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By chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper
(CNN) – At sunset on June 29, 2009, then-Pvt. 1st Class Bowe Bergdahl joined three other enlisted soldiers on cots next to a truck at Observation Post Mest. They were smoking cigarettes and shooting the breeze. One of them was going to assume guard duty that night and be relieved by Bergdahl in the morning. That was the plan, anyway.
“Hey, do you think I could make it walking to those mountain?” Bergdahl asked, motioning to the horizon, to Pakistan.
I guess, his comrades said.
Bergdahl turned to one of the gunners. Hey, if your M9 went missing would you get in trouble?
Yeah, of course I would, the gunner replied, as night fell on Paktika Province.
No, I mean, what if it was stolen?
I would get in trouble, was the reply.
Bergdahl was an accepted member of 2nd Platoon, Backfoot Troop, 501st Infantry, but he was always a tad eccentric. (Many of the sources for this story asked to not be identified for fear of repercussions from the Army or in the political arena.)
Among some of his platoon mates, he was known for harboring misgivings about the role of the U.S. in Afghanistan. Among others, he seemed to project a more bellicose personality – as if he was being held back from killing bad guys by the restrictive Rules of Engagement.
The three with whom he sat that night, sources tell CNN, were in the latter group.
The world is still waiting to hear from Bergdahl about his motivations for leaving the camp, as the Army concluded he did on his own, as well as his activities afterwards. But there may be no one more baffled, no one to whom Bergdahl is more of an enigma, than the troops with whom he served, who have gone back and reconstructed events and conversations with their former colleague to try to figure out why he did what he did.
Those with him that night may be the most confused. Bergdahl told them that night that he wanted to be an assassin. He would go to Pakistan or India, join a local gang, and work his way up, eventually bumping off the leader. Somehow this story ended with him in the Russian mob.
“He would say off-the-wall things,” one of Bergdahl’s platoon mates recalls. None of them took him seriously. “We say the damnedest things when we’re overseas, we’re just talking, conversing.”
But then the next morning, Bergdahl was gone, and they all wondered if there had actually been some truth to the conversation.
Looking back at his asking what would happen to his fellow soldier’s gun if it vanished, they figured he didn’t want to snatch it and take it with him, and get his fellow soldier in trouble. Bergdahl had been carrying a M249 light machine gun, too big to lug around, the troops hypothesized later, so he wondered if it would get his battle buddy in trouble if he took his M9 pistol instead. It was, they believed, a desire to not hurt a comrade, though obviously if he left the observation post wittingly he disrupted his fellow troops’ lives more than he would have by swiping a Berretta. Ultimately, Bergdahl left behind all weapons and sensitive items, bringing with him only water, a compass, a knife and his journal, sources in the 501st Infantry tell CNN.
Many of his fellow troops were stunned when they read in Rolling Stone e-mails Bergdahl had sent home expressing disgust with the U.S. war effort. To them, he seemed frustrated with the “nation-building” activities in which the Company engaged, the construction of projects, and reaching out to elders.
“He wanted to be in a different realm of fighting,” recalled the soldier. “We were more there to help people. From my perspective he wanted to be more violent.”
How does that make sense with what happened next? We don’t know yet, and it’s unclear that we ever will.