When U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl walked off his base in Afghanistan in 2009 he was captured by the Taliban and held for five years, tortured and kept in a tiny cage. But the nightmare only continued when he was freed by President Obama in exchange for five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo. Arriving home, he was vilified in the media as a deserter who collaborated with the enemy. Donald Trump called for him to be shot as a “dirty rotten traitor”. So what is his side of the story? Film-maker Sean Langan gets exclusive access to Bowe Bergdahl and to his parents, presenting a moving story of a family caught in a storm of false allegations, and a soldier who made a mistake and paid a terrible price.

Nobody knows what Bowe Bergdahl was planning when he left his post in Afghanistan with nothing but a camera and a compass. He claims he was heading to a military headquarters to complain about ineffective leadership. Others allege that he had plans to collaborate with the Taliban. Whatever the truth, Major General Dahl, who led the military investigation in to his defection describes how Bergdahl was "completely delusional". Evidence suggests he was in the midst of a breakdown, writing 'Velcro/zip/Velcro/zip' repeatedly across pages of his diary.

Dismissed from the Coast Guard for being "psychologically unfit", Bowe joined the military after acquiring a medical waiver and was soon after deployed to Afghanistan. After being captured by members of the Haqqani Network, Bowe recounts how he would tell himself daily, “you’re not making it out of this. You’re a dead man”. After repeatedly trying to escape, the prisoner was too weak to be beaten any more and so he was confined to a seven-by-six-foot cage for over three years.

The celebratory response to Bowe’s return to the USA was short lived as a story portraying him as a traitor gained traction in some circles. Even his family came under attack, as his father's long beard and speaking in Pashto fuelled rumours of Islamic sympathies. "I was trying to communicate with the people holding my son. If America doesn't understand that, then f**k them” says Bob Bergdahl, before staring down the camera lens to speak in defence of his paternal instinct to use whatever means he could to help get his son home.

Rumours of Bowe’s conversion to Islam, claims that he was responsible for the death of six fellow soldiers, and reports that he helped the Taliban attack American bases flooded the American news. “In the old days: bing bong” said the soon-to-be President, Donald Trump, as he mimed shooting a gun in front of a cheering crowd. "We may as well go back to kangaroo courts and lynch mobs" Bergdahl says. "The people who want to hang me — you're never going to convince those people."

Credits (Click to expand)

Archive

Alamy

Brigette Woosley

Community Newspaper Project Fund

CBS

CNN

C-SPAN

Dave Axe

INTELCENTER

News Exposure LLC

The Guardian

US Department of Defense

WTVD_TV

With thanks to 

Nick Fraser

Callan Miranda

Luke and Gabriel Langan 

Mina and Natasha Langan

Anabel Cutler

James Meek, ABC NEWS

Kim Barker, New York Times

Eleanor Mills, The Sunday Times

David Rohde

Jere Van Dyke

Sean Caskie

Jemima Khan

Tony Tabatznik

Rebecca Lichtenfeld

Mike Semple

Vic Bazan

Terrence Russell

The US Joint Personnel Recovery Team

David Sedney

The Frontline Club

Toby Young

Robert Howatson

Andrew Margetson

Imogen Edwards Jones

Lyse Doucet

Havana Marking

Michael Ames

James Walsh

Tony Evans, The Idaho Mountain Express

Fiona Stourton

Films of Record

Alan Hayling

Alex Cooke

Archive Researcher

Annabel New

Colourist

Michael Sanders

Dubbing Mixer

Andrew Sears

Online Editor

Dominic McMahon

Graphics

Christopher Laing

Production Assistant

Oisin Cassidy-Kennedy

Production Executive

James Evans

Researcher

Sabrina Scollan

Producer

David Langan

Commissioning Editors for the BBC

Clare Paterson

Kate Townsend

Film Editors

Laurence Williamson

Mark Summers

Produced, Filmed and Directed by

Sean Langan

Pathfinder Productions in association with BBC 

International Distribution

Journeyman Pictures