A fragile spirit

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Before he became a Taliban prisoner, before he wrote in his journal "I am the lone wolf of deadly nothingness," before he ever joined the Army, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was discharged from the U.S. Coast Guard for psychological reasons, said close friends who were worried about his emotional health at the time.

The 2006 discharge and a trove of Sgt. Bergdahl's writing -- the handwritten journal along with other essays, stories and emails provided to The Washington Post -- paint a portrait of a deeply complicated and fragile young man who was, by his own account, struggling to maintain his mental stability from the start of basic training until the moment in 2009 when he walked off his eastern Afghanistan post.

"I'm worried," he wrote in one journal entry before he deployed. "The closer I get to ship day, the calmer the voices are. I'm reverting. I'm getting colder. My feelings are being flushed with the frozen logic and the training, all the unfeeling cold judgment of the darkness."

"I will not lose this mind, this world I have deep inside," he wrote a few pages later. "I will not lose this passion of beauty."

"Trying to keep my self togeather," he wrote at another point, using his often-unorthodox spelling. "I'm so tired of the blackness, but what will happen to me without it. Bloody hell why do I keep thinking of this over and over."

On June 9, two weeks before he walked away, Sgt. Bergdahl sent an e-mail to a friend. "l1nes n0 g00d h3rE. tell u when 1 ha e a sicoure 1ine about pl/-¼ns," read the partially coded message, one of Sgt. Bergdahl's many references to unspecified plans and dreams of walking away -- to China, into the mountains, or, as he says at one point, into "the artist's painted world, hiding from the fields of blood and screams, hidden from the monster within himself."

Several days after he vanished, a box containing his blue spiral-bound journal, Apple laptop, a copy of the novel "Atlas Shrugged," military records and other items arrived at the home of his close friend Kim Harrison, whom Sgt. Bergdahl designated in his Army paperwork as the one who should get his remains.

Ms. Harrison said she decided to share the journal and computer files with The Post because she has become concerned about the portrayal of Sgt. Bergdahl as a calculating deserter, which she contends is at odds with her understanding of him as a sensitive, vulnerable young man.

Sgt. Bergdahl's parents declined a request for an interview about their son's writings and mental health. A military spokesman said questions could not be put to Sgt. Bergdahl "at this point in his reintegration process."

Ms. Harrison and others close to Sgt. Bergdahl said his writing and events surrounding the Coast Guard discharge raise questions about his mental fitness for military service and how he was accepted into the Army in 2008. Typically, a discharge for psychological reasons would disqualify a potential recruit.

According to Coast Guard records, Sgt. Bergdahl left the service with an "uncharacterized discharge" after 26 days of basic training in early 2006. The term applies to people discharged before completing 180 days of service. No reason is specified in such discharges, and a Coast Guard representative said no further information was available.

A senior Army official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the Army was aware of a prior "administrative discharge" when Sgt. Bergdahl enlisted. A separate Army official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sgt. Bergdahl would have required a waiver to enlist under such circumstances. The official could not immediately confirm that Sgt. Bergdahl received one.

With two wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008, the Army was meeting recruitment goals by issuing waivers that let people with criminal records, health conditions and other problems enlist. According to a 2008 Army War College study on the subject, the Army was issuing waivers at a rate of one for every five recruits at the time.

Whatever the exact circumstances of Sgt. Bergdahl's enlistment, the Coast Guard discharge came as no surprise to Ms. Harrison and other friends of Sgt. Bergdahl's who grew up with him in Ketchum, Idaho, who said he was a poor fit for military service.

"He is the perfect example of a person who should not have gone" to war, said Ms. Harrison, who spoke on condition that she be identified by her former married name, because she is concerned about threats. "The only person worse would be someone with a low IQ. In my mind, they didn't care."

Ms. Harrison only recently brought herself to watch the video of Sgt. Bergdahl's release, in which he walks stiffly from a battered Taliban truck to an American helicopter. In earlier Taliban propaganda videos, she said, she always recognized some part of the Bowe she remembered from Ketchum, some aspect of the good posture he kept or a familiar expression. As she studied his tense muscles and movements in the release video, she said, "I didn't see any of Bowe left."

The writing in Sgt. Bergdahl's journal, emails and laptop spans the year before he walked off his post in eastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. Ms. Harrison has had custody of the material since a few days after that, except for a brief period when she provided them to U.S. government investigators for review. At present, none of the journal or computer file writing references the Taliban or Afghanistan war politics, although there are references to modern war generally.

"Really, how pathetic i feel as i listen to people talk of the hell I will be heading to . . . ," he wrote in a computer file titled "my army memories." "Compared to hell of the real wars of the past, we are nothing but camping boy scots. Hiding from children behind our heavy armored trucks and our c-wire and sand bagged operating post, we tell our selves that we are not cowards . . ."

Mostly, the writing describes Sgt. Bergdahl's own internal thoughts and struggles, from the first entry in his journal dated June 11, 2008, the month he headed to Army basic training in Georgia, to the last email dated June 27, 2009, three days before his disappearance.

"These are just thoughts in the start of this journey," the first journal entry began in the careful, slanted handwriting Ms. Harrison said Sgt. Bergdahl practiced as a teenager to overcome what she thought was dyslexia. "These thoughts insist on trying to overwhelm my mind. . . . I've spent a lot of my life thinking blackness was all I had in front of me, that it would be blackness to the very last instent. I know this is not right. I know that there is light in this darkness, and that I can actuly reach it if I keep walking, keep moving to it."

While Sgt. Bergdahl's Ketchum friends were worried about his decision to join the Army, they also described it as "typical Bowe." After growing up a home-schooled kid in the rural fringe of Hailey, Idaho, Sgt. Bergdahl was drawn to an artistic, free-thinking crowd in the nearby ski town of Ketchum, where he met Ms. Harrison when he started taking ballet and fencing lessons at an arts center she ran.

He started living away from home, bouncing from couch to couch, and became close friends with her son Shane and daughter Kayla. He befriended two other young men who spoke to a reporter last week on condition that they not be named, because they are also concerned about threats. They described Sgt. Bergdahl as an introspective young man who sometimes painted his fingernails black and identified with Japanese samurai warriors and medieval knights. He was often seen reading and writing in a notebook. He liked to portray himself as a dark, adventurous soul with a chivalrous spirit, a dramatic persona his friends often teased him about.

"There were two sides, one was this guy who was super sweet," one friend said. "At the same time, there was this heady introspection."

When he turned 18, Sgt. Bergdahl began taking off on short-lived adventures. He told friends that he was joining a sailing crew in Florida, going to France to join the French Foreign Legion or setting out to bike around South America, only to reappear in Ketchum after a month or so.

Then one day in 2006, Sgt. Bergdahl announced that he was joining the Coast Guard, a decision his friends thought was unwise, given his personality. Ms. Harrison said she tried to talk him out of it, but finally relented and drove him to a military office in Idaho Falls to take the exam.

Soon after he left Ketchum for basic training, Sgt. Bergdahl sent her a dozen or so notebook pages filled with tiny writing, diatribes against the rigors of military life. She was alarmed, she said.

When he returned after a few weeks, he said he had gotten out on a psychological discharge. "He told me he faked it," she recalled.

"I said, 'You don't fake a psychological discharge; you have to become unfit.' I told him that. The reality was it wasn't okay. I saw it in the letters, the way the writing was changing, the anger."

Two years later, in early 2008, Sgt. Bergdahl revealed to Ms. Harrison that he had enlisted in the Army. "I was like, 'Why and how did you even get in?'" she said. " 'How did they let you?' I was furious."

Sgt. Bergdahl landed in Georgia for basic training in June 2008, and began filling up the blue journal. "A wolf, mutt, hound, dog, I've been called these from my childhood," he wrote in the first few pages. "But what good am I, my existence is that of exile. To live on the fringes of this world as a guard . . ."

"Bullet sponges," he wrote at one point. "This is what some of the SEALs call regular Army and other mass ground troops. It's right, the job of a soldier is to basically die." At another point: "Lightning, there is nothing as truly beautiful as lightning . . ." And then: "Puddle of mud, skitsafrentic phyco."

Sgt. Bergdahl wrote many character sketches and stories about knights who were philosophers and about a girl who "loves the beauty that she sees in this world." A few pages later, he wrote: "I'm worried . . . Remember. REMEMBER. Imagination. Realness. To dream. The Universes. REMEMBER. Cold. Swift. Clear. Calm. Logic. Nothingness. Die here. Become empty here."

As he prepared to deploy to Afghanistan, Sgt. Bergdahl began making long lists including one labeled "Movies 4 My Insanity," ranging from the Cary Grant film "Houseboat" to "Mary Poppins," "The English Patient" and "The Silence of the Lambs."

He wrote about his fantasies and goals. "One day, if I make it out of this, I will go around the world. I will not use airplanes, but only trains, boats, vehicles, and . . . (if I still have them) my feet. I will learn Russian. I will learn Japanese. I will learn French. I will learn Chines."

On the final handwritten journal page, he listed story ideas, the last of which was "a story about one going-crazy-to wander the earth alone." On a scrap of paper tucked into the journal, he wrote, "Walk us to the end of this. Walk on. And walk us out of here. . . "

By March 2009, he had arrived in Paktika, Afghanistan, where his post was a football-field-size swath of sand partially surrounded with barbed wire. As fellow soldiers have described him, Sgt. Bergdahl was either a brooding, aloof figure, or "a good soldier" who did what he was asked.

In a file titled "threw the brain," he wrote of his new experience, "i'm at an odd place here. Like i'm pulling away from the human world, but getting closer to people. Almost as if its not the people I hate, but society's ideas and reality that hold them . . . I want to change so much and all the time, but then my mind just locks down, as if there was some one else in my mind shutting the door in my face. . . . I want to pull my mind out and drop kick it into a deep gorge."

In a file a few days later, repetitions of the phrase "velcro or zipper/velcro or zipper/velcro or zipper" cover nearly two pages.

Sgt. Bergdahl's platoon mostly avoided firefights. In May, when the fighting season was underway in Afghanistan, there was one serious battle with the Taliban, and a bungled mission that left him and fellow soldiers stranded in the mountains for four days. Sgt. Bergdahl started writing an account of it on his laptop, describing a mission intended to help recover an armored vehicle that went wrong when his own convoy was hit by an IED.

"The mission was extended, but little detail . . . for command acts like their guarding some kind of secrets when ever oders are passed out. . . . Hitting the mountain road, which is no more then a cart trail winding its way up a redicoulisly steep mountain face, seat belts are strapped, helmets are tightened, and your subconsciously bracing yourself with your hands and feet. ..." He didn't finish.

On June 7, three weeks before he walked off post, Sgt. Bergdahl emailed Ms. Harrison's daughter Kayla: "if at any point in time, kim gets a call from red cross, or the mill, no matter when, in a week, month, or years . . . Keep her from panic and bad ideas. You know what I do, and ash I am still perfecting, actions may become . . . odd. No red flags. Im good. But plans have begun to form, no time line yet. . . love you! Bowe."

Alarmed, Kayla wrote back: "Exactly what kind of plans are you thinking of?"

"l1nes n0t g00 h3rE tell u when 1 have a sicoure 1ine about pl/-¼ns," Sgt. Bergdahl answered the next day. "There is still time yet for thinking." Kayla warned, "Just don't do anything stupid or pointless." He replied, "You know I plan better then that."

In a June 8 file entitled "If i've died--READ," about his life as a soldier and life as a "storyteller," he wrote: "Tomorrow i may be dead. The thoughts that have come to rest in my conscious and subconscious being. . . . These thoughts have placed themselves in my head. In my protection. . . I will try to use what little time this life gives me, to bring their beauty into the world . . . . This is the story teller's life."

On June 14, Sgt. Bergdahl emailed Kayla again saying he was "looking at a map of afghan" and asking if he could wire money to her or Kim "to protect my money in the bank just in case things go bad."

On June 21, he emailed her again: "how far will a human go to find their complete freedom. ... For one's freedom, do they have the right to destroy the world to gain it?"

On June 27, he sent an email to his friends titled "Who is John Galt?," a reference to the hero of Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged," about individualism in a dystopian America. "I will serve no bandit, nor lair, for i know John Galt, and understand . . ." he wrote. "This life is too short to serve those who compromise value, and its ethics. i am done compromising."

Three days later, Sgt. Bergdahl walked off his post. Several days after that, the box arrived at Ms. Harrison's home. It had Sgt. Bergdahl's handwriting on the label. Among things inside was his computer and a Ziploc bag with his blue journal.

"I was freaked out," Ms. Harrison recalled. "To me, it meant he did something stupid, or something crazy."

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