Alaska soldiers are weighing in on Bowe Bergdahl, an Army infantryman who was part of a unit within the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry division stationed at Fort Richardson when he walked away from his post in Afghanistan in 2009.
Bergdahl’s case has drawn national attention, and is even the focus of season two of Serial, a wildly popular podcast. But what soldiers are saying about the case and the podcast depends on who you ask.
“I just started listening to Serial because it was recommended by no less than five people that I trust that served with me,” said Nick Tabacka, who was part of the 501st Infrantry’s Blackfoot company when Bergdahl went missing.
Tabaczka was a staff sergeant when he retired from the Army in 2013. He knew Bergdahl — they were part of the same company when Bergdahl disappeared, and Tabaczka told an attentive crowd he was the one who took two of the widely circulated photos of the then-private first class during a two-and-a-half hour panel discussion. The Thursday event was sponsored by the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Political Science Association, a nonpartisan student group.
Tabaczka and some other soldiers that served at the same time as Bergdahl are paying attention to the podcast.
“I think why I like it is because I recognize a lot of those voices, and so when you know those people it’s a really good report,” Tabaczka said. “And I’m not even an NPR or public radio aficionado.”
Tabaczka was one of three speakers featured in the moderated discussion, which touched on everything from the chronology of recovery efforts to sentiments about the high-level exchange of Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners.
Though many facts in the case are unclear, there is no dispute over this: Bergdahl left his post, resulting in his capture by the Taliban, and setting in motion an enormous manhunt across Afghanistan.
When he started hearing rumors in 2013 that if Bergdahl were rescued from years of imprisonment he likely wouldn’t be tried, it made Tabaczka furious.
“As a (non-commissioned officer) at the time, and somebody who categorizes myself as a company man, I was always a fan of being fair and impartial when recommending punishments and rewards. So I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen, and yet we’re not gonna pursue this to the fullest extent of the law.'”
In December, the Army announced it would court marshal Bergdahl over the desertion charge. And for Tabaczka, the company man, it had the effect of the company recognizing its own rules — making good on what he he’d understood was fair.
“A lot of us are still trying to find closure. But what we’ve been trying to understand for almost seven years, which is: ‘Why would you do that?’ Like, ‘What was running through your mind?’ Serial is actually allowed us to do that, because we’re hearing excerpts from his own quotations. And so there’s some disdain — people listen to it with hatred. For me, it’s just more information and more closure.”
One of the people who referred Tabaczka to Serial is 1st Lt. Ryan Murrell, who arrived in Afghanistan just as the search for Bergdahl was escalating.
“I do like the Serial podcast, it reminds me of This American Life, which is also a favorite show of mine,” Murrell said after the panel ended.
He thinks some of host Sarah Koenig’s insights are “very civilian-esque.” But he thinks the reporting does a good job establishing the scale of bewilderment and betrayal felt by soldiers. Which is something he believes civilians have a hard time appreciating when the topic of desertion comes up.
“We’ve never really seen this before, at least not in the 20th century, not in this war. And to do such a sinful act, such a betrayal to your brothers…we have trouble conceptualizing it, fathoming that.” Murrell said. “Why would you conduct such a heinous act?”
The Bergdahl court-marshal case is set for August 2016.