Have you been listening to Serial? Last year this podcast went viral as it told the story of 17-year-old Adnan Syed, and his conviction for murdering high school senior Hae Min Lee. Everyone who had been hooked by season 1 couldn’t wait to hear what case the producers were going to focus on in season 2. When it was announced that season 2 would tell the story of Robert “Bowe” Bergdahl — his decision to walk away, his capture, his release, and the surrounding controversy — many people were taken aback.
Unlike the story told in season 1, Bergdahl’s story has been well publicized. We know that he walked away from his Army base in Afghanistan in 2009, and we have heard about how he was held captive by the Taliban for five years before being released in 2014 in exchange for five Taliban detainees from Guantánamo Bay. We also know that almost immediately after his release he was enveloped in controversy.
Was he a hero or a deserter? This is one of the questions that is being explored by the podcast. What is interesting is that we are getting this narrative of the case at the same time it is playing out in the military justice system.
Shortly after the first episode was released, Gen. Robert B. Abrams, head of Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., ordered that Bergdahl face a court martial on charges of desertion and endangering troops. If convicted, he faces anywhere from five years to life in prison. This is a significantly more serious charge than many people expected Bergdahl to face, particularly since the investigating officer who testified at a preliminary hearing last fall recommended that he face neither jail time nor a punitive discharge. Instead, they had recommended a “special court-martial” where the most severe penalty possible would be a year of confinement.
Perhaps because of these new legal developments, Serial’s producers have had to switch to an every other week release schedule. In a blog post announcing the scheduling change, they said, “This story goes in so many directions, and as we’re reporting it we’re getting access to more of the key people close to Bergdahl’s case, and to more information than we initially thought we would.” They have also decided to add at least one additional episode to the series.
Prior to the release of this podcast, Bergdahl had not spoken publicly about his experiences, typically a smart move for someone who is going through a high profile court martial. So, this is the first time people are hearing his side of the story. This is also the first time many people listening to the podcast are learning anything about what life in today’s military is like and how military law operates. To those of us familiar with military life and military law, seeing how the public reacts to this information will be as interesting as the Bergdahl story itself.