Official: US military to charge Bergdahl with desertion
WASHINGTON — Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held five years after being captured by the Taliban when he left his remote post in Afghanistan, was charged Wednesday by the Army with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
The misbehavior charge carries a potential life sentence, the Army said in a statement, but legal analysts said it was likely Bergdahl would reach an agreement that would result in a light punishment.
Bergdahl was released from captivity after the United States agreed to release five Taliban militants held at Guantanamo Bay.
He was charged with “misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place,” according to the Army statement.Soldiers who served with Bergdahl criticized the prisoner swap, saying Bergdahl abandoned his post. They said the search for Bergdahl put other troops at risk and diverted resources from other units.
“The Army did the right thing here,” said Cody Full, 26, a former platoon mate of Bergdahl’s.
“You give an oath,” Full said. “You sign your name to serve your country. no matter what you’re supposed to fill that oath.”
Evan Buetow, 28, who was a sergeant and team leader of Bergdahl’s unit, said he was pleased to see the charges brought.
“The whole reason we came forward last year when they released Bowe, we knew he needed to answer for what he did,” he said. “We knew he was not a hero. … He had to answer for why he deserted, and that’s what happened.”
Bergdahl was also charged with “desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty,” which carries a potential five-year sentence, according to the Army statement.
Bergdahl’s attorney, Eugene Fidell, said, “We ask all Americans to withhold judgment until all the facts emerge.”
He also asked government officials to stop leaking information that could harm Bergdahl’s right to a fair trial.
Legal experts said it is unlikely Bergdahl will end up with a lengthy prison sentence because of what he went through.
“I cannot see him getting a monster sentence,” said John Economidy, a former Air Force lawyer. “I could see him getting a dishonorable discharge.”
His case now goes to an Article 32 hearing, which is similar to a grand jury and would recommend whether the case goes to a court martial. A “convening authority” then makes a decision whether to refer to a court martial.
“At any stage, he could offer to plead to a lesser charge,” said Gary Barthel, a former Marine Corps lawyer. Another option is to resign in lieu of a court martial.
The charge sheet offers a glimpse of what the Army alleges Bergdahl did on June 30, 2009, the day he disappeared.
The second, more serious charge alleges that Bergdahl endangered the safety of troops at Observation Post Mest in Paktika Province by walking away and causing the military to launch “search and recovery operations.” That charge carries a potential life sentence.
The desertion charge alleges that Bergdahl was a deserter until about May 31, 2014, the day he was traded for five Taliban prisoners.
Bergdahl remains at Fort Sam Houston in Texas and is not under arrest or any form of confinement, according to the Army.
Unless he reaches a deal that provides him with a general discharge, he could lose veteran benefits.
The military charges someone with desertion when a servicemember leaves and allegedly intends to stay away. AWOL is a less serious offense in which a servicemember leaves temporarily, intending to return.
Contributing: William M. Welch in Los Angeles and Tom Vanden Brook