Missing Man

06.12.14

Exclusive: Bergdahl Explains in Prison Letters Why He Vanished

In a pair of letters, the captured U.S. soldier asks his government to reserve judgment about his disappearance—and complains about the officers leading his unit in Afghanistan.

Writing from a Taliban “prison,” Bowe Bergdahl urged his family and his government to wait until they had all the facts before judging him for leaving his base. Then Bergdahl explained, at least in part, why he left his fellow troops in 2009.

“Leadership was lacking, if not non-existent. The conditions were bad and looked to be getting worse for the men that where actuly (sic) the ones risking thier (sic) lives from attack,” he writes in a letter dated March 23, 2013 and obtained by The Daily Beast. It’s one of two letters sent by Bergdahl to his parents during his five years held by the Taliban-allied Haqqani Network in the tribal region of Pakistan.

“If this letter makes it to the U.S.A., tell those involved in the investigation that there are more sides to the cittuwation (sic),” he adds. “Please tell D.C. to wait for all evadince (sic) to come in.”

The copies of the two letters were given to The Daily Beast by sources in contact with the Taliban. U.S. and western officials confirmed they were the same letters delivered by International Red Cross from the Taliban to Bowe Bergdahl’s family. Together, they represent the first comment from Bergdahl himself on the controversy over his departure from his base in June 2009, leading to his capture. Fellow troopers have attacked Bergdahl, saying soldiers were injured and killed as military resources were devoted to the search for him.

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Bergdahl was freed last month when the White House agreed to swap him for five senior Taliban members who had been jailed in Guantanamo Bay prison since 2002. The Obama administration has been assailed by Congress for making the trade without notifying them in advance, and for releasing the former Taliban fighters into the custody of Qatar, where they will be allowed to reunite with their families and live fairly freely though they’ll be monitored.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby declined to comment on the Bergdahl correspondence on why he left his base. He said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has “already made clear that the Army is going to review the circumstances surrounding his disappearance and captivity,” adding that “we need to reserve judgment until that process is complete.”

The handwriting in the two letters—one from 2012 and one from 2013—does not match, and the 2012 letter in particular transitions from greetings to the family into a long, rambling, almost lyrical philosophical missive about God and nature. But U.S. and Western officials say the family told administration officials that they believed the letters to be genuine. These sources spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private correspondence.

The text is also evocative of selections of Bergdahl’s journal published by The Washington Post Thursday, which he had mailed back to a close friend in the states before he disappeared.

The Bergdahl family in Bowe’s hometown of Hailey, Idaho, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

International Red Cross spokeswoman Anna Nelson would not confirm that the letters were those delivered by her organization to the Bergdahl family.

“We do this in a strictly humanitarian capacity and the messages only include family news,” Nelson emailed Tuesday. The ICRC transmits thousands of messages every year between family members separated by conflict, including detainees—280,000 messages in 2012 alone. “Because of the private nature of the messages, the ICRC does not comment on their individual content and feels it should be up to the families to decide what they wish to do with them,” she wrote.

Bergdahl’s first letter to his parents, dated 27 November 2012, is addressed in care of “Geneve Red Cross,” and identifies the sender as “P.O.W. BOWE BERGDAHL, U.S. ARMY-AFGHANISTAN WAR PRISON,” though he was believed to be held in Pakistan. The letter is addressed to “FATHER ROBERT BERGDAHL-U.S.A.” following the format of ICRC messages.

“To my friends & family, in regards to the circomestance (sic) here, I am as well as can be here,” he writes. “I am given food and drink.”

The rest of the line is blocked out, which officials say is how it arrived to Bergdahl’s family. It continues, “…though spring is coming and when you read this it will be hot again.”

He writes of recent rain, and of wondering what spring is like at home in Idaho.

Another line is blocked out before it continues, “I pray everyone is well. I think about you all every day. And all the things that happened in my life. I miss you all, but as papa says, God’s will be done.”

The letter shifts into musings about faith, philosophy and more. “All things happen for a reason. Mathematics is full evidence of this. Just because we cannot understand the master equation does not mean it is not there,” he writes. “Math is God’s code for this Universe and beyond. I miss you all.”

“So take a breath with the wind on your face and feel the life flow through you,” he writes—something both he and Taliban officials say he wasn’t experiencing in Taliban captivity.

U.S. officials briefed on his recovery say he claims he was held in a cage in the dark for weeks at a time, sometimes even hooded except when drinking or eating.

“Remember, tomorrow is promised to no one, so be gratefull [sic] for the sleep of night, and be thankfull [sic] for the downing sun, that you may wake to see it home. Goodbye, and God bless.”

Taliban and former Afghan officials say he was held in cages or basements in a series of safe houses. Partly, these measures were meant to keep him secure after his two escape attempts in 2011 and in late 2012. Partly, they were designed to keep him safe from CIA drone strikes—as well as factions of the Taliban who wanted to kill him rather than trading him.

“Remember, tomorrow is promised to no one, so be gratefull [sic] for the sleep of night, and be thankfull [sic] for the downing sun, that you may wake to see it home. Goodbye, and God bless. May you see clear all that is here,” Bergdahl ends the 2012 letter. “I pray that you are all safe.” He then adds a drawing of an animal paw—something officials say his family pointed to as a sign the letter was genuine.

In the 2013 letter, he seems to be well aware the U.S. army was investigating his disappearance from his base—which was officially termed “absence without leave” because he was captured shortly after walking away.

He starts on a social note, saying he missed Thanksgiving and wished good hunting to his family and friends. Then he sets about explaining why he left his base, in poorly spelled block print.

“The cercomstance from the begaining of my time in Afghanistan from immedet top to bottom (spelling typed as per the letter), where bad for troopers espeshly in my PLT. (Platoon.) Orders showed a high disconcer for safty of troopers in the field, and lacking clear minded, logical and commonsense thinking and understanding from the topsides,” he writes.

“The cercomstance showed signs of going from bad into a nightmare for the men in the field. Unexeptable conditions for the men working and risking life every moment outside the wire,” Bergdahl adds.

“There are some risks that are forced to be taken, however it was made clear more than once that clear minded understanding from leadership was lacking, if not non-existent. The conditions were bad and looked to be getting worse for the men that where actuly the ones risking thier lives from attack as well as Afghan ellements.”

He admonishes them to wait for all the evidence, and ends “Things well. Take care. Keep powder dry. Miss Id. Bowe Bergdahl PFC 2nd PLT B Co. 1-501st U.S. Army.”

Other correspondence provided by the Taliban sources to The Daily Beast includes letters sent privately by the Bergdahl family to their son’s captors through religious leaders in Quetta, Pakistan.

One of the mailings includes a photo of Bergdahl’s mother Jani and father Robert holding a Christmas 2013 letter to their son, written both in Arabic and in English.

Robert is wearing a yellow ribbon on his black shirt, sporting the long beard he grew to show solidarity with his captive son, and mother Jani is veiled, following the custom of women in the region where her son was being held. The sources who provided the letter to The Daily Beast say the family had been coached on how best to communicate with the Taliban including showing respect for such local customs.

The coaching shows in the carefully letters from the Bergdahls to their son’s Taliban captors, entreating them to treat him well and to pass on their letters to him.

“Of course, we worry about his health and well being,” they write in a 26 November 2012 letter. “It has been almost 4 years since we embraced him. Is it possible to see him once again on video?” The Taliban did deliver another video to them at the end of 2013.

The Bergdahls write in the accompanying letter to their son that they had traveled to Washington, D.C., recently “to plead again for your freedom.”

“There are many people on your team across the country, but you know it is hard for everyone to come to an agreement,” they write. “We hope the diplomats who have worked so hard on your behalf will have a chance to finish their work and bring you home,” they add.

The family’s letters for the most part detail family matters like recent births or an update on Bowe’s pet. The Daily Beast is not releasing those letters out of respect for the family’s privacy.

The Taliban contacts who provided the letters say they did reach Bergdahl in captivity. But a senior U.S. defense official said until the Bergdahls speak to their son, they have no way of knowing for sure if he got their letters and if they helped keep him going.

Early Friday morning, Bergdahl arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, to begin the next phase of his recovery and reintegration and presumably to be reunited with his family.