sentence of up to “confinement for life.”

HAS BERGDAHL SPOKEN TO THE PRESS SINCE HIS RELEASE?

This season of Serial features interviews with Bergdahl conducted by screenwriter and journalist Mark Boal. It marks the first time time he has spoken publicly about his story. Boal says he recorded 25 hours of conversation with Bergdahl.

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Laima Gūtmane, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Construction Workers Discover World War II–Era German Burial Ground in Estonia
A German military cemetery in Estonia
A German military cemetery in Estonia
Laima Gūtmane, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Around 35,000 German soldiers died in Estonia during World War II while fighting Soviet troops, according to the German War Graves Association. To this day, construction workers still occasionally find their graves. While building a memorial to victims of communism in a park near Estonia's capital city of Tallinn, laborers recently discovered the remains of around 100 German soldiers, Deutsche Welle reports.

The bodies were buried separately instead of in a mass grave. Experts think the burial ground is part of a German military cemetery, and say it's unclear whether more bodies remain to be found. Archaeologists will survey the area before construction resumes, and the deceased soldiers will be reburied at an already established German cemetery nearby, according to Estonian broadcasting unit ERR.

The communist Soviet Union absorbed the Baltic countries during the war, but they were also periodically occupied by Nazi Germany. Decades later, in 1995, Estonia and Germany signed an agreement that allowed the latter country to restore and operate war cemeteries and memorials in Estonia commemorating their fallen soldiers.

Twelve German cemeteries exist today in Estonia (the one in the above image is located in Narva), but reburial efforts are still likely far from over: Between 3000 and 4000 German soldiers were interred around Tallinn alone, the BBC notes, and an additional 10,000 or so prisoners of war also died in labor camps during the war, in addition to soldiers killed on Estonian territory. Many of these graves were either unmarked or destroyed, according to the German War Graves Association.

[h/t Deutsche Welle]

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holidays
Remembering West Point’s Eggnog Riot of 1826
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Today, the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York is thought to have one of the most disciplined student bodies in the nation. It may come as a surprise, then, that the school was once the site of one of the worst examples of eggnog-fueled debauchery in American history.

During West Point’s early years following its founding in 1802, it hardly resembled the highly revered institution that exists today. According to Smithsonian, admission standards were lax, and students could be enrolled at any point during the year. Drinking was also a significant part of the campus culture, especially around the holidays. It was an annual tradition at West Point for cadets to drink eggnog during their Christmas festivities, but in 1826, the school’s superintendent, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, cut them off.

As a means of whipping the community into shape, Thayer imposed a harsh new rule that prohibited the purchase, storage, and consumption of alcohol on West Point property. Unfortunately for Thayer, a few cadets took these new restrictions as a challenge come Christmas Eve.


Portrait of Sylvanus Thayer via Wikimedia Commons

The cadets (among them class of '28 student Jefferson Davis, a.k.a. the future president of the Confederacy) smuggled in three or four gallons of whiskey from a local tavern. Thayer suspected there might be shenanigans afoot for the holiday party, but he only took the normal precautions that night, assigning two officers to the North Barracks. The officers went to bed around midnight with no trouble to report, but that all changed around four in the morning. One of the officers, Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock, was awoken by the sounds of partying a few floors above him.

He went to investigate and found six or seven cadets in a drunken state. He ordered them back to their rooms, and as he went to leave, he heard a second party going on in the room next door. There he found two intoxicated cadets hiding beneath a blanket, and a third party who was so drunk he refused to remove the hat he was using to conceal his face. When Hitchcock demanded that he show himself, they argued, and things got so tense that after the officer left, the cadets declared, “Get your dirks and bayonets … and pistols if you have them. Before this night is over, Hitchcock will be dead!”

Soon after, the infamous West Point eggnog riot was underway. Anywhere from 70 to 90 cadets ended up taking part, and while no one was killed that night, the chaos did result in assaults on two officers, several shattered windows, and banisters being ripped away from stairways. By the time morning arrived, the North Barracks had been completely wrecked.

Instead of indicting up to a third of the academy’s 260 students and further reinforcing its reputation as an unruly institution, superintendent Thayer chose to only target the worst offenders. Jefferson Davis was able to evade a charge, and he, along with fellow classmates (including future Confederate General Robert E. Lee) testified in their peers’ defense. Nineteen cadets were eventually expelled, and the buildings that served as the site of the riot were demolished.

When new barracks were constructed in the 1840s, the school took special precautions that would make similar riots more difficult in the future. The buildings were constructed to include short hallways that forced students to exit the building entirely before reaching another floor, which would introduce an added element of crowd control in case it was ever needed. Today, the story of the West Point eggnog riot is largely unknown to its current students, the school's historian told Smithsonian. Their debased holiday parties are a thing of the past, and when the school does throw parties, any alcohol that’s present is available in limited quantities. Perhaps the administration doesn’t want their cadets getting any ideas from the academy’s rowdy history.

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