By Tahiat Mahboob  

When U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl walked off his base in Afghanistan in June 2009, he said he was intending to reach a U.S. base 29 kilometres away to file a complaint about a leadership issue in his unit.

Within hours, he was captured by the Taliban and handed over to the Haqqani network, an insurgent group over the border in Pakistan. They imprisoned and tortured him for nearly five years and he became the only prisoner of war (POW) in the U.S.-Afghan conflict.

When he was finally freed in a prisoner swap in May 2014, Bergdahl was vilified by some U.S. media and branded a traitor.

"He's a traitor. A no-good traitor. A dirty, rotten traitor," said Donald Trump during a campaign rally in Miami in October 2015.

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The USA vs. Bergdahl

British journalist Sean Langan was held hostage for three months by the Haqqani network. He had been kidnapped while on assignment in the same region, more than a year before Bergdahl's capture.  He started following Bergdahl’s story from the moment it broke. By the time Bergdahl was released, Langan decided to make a documentary about him.

Getting access to Bergdahl and his family was challenging. Bergdahl was stationed at his base in San Antonio, Texas, since July 2014, on administrative duties, awaiting his court martial. His lawyers didn’t want him to talk. His parents Bob and Jani, burned by the media coverage of their son, were also reluctant to speak. But Langan persevered and was eventually able to get access to all three. In March 2016, Langan became the first journalist to meet with Bergdahl in person.

Sean LanganFilmmaker Sean Langan (The USA vs. Bergdahl/Sean Langan)

We caught up with Langan to learn how his own experiences as a hostage informed the making of the documentary, what he discovered along the way and how that shaped the story he was trying to tell.

Langan’s interest in Bergdahl did not begin as an idea for a documentary. “I had been following the story for five years on-and-off, but not as a journalist. I never thought of it as a documentary idea I'd make.”

“When you are kidnapped, you become part of this club you don't want to become a member of — a hostage club,” says Langan.

“When the Haqqani network kidnaps someone, the families, the authorities, reach out to former hostages. “

After his own kidnapping, Langan found himself unable to pursue the stories he’d done in the past. “I was kind of grounded from war zones. I was grounded from doing what I loved doing.”

He began working on a documentary featuring Bergdahl’s family, commissioned by the BBC. “At that point it was — I want to make a documentary about the family, dealing with their loved one away; how they cope with that. And what were the Americans doing to get him released.”

But a month into his work, Bergdahl was released. And before he landed, his story had transformed from the heroic return of a POW to one of treachery.

Fox NewsFox News coverage (The USA vs. Bergdahl/Sean Langan)

“It was this narrative Fox News ran with, which was that he's the real Sergeant Brody from Homeland. This is a traitor. Look at the Dad. He looks like the Taliban. And at that point, Bob Bergdahl suddenly didn't want to talk to me or anyone in the media,” says Langan.

As a former hostage, Langan knew that homecoming was difficult. “Coming home, counter-intuitively, is actually the hardest part of captivity that hostages experience. Hostages and their families hold on and become adept at battening down the emotional hatches during captivity.”

Having survived five years of turmoil, the Bergdahl family was now at the centre of a media storm. “For a while, the Bergdahls were under siege from the American media — accused. When you're sitting in Idaho, it's not a good place to be accused of being un-American.”

Privileged access, a painful journey

As a former hostage, Langan had access to people other journalists could not reach. Terrence Russell, the world's leading expert on debriefing hostages, had debriefed Bowe on his release, and he was not talking to media. He made an exception for Langan.

The Bergdahls were also not talking to anyone, says Langan, who got the only interviews with the family and the only TV interview in the world with Bowe. “These people were all clearly in the middle of a trauma. Their trauma hadn't ended with the release. That's one thing the family all said. Jani said to me, there was nothing post about their traumatic stress disorder. You know it was ongoing. But when people are traumatized, they sort of shut down slightly.” He was able to get the family to open up when he spoke about his own experience in captivity.

But this openness took a personal toll. “Being a former hostage was critical to making the film. But it made it quite a painful journey me because I didn't go to therapy. I just made a documentary about a former hostage.”

“When someone in the family is kidnapped, the whole family is kidnapped”
The BergdahlsJani and Bob Bergdahl (The USA vs. Bergdahl/Sean Langan)

In an essay about the aftermath of his own hostage experience, Langan wrote about how the events had affected his relationships and loved ones.

“When someone in the family is kidnapped, the whole family is kidnapped. And in fact, it's worst for the mother. When I was talking to Jani, I was able to sort of bond because so much of what she said reminded me of what my mum had gone through and said."

“As a hostage, there will be times in your captivity where you're having an okay time. You haven't got a knife to your throat. No one is threatening to shoot you. But you know at that point your mum is thinking, you've got a hood over your head. You're being tortured. So for the mother, it's unrelenting. It's often harder being the parent.”

'They never quite fade into memory.'

Bowe Bergdahl’s lawyers warned him not to do interviews. “Bowe ignored their advice and gave an interview with no money, for free. He could have sold his interview. He gave it to me for free and he's an incredibly, intensely honourable person.”

Bowe BergdahlBowe Bergdahl (The USA vs. Bergdahl/Sean Langan)

Langan describes the interview as intense, triggering difficult memories for both former captives. “I realized that there were points in that interview where he is not with me. He is back in the room. And it was mainly when I asked him about mock executions, having your throat cut. We both went through that."

“I always talk about my greatest fear was having my throat cut in the dark — I could see him gulp. And I realized at that point that neither of us were in that room. We were both back in our cells. When you go through very intense experiences, they never quite fade into memory.”

'This is completely different from what I'd been hearing on the media.'

During Bergdahl’s pre-trial hearing, Langan encountered a fundamentally different narrative than the press had been telling, and it would come to define his documentary.

Hostage expert Terrence Russell and Major General Kenneth Dahl, who led the US military investigation, both spoke in support of Bergdahl’s version of events. Dahl believed Bergdahl was “delusional but he was honourable; he wasn't a traitor. And even though it was cock-eyed, [Dahl] did believe [Bergdahl’s] story about going to another base,” Langan recalls.

“Then Terrence Russell stood up and said he was tortured because he was such a hero. That's when I realized, oh my god, these two experts, who know the truth — this is completely different from what I'd been hearing on the media.”

“It was the most amazing thing I had ever heard. It was like a grenade went off in this court. We could literally hear the breath taken away. People were gasping. It was about 500 U.S. journalists. None of them being able to record this. But you could hear the audible gasp when this expert, Terrence Russell, stood up and described a story of a kid who had walked off his base, [he was] never properly understood.

But in captivity, he was like Rambo. [Russell] described him as a one-man army who fought the enemy. Who resisted the enemy, and feeling he was a U.S. soldier. And as a result, endured the worst case of prisoner abuse since Vietnam. He was tortured so badly. It was a real moment. And all the American journalists came out and said, 'this is not the story we've been hearing.' And I was like, this is the story we're telling.”