Bergdahl will face desertion charge in general court-martial

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Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl (U.S. Army)
From Stripes.com
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl (U.S. Army)

Bergdahl will face desertion charge in general court-martial

by: Corey Dickstein and Nancy Montgomery | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: December 15, 2015

This story has been updated.

WASHINGTON — Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will face a general court-martial for the desertion and misbehavior charges levied against him after he was freed from Taliban imprisonment last year, the Army announced Monday.

The decision issued by Army Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., comes three months after testimony at a preliminary hearing in San Antonio, Texas, painted Bergdahl as a deluded "idealist" with mental health problems who had suffered torture and lifelong injuries while in captivity. Abrams’ ruling goes against recommendations made by the officer who oversaw that hearing.

In his report to Abrams, Lt. Col. Mark Visger recommended Bergdahl’s case be referred to a lower-level special court-martial, where the maximum possible sentence would be one year in jail and a bad-conduct discharge. Visger endorsed sparing the former prisoner of war from incarceration or a punitive discharge.

Instead, Bergdahl, 29, will face up to life in prison if he’s convicted of the more serious “misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place” charge. The second offense, “desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty,” carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

"We had hoped that the case would not go in this direction," said Eugene Fidell, Bergdahl's lawyer.

No date was immediately announced for the court-martial, to be held at Ft. Bragg. But Fidell said the Army was seeking to quickly proceed with the case.

Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban in 2009 in eastern Afghanistan and held for five years. He was returned to the United States in May 2014 after the White House approved the release of five senior-level Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to Qatar in exchange for Bergdahl’s release.

During the two-day hearing in San Antonio, witness testimony indicated Bergdahl had walked off his tiny patrol base in eastern Afghanistan’s Paktika Province the night of June 30, 2009.

Then Pfc. Bergdahl, who'd washed out of the Coast Guard for depression before being granted a waiver to join the Army in 2008, had hatched a quixotic plan to alert the highest levels of command to what he considered serious leadership issues in his unit that were endangering troops, witnesses testified. The soldier planned to disappear from his outpost to create a crisis, run to a forward-operating base 19 miles away, and demand that a general officer hear his concerns.

Bergdahl, who has not spoken publicly since he returned to the United States, told a Hollywood screenwriter in an interview aired last week on the popular podcast “Serial” that he believed it was the only way anyone would listen to him.

“All I was seeing was leadership failure to the point that the guys standing next to me were in danger,” Bergdahl said in the first episode of the podcast series’ second season that is featuring his case. But “as a Pfc., no one is going to listen to me. No one is going to take me serious that an investigation needs to be put underway."”

He said he figured he’d be sent to prison, but that would be better than seeing fellow soldiers killed.

“I was fairly confident when someone took a look at the situation... people would realize I was right,” Bergdahl said.

Instead, he was captured within hours and held for the next five years in Pakistan by the Haqqani network, a group linked with the Taliban. He was tortured regularly, starved and beaten, and he tried to escape repeatedly, an official with the Pentagon’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency who interviewed Bergdahl following his release from captivity said during testimony in September.

Critics, including Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, have routinely vilified Bergdahl as a “traitor” since his release. Some soldiers allegedly were killed during the search for their missing comrade and some people have asserted Bergdahl collaborated with the Taliban.

None of those allegations have been corroborated in Bergdahl-related testimony.  

The general officer who led the “15-6” command investigation that led to Bergdahl’s charges, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, testified he found no evidence that any troops were killed searching for him.

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

montgomery.nancy@stripes.com