Then-Pvt. 1st Class Bowe Bergdahl saw himself as a Jason Bourne-type action hero rather than a deserter when he sneaked away from his post in Afghanistan -- going off on a solo mission to right wrongs in his unit and save his fellow soldiers.
"Doing what I did is me saying that I am like, I don't know, Jason Bourne -- I had this fantastic idea that I was going to prove to the world that I was the real thing," Bergdahl said in his first public interviews since he was exchanged for five Taliban prisoners in May 2014.
He was referring to hero played by Matt Damon in a series of Hollywood action movies.
"You know, that I could be what it is that all those guys out there that go to the movies and watch those movies, they all want to be that, but I wanted to prove that I was that," the 29-year-old Bergdahl said.
Bergdahl made the claims in 25 hours of recorded phone interviews with screenwriter and producer Mark Boal, whose film credits include "Zero Dark Thirty" and "The Hurt Locker."
Excerpts of the interviews were included in the first episode of the new season of "Serial," the popular weekly podcast spun off from the public radio show "This American Life."
Boal told The New York Times of Bergdahl, "As you can imagine, he's been the subject of a lot of sound-bite coverage. He has a definite point of view about hit-and-run TV reporting, and so this was the opposite of that."
Bergdahl said he walked away from Observation Post Mest in June 2009, leaving behind his gear and weapon, with the idea of making it 20 miles to Forward Operating Base Sharana in southeastern Paktika province, where he would tell superiors of wrongdoing and problems in his unit.
Bergdahl was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska. He carried only vacuum-packed chicken, knives, water and a compass, and immediately was seized by the thought: "I'm going, 'Good grief, I'm in over my head.'
"Suddenly, it really starts to sink in that I really did something bad. Or, not bad, but I really did something serious," he said.
Along the way, he consoled himself by thinking that he would collect intelligence on the Taliban to offset the likelihood that his story would bring down a "hurricane of wrath" from commanders.
"What I was seeing from my first unit all the way up into Afghanistan, all I was seeing was basically leadership failure, to the point that the lives of the guys standing next to me were literally from what I could see in danger of something seriously going wrong and somebody being killed," Bergdahl said in the podcast.
He said he quickly became lost in desert hills, where he was run down by men on motorcycles.
"I don't know what it was, but there I was in the open desert, and I'm not about to outrun a bunch of motorcycles, so I couldn't do anything against, you know, six or seven guys with AK-47s," Bergdahl said. "And they pulled up and just -- that was it."
Bergdahl would spend nearly five years in the custody of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. He was promoted to sergeant during that time. He was released in in exchange of five Taliban detainees at the Guantanamo Bay naval facility in Cuban captivity, who are now under supervision in Qatar.
The exchange brought a firestorm of criticism from congressional Republicans, who said they were not notified as required by law.
Former members of Bergdahl's unit also charged that U.S. troops were killed in search operations for him.
Sondra Andrews has maintained that her son, Army 2nd Lt. Darryn Andrews, was killed while searching for Bergdahl. She told the Army Times after Bergdahl was released, "It gets really hurtful when I think -- this guy was worth my son's life? My son who was patriotic? Who was a true soldier? This guy was worth that? I don't think so."
The former unit members have also described Bergdahl as a shirker, a misfit and a traitor who put lives at risk.
Bergdahl's lead lawyer, Eugene Fidell, has said there is no proof anyone was killed searching for him. In a statement Thursday, Fidell said that the podcast would help put Bergdahl's case in context.
"We have asked from the beginning that everyone withhold judgment on Sgt. Bergdahl's case until they know the facts. The Serial podcast, like the preliminary hearing conducted in September, is a step in the right direction," Fidell said.
"Americans of good will be afforded an opportunity, especially at this time of year, to judge the matter calmly and in its proper light. The contrast between the podcast and the strident, politically-inspired calls for drumhead justice (at best) could not be sharper," Fidell said.
As commander of Army Forces Command, Gen. Mark Milley, now the Army's chief of staff, earlier this year ordered an Article 32 hearing under the Uniform Code of Military Justice to determine whether Bergdahl should face court-martial under the initial charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy -- which carry a maximum term of life imprisonment.
In October, Army Lt. Col. Mark Visger, the hearing officer in the Article 32 proceeding, "recommended that the charges be referred to a special court-martial and that a punitive discharge and confinement would be inappropriate given all the circumstances," according to Bergdahl's defense team.
Bergdahl's fate is now in the hands of Gen. Robert B. Abrams, the current FORSCOM commander, who has succeeded Milley as the convening authority in the case.
Abrams has wide discretion. He can order a general court-martial on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. He can also order a special court-martial, recommend non-judicial punishment, or choose to take no action at all. Abrams has given no indication on when he might make a decision.
Army Lt. Gen. Kenneth S. Dahl, who conducted a lengthy preliminary Article 15-6 investigation of the Bergdahl case, testified at the Article 32 hearing that he did not believe Bergdahl deserved jail time.
"I do not believe that there is a jail sentence at the end of this process," Dahl said. "I think it would be inappropriate."
Dahl, who interviewed Bergdahl at length in his investigation, described him as "young, naive, and inexperienced," and also "unrealistically idealistic," adding that "I believe he is remorseful."
Army officials have declined to say how much money Bergdahl might be eligible for, should he be cleared, for his years in captivity but they did not dispute that it would amount to "several hundred thousand dollars."
Military.com has estimated that Bergdahl's back pay, when all factors are considered, could amount to more than $300,000.
The podcast came out at the same time that the House Armed Services Committee released a year-long investigation of the Bergdahl case, concluding that the Obama administration broke the law on notifying Congress of the prisoner exchange.
"Our report finds that the administration clearly broke the law in not notifying Congress of the transfer," said Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas and the chairman of the panel.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com