After a month in Alaska, Bowe and his unit embarked for the National Training Center in Southern California to prepare for war. The NTC is a massive military installation in the Mojave Desert where real life combat situations are simulated under the most difficult conditions, often in extreme heat. It was a brutal experience for the platoon, and Bowe's unit struggled from the beginning. "The first week is incredibly stressful," a second lieutenant in the unit, Stephen Fancey, wrote on his blog. "I get overworked to the point where I start to get sick with a fever."
In his blog posts, which have since been removed from the Web, Fancey detailed a unit that seemed to have almost no discipline. The company's first sergeant, Fancey wrote, "calls the Captain a quitter, then calls me a quitter. Picture a 2nd LT screaming at a 1SG, who is screaming back in broken Puerto-Rican-fied English, and about 5 Privates sitting quietly in terror." As the combat simulations continued, the sergeant's behavior grew even more disturbing. He refused to go to the bathroom, preferring to pee into a Gatorade bottle by his bed, and he obsessed over his desire for a Diet Coke. After one botched operation, according to Fancey's blog, the first sergeant just gave up. "I need a Coca-Cola," he said. Then, upset at how screwed up the operation had become, he tore off his body armor and stormed off to his tent, screaming, "Fuck 'dis 'chit!"
Bowe's behavior, too, seemed odd at times. Fry remembers hearing "all kinds of crazy stories about him." He often came across more like a boy on an adventure than a soldier preparing for war. "My buddy was on an op, pulling guard duty," says Fry, recalling a joke that Bowe played. "Bergdahl was sneaking up on him like he was practicing techniques for the Battle of Wanat, on the other side." The U.S. base at Wanat, a remote village in Afghanistan, had been overrun by the Taliban four months earlier, leaving nine Americans dead and 27 wounded. It was one of the most deadly battles since the start of the war.
Bowe earned the nickname "SF," short for Special Forces – but it wasn't a compliment. "He loved pipe tobacco, didn't drink, smoke cigarettes," says Fry. "He did it more for the look." Fancey, now a captain stationed in North Carolina, recalls Bowe as "quiet. He wasn't one of the troublemakers – he was focused and well-behaved." While other soldiers spent Thanksgiving at the NTC playing PSP and reading Playboy, Bowe sat alone on his cot, studying maps of Afghanistan. He was also made a SAW gunner, responsible for providing automatic firepower for the squad, and he did exercises with his cumbersome 15-pound machine gun as though he were curling weights at the gym. "We saw him, and were like, 'Whoa, Mr. Intensity,'" says Fancey.
By the time the monthlong training session ended, the platoon was so notorious for screwing up that it had become a convenient scapegoat. At the firing range one day, another company failed to bring ammunition, and Bowe's unit took the flak. "We were heckled and blamed for not being prepared," Fancey wrote. "All said and done, NTC was an eye-opener and a bit of a disappointing one, at that."
It was also a disappointment to Bowe. He had entered the Army for the adventure, as a substitute for the French Foreign Legion, and here he was, shackled to a bunch of goof-offs. Bowe told Fry he didn't think the other soldiers in the unit were competent to fight. "He wanted to be a mercenary, wanted to be a free gun," says Fry. "He had a notion he was a survivalist, claimed he knew how to survive with nothing because he grew up in Idaho. He had stories of him doing crazy shit out in the woods for weeks in Idaho."
Over Christmas that year, Bowe went home to Hailey for the last time. He talked to his father and gave him his last will and testament. "He wanted to be buried at sea," his father recalls. "Typical. It's just this figment of his imagination. That's how he was seeing himself. This kid, from when he was 18, was hanging out with the elite. That's where his habits came from. He was living in a novel."
Returning to Alaska after Christmas, Bowe said something that would stick with Fry months later, long after they arrived in Afghanistan. "Before we deployed, when we were on Rear D, him and I were talking about what it would be like," Fry recalls. Bowe looked at his friend and made no bones about his plans. "If this deployment is lame," Bowe said, "I'm just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan."
In March 2009, Bowe's platoon arrived in Paktika, a province in eastern Afghanistan. Located on the border of Pakistan, the region is a stark landscape of imposing mountains and crushing poverty. According to the Army, 99 percent of Paktika is rural, and only six percent of households have access to electricity. The violence brought by the war has been equally extreme, with some 134 soldiers – including famed NFL player Pat Tillman – losing their lives in the province since the beginning of the conflict.
By that spring, when Bowe's unit arrived, the entire U.S. policy in Afghanistan appeared to be in chaos from the top down. President Obama had just fired Gen. David McKiernan, replacing him with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and there was no longer a clear strategy in place.
The prolonged aspect of the war was also forcing the Pentagon to send more and more recruits who were unprepared and undisciplined, like Bowe's unit. To meet its recruiting goals, the Army had lowered its standards for intellectual aptitude, and allowed more waivers for recruits with felony convictions and drug problems. "One of every five recruits required a waiver to join the service, leading military analysts to conclude that the Army has lowered its standards," Col. Jeffrey McClain wrote in a definitive study for the Army War College in 2008, the year many in Bowe's unit joined up.
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