U.S. Army

Bergdahl Was Discharged from the Coast Guard for Psychological Reasons Before He Joined the Army

When Bergdahl enlisted in 2008, the Army was in the middle of the process of lowering its recruitment standards.

Bowe Bergdahl's armed forces troubles started in 2006, when he was discharged from the Coast Guard for "psychological reasons," leading to the question: How did he end up in the Army? One explanation is that not many people wanted to fight in the Iraq War. When Bergdahl enlisted in 2008, the Army was busy lowering its recruitment standards. 

Friends of Bergdahl's said he was discharged after a few months in the Coast Guard, and as seen in letters and journals provided to The Washington Post, those troubles followed him to the Army. Bergdahl wrote dark entries about Army life and his mental wellbeing. Three days before walking off his post, he wrote in a letter, "this life is too short to serve those who compromise value, and its ethics. i am done compromising." The combination of psychological warning signs and evidence supporting allegations that Bergdahl deserted the Army means things just got even more complicated. 

Bergdahl told his friends that he "faked" his psychological discharge to get out of the Coast Guard, and they couldn't believe that the Army let him in. “I was like, ‘Why and how did you even get in?’” Kim Harrison, a close friend of Bergdahl's, said to the Post. “‘How did they let you?’ I was furious.” 

When Bergdahl enlisted in 2008, the Army was in the middle of the process of lowering its recruitment standards. In 2004, the Army celebrated four years of "Mission Accomplished" for meeting its recruitment goals for both active and reserve soldiers. In 2005, the Army fell short 6,000 active soldiers and nearly 3,000 reserve members. The next year, The Washington Post reported that the Army recruited 2,600 soldiers who fell below certain aptitude levels to reach their enrollment goal. In 2008, standards were lowered again. As Slate pointed out in early 2008, the number of recruits with high school diplomas had fallen from 94 percent in 2003 to 70.7 percent in 2007. The Army also began issuing waivers for obesity and felonies

It's possibly the Army would have overlooked Bergdahl's warning signs. Harrison said she provided the letters and journals, which have also been seen by government officials, to the Post because she was concerned Bergdahl made a conscious decision to go AWOL. Specifically, in several correspondences with Harrison and her daughter, he alluded to plans. In one, he wrote that his "actions may become . . . odd. No red flags. Im good. But plans have begun to form, no time line yet." In June 2009, weeks before he left the base, he wrote that he was “looking at a map of afghan," and wanted to wire his money to her in case things went bad. 

As with every Bergdahl update, the ramifications of the Post report go beyond one man. Conservatives who have argued that his alleged desertion absolved the United States of rescuing him will point to this as definitive proof. Meanwhile, a bigger, better question might be how did Bergdahl get into the military if the Coast Guard found him unfit for psychological reasons? 

It's not that the military's standards dropped that low — it never prioritized screening enrollees for mental health issues. Following the second shooting at the Fort Hood military base in April, military mental health screenings briefly became a big issue. Specifically, the fact that there is no mental health evaluation seemed like a mistake. Politifact noted at the time that the military does look at a soldier's health records for an indication of mental health problems. In the midst of trying to recruit soldiers for an unpopular war, the Army didn't know or didn't care that Bergdahl was troubled.