Bowe Bergdahl Is Dishonorably Discharged, But Avoids Prison For Desertion In Afghanistan

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was dishonorably discharged from the Army by a military judge on Friday, but received no prison time, for desertion and endangering troops, ending a drama that began more than eight years ago in war-torn Afghanistan.

At the sentencing hearing, the military judge, Col. Jeffery R. Nance of the Army, also reduced Sergeant Bergdahl’s rank to private and required him to forfeit $1,000 a month of his pay for 10 months.

The sentencing took only minutes: The judge entered the courtroom, read the verdict, and left shortly after. Colonel Nance did not explain the reasoning for the sentence that he imposed.

The sentence will be reviewed by Gen. Robert B. Abrams, who convened the court-martial, and has the power to lessen the punishment. If the final sentence still includes a punitive discharge, it will then automatically be reviewed by the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals.

Sergeant Bergdahl was 23 and a private first class when he walked off his base in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009. Army investigators would later characterize his departure as a delusional effort to hike to a larger base and cause enough of a stir that he would get an audience with a senior officer to report what he felt were problems in his unit.

 But the soldier, who is now 31, was captured by the Taliban within hours, and would spend five years as a prisoner, his treatment worsening after every attempt he made to escape. He was beaten with copper cables, and held in isolation in a metal cage less than seven feet square. He suffered dysentery for most of his captivity, and cleaned feces off his hands with his own urine so that he could eat enough bread to survive.

The military searched for him, and several troops were wounded during search missions. One of them, Sgt. First Class Mark Allen, was shot through the head and lost the ability to walk, talk or take care of himself, and now has minimal consciousness. His wife, Shannon, testified that he is not even able to hold hands with her any more. On a separate rescue mission, Senior Chief Petty Officer Jimmy Hatch, a Navy SEAL, suffered a leg wound that would require 18 surgical procedures and end his long career in special operations.

Sergeant Bergdahl — he was promoted while in captivity — was freed in 2014 when the Obama administration exchanged five Taliban detainees at Guantánamo Bay for him, setting off a political furor that still reverberates. Congressional Republicans were angered by the release of Taliban prisoners and by the way the Obama administration portrayed the sergeant, including a statement by the national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, that he had served with “honor and distinction.”

Army investigators quickly dismissed claims that troops had died searching for Sergeant Bergdahl, or that he had intended to defect to the Taliban. They suggested that he could be prosecuted for desertion and for some lesser crimes. But in March 2015, the Army raised the stakes, accusing him not only of desertion but also of misbehavior before the enemy, an ancient but rarely charged crime punishable by up to life in prison. In this case, the misbehavior was endangering the troops who were sent to search for him.

Even so, the sergeant’s defense seemed to have some momentum. The Army’s chief investigator on the case testified at Sergeant Bergdahl’s preliminary hearing that he did not believe any jail time was warranted, and the preliminary hearing officer suggested that the whole episode might have been avoided “had concerns about Sergeant Bergdahl’s mental health been properly followed up.” But the four-star general in charge of the case at Fort Bragg ordered that Sergeant Bergdahl face a court-martial on both charges.

Politics dogged the case from the start. The Obama administration’s embrace of Sergeant Bergdahl gave the president’s opponents a new target to attack, according to some military justice experts. After the preliminary hearing officer recommended leniency, Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican whose committee oversees senior military appointments, warned that he would hold a hearing if the sergeant were not punished.

Then, last year, Donald J. Trump made denunciations of Sergeant Bergdahl as a “dirty rotten traitor” a staple of his campaign speeches, and called for the sergeant to be executed.

Once Mr. Trump was inaugurated, Sergeant Bergdahl’s defense team, led by Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, demanded that the case be dismissed. There was no way the sergeant could receive a fair trial, his lawyers said, since everyone in the military justice system now reported to Mr. Trump as commander in chief.

Colonel Nance labeled Mr. Trump’s comments “disturbing” but declined to throw out the case. Then, last month, President Trump seemed to endorse his earlier sentiments about Sergeant Bergdahl,saying, “I think people have heard my comments in the past.”

After another protest by the defense, Colonel Nance ruled that he would consider the president’s comments as evidence in mitigation as he deliberated on a sentence.

People could conclude, the judge explained, that the president had “wanted to make sure that everyone remembered what he really thinks should happen” to Sergeant Bergdahl.

During the sentencing hearing, Sergeant Bergdahl took the stand and apologized for his actions, saying that he never intended for anyone to get hurt, and that he grieved “for those who have suffered and their families.”

He added, “I’m admitting I made a horrible mistake.”

The lead Army prosecutor, Maj. Justin Oshana, drew a comparison between Sergeant Bergdahl and those who were hurt through his actions.

“It wasn’t a mistake,” Major Oshana said of the sergeant’s decision to walk off his base. “It was a crime.”

Responding to defense testimony about how captivity had left Sergeant Bergdahl with pain that he still struggles with, Major Oshana noted that at least the sergeant is able to talk about it. Sergeant Allen is constantly in pain, too, he said, but no longer possesses the ability to describe it.

“Sergeant Bergdahl does not have a monopoly on suffering as a result of his choices,” Major Oshana added, asking the judge to sentence Sergeant Bergdahl to 14 years in a military prison.

The defense argued that Sergeant Bergdahl had already suffered a severe penalty for his crimes by being tortured during five years in captivity.

“It is undisputed that Sergeant Bergdahl paid a bitter price for the decision he made,” one of his lawyers, Capt. Nina Banks, told Colonel Nance. She said that a dishonorable discharge was appropriate, but asked that he be spared prison.

The defense argued that Sergeant Bergdahl’s decision to walk away was influenced by a then-undiagnosed severe personality disorder.

Captain Banks also told the judge that the harsh comments Mr. Trump made on the campaign trail meant that the sergeant’s persecution did not stop when he was freed from captivity.

“Sergeant Bergdahl has been punished enough,” Captain Banks said.


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