When the record-breaking Serial podcast returned on Thursday for a second season, listeners discovered that its one-story-all-season format would be applied to a very different kind of tale this time around: rather than focusing on an obscure case like the one that formed the backbone of the first season, the show will consider the story of Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier who, after leaving his post in Afghanistan, was captured and held by the Haqqani network, part of the Taliban, for almost five years.
In some ways, it’s a surprising choice for podcast creator Sarah Koenig: after all, Bergdahl’s story had been extensively covered by the media—including TIME. On the other hand, the saga still has layers of loose ends and controversy that could prove ripe for exploration.
Public awareness of Bergdahl’s situation began almost immediately after his capture, as videos of him began to surface online; the first, in 2009, features Bergdahl saying, “It is very unnerving to be a prisoner.” More videos emerged, and in 2011, his father Bob, who had until then stayed quiet about the situation, responded with his own: a video on YouTube saying, “I can remain silent no longer.” He thanked the captors for keeping his son alive but asked for Bowe’s release. Around the same time, Bob and his wife Joni spoke to their local newspaper about the situation, saying they believed the U.S. should negotiate a prisoner exchange for their son and that “everybody is frustrated with how slowly the process has evolved.”
In the fall of 2011, the U.S. government initiated talks with the Taliban about exchanging Bergdahl for five senior Taliban officials. The negotiations continued until March of 2012, when the Taliban suspended the talks, citing “unacceptable” conditions from the U.S. An Obama Administration official told TIME that “the Taliban refused to agree to the terms…so they walked away.”
But the prisoner exchange remained in discussion, and in May of 2014 President Obama announced that a deal had been reached. “While Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten. His parents thought about him and prayed for him every single day,” Obama said at the time, appearing alongside Bergdahl’s parents at the White House. “And he wasn’t forgotten by his country, because the United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.”
A 17-minute long video released by the Taliban showed Bergdahl being handed over to U.S. Forces, reportedly featuring a militant saying: “Do not come back to Afghanistan. If you do, next time we will kill you.” He was then flown to a military hospital in Germany, where he began the process of “reintegration” and physical and mental health treatment.
But, while Bergdahl’s return had been initially portrayed as a triumph for American armed forces and diplomacy alike, the narrative quickly soured.
Many Republicans criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the exchange, saying that the release of five prisoners who had been held at Guantánamo Bay could put American troops at risk in the future, and that the President had neglected his duty to give Congress 30 days’ notice before the release of the prisoners. While both the President and Secretary of State John Kerry defended the decision, the controversy only got louder when a video came out of the five Guantánamo prisoners going free, raising many a question about whether the men could remain a threat. A Taliban official told TIME that June that the group would “definitely” be inspired by the exchange to kidnap others. “It’s better to kidnap one person like Bergdahl than kidnapping hundreds of useless people,” he said. “It has encouraged our people. Now everybody will work hard to capture such an important bird.”
And the controversy wasn’t just a matter of the logistics of the exchange. Soldiers from Bergdahl’s platoon claimed that he willfully deserted his post before the abduction. Nathan Bradley Bethea, who served as an infantry officer during that time, said that “instead of going to sleep, he fled the outpost on foot. He deserted. I’ve talked to members of Bergdahl’s platoon—including the last Americans to see him before his capture. I’ve reviewed the relevant documents. That’s what happened.” The years-long attempt to get him back, some said, had already cost American lives.
Shortly after his return to the U.S., however, a pair of letters were released—supposedly written by Bergdahl during his captivity—saying that “there are more sides to the cittuation [sic]” and that conditions with the Army in Afghanistan had been unsustainable prior to his disappearance.
On July 14, 2014, not even two months after his release, Bergdahl was back on duty at a desk job at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. The same week, an Army investigation into Bergdahl’s departure was announced, as were two Hollywood movies about the controversial capture. And his story was on the cover of TIME with a telling cover line: Was He Worth It?
In March of this year, it was announced that the army would try him for desertion and “misbehavior.” But in early December, the head of Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., ordered Bergdahl be court-martialed on charges of desertion and endangering troops by his alleged abandonment, essentially adding an extra layer of trial and opening the possibility that Bergdahl could face a life sentence. What’s next? Perhaps the rest of the story, full of complicated threads ready to be pulled, will have to be told by Koenig.
Read the full TIME cover story about Bowe Bergdahl, here on TIME.com: Was He Worth It?
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