Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who vanished in Afghanistan and spent five years in brutal captivity before the United States recovered him in a controversial prisoner swap, pleaded guilty Monday in an Army courtroom to two crimes in connection with his disappearance.
Bergdahl, 31, entered the pleas to charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy at Fort Bragg, N.C., according to The Associated Press. The desertion charge could yield a sentence of up to five years, while the misbehavior before the enemy charge carries a penalty of up to life confinement. The rarely used charge is applied to situations in which a service member runs away, surrenders or endangers the safety of colleagues through disobedience, neglect or intentional misconduct.
The pleas signal the beginning of the end in a case that has been politically charged for years. During his White House campaign, President Trump often accused Bergdahl of being a traitor and suggested that he would have been executed for deserting. In reality, no military deserter has been put to death since World War II.
Bergdahl walked away from his combat outpost just before midnight June 29, 2009, in what an Army investigation determined was an attempt to cause a crisis and draw attention to concerns that Bergdahl had about his leaders. The soldier was captured within hours by armed Taliban fighters on motorcycles, and turned over to the Haqqani network, a group in Pakistan that tortured him on and off for years.
A U.S. Special Forces team recovered Bergdahl in May 2014 as part of a deal in which the Obama administration released five Taliban officials into supervised release in Qatar. The move was bitterly protested by some critics, who considered Bergdahl a traitor for deserting his post and endangering others who were ordered to search for him. Thousands of U.S. troops were involved in the effort in following years, with operations especially stressed in the first several months afterward, the Army investigation concluded.
Obama administration officials defended the prisoner swap, saying the United States does not leave soldiers behind on the battlefield. But critics questioned the wisdom of releasing five Taliban officials for Bergdahl, and the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office determined that the administration broke the law by failing to provide Congress with 30 days notice about its plans to transfer the Taliban officials from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Bergdahl was charged in March 2015. It is not clear what punishment he will receive from the case’s judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance. Sentencing is expected to occur at Fort Bragg in a hearing Oct. 23, and could include testimony from several U.S. service members and veterans who Nance ruled this year were injured while searching for Bergdahl.
Nance also could take into account Bergdahl’s treatment in Pakistan. An Army physician who testified in the case found that Bergdahl, who was at times kept in a cage, suffered muscular nerve damage in his lower legs, degenerative back damage and a loss of range in motion in his left shoulder that prevents him from lifting heavy objects. In addition to confinement, a sentence for Bergdahl could include a dishonorable discharge, a reduction in rank to private and a loss of medical benefits.
Bergdahl’s defense team has protested that it was not able to get a fair trial due to Trump’s repeated attacks. One attorney, Eugene Fidell, accused Trump of treating Bergdahl as “a political chew toy,” but Nance rejected a request to dismiss the case on grounds that Trump had unlawfully altered the course of the case.
Bergdahl, in an interview aired by the “Serial” podcast in December 2015, said that he realized he made a mistake by leaving his base about 20 minutes afterward. He was captured before he could back to his unit, he said.
In a separate interview published by ABC News on Monday, Bergdahl complained bitterly about his prospect of a fair trial due to Trump, and said it was “insulting” that some critics accuse him of sympathizing with the Taliban.
“We may as well go back to kangaroo courts and lynch mobs that got what they wanted,” Bergdahl said. “The people who want to hang me — you’re never going to convince those people.”
Lt. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, a senior Army officer who interviewed Bergdahl, testified in 2015 that he found Bergdahl “unrealistically idealistic” and believed a jail sentence would be inappropriate, given the circumstances of the case. A military doctor determined that Bergdahl, who had previously washed out of the Coast Guard, exhibited symptoms of a mental disorder known as schizotypal personality disorder, which is considered a variant of schizophrenia that has less frequent or intense psychotic episodes.
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who previously served as Trump’s national security adviser, said in the ABC News report published Monday that he also does not think that Bergdahl deserves jail time.
“So the guy deserted his men, his soldiers, his squad — no doubt,” Flynn said. “[But] I don’t think he should serve another day in any sort of confinement or jail or anything like that, because frankly, even though he put himself into this situation to a degree, we — the United States government and the United States military — put him in Afghanistan.”