Army Sgt. Bergdahl to face charges in court-martial
Washington — A court-martial is the next step in the military’s case against Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive by the Taliban for five years and freed in a controversial exchange for five detainees in Guantanamo Bay.
Bergdahl, 29, of Hailey, Idaho, walked off his post in eastern Afghanistan’s Paktika province on June 30, 2009. He was released in late May 2014 as part of a prisoner swap that touched off a firestorm of criticism, with some in Congress accusing President Barack Obama of jeopardizing the safety of a nation by exchanging five Taliban detainees at the military prison in Cuba for Bergdahl.
Bergdahl’s attorney, Eugene Fidell, said Monday that a high-ranking officer charged with deciding whether evidence warrants a court-martial did not follow the advice of a preliminary hearing officer.
Lt. Col. Mark Visger had recommended that Bergdahl’s case be referred to a special court-martial, which is a misdemeanor-level forum. That limits the maximum punishment to reduction in rank, a bad-conduct discharge and up to a year in prison.
“I had hoped the case would not go in this direction,” Fidell said.
In announcing the decision Monday, the Army said a date for an arraignment hearing at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, will be announced later.
The U.S. Army Forces Command charged Bergdahl on March 25 with “desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty” and “misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place.” If convicted, Bergdahl could get life in prison on the misbehavior charge and up to five years for desertion. He also could be dishonorably discharged, reduced in rank and made to forfeit all pay.
Bergdahl’s disappearance and the possibility that he might face light punishment had angered many in the military, given that his fellow soldiers took considerable risks in searching for him. The Pentagon has said no one died while searching for Bergdahl.
Separately, Fidell, a military justice expert who is also a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School, asked that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump “cease his prejudicial months-long campaign of defamation against our client.” In October, Trump called Bergdahl a “traitor, a no-good traitor, who should have been executed.”
Fidell also asked the House and Senate Armed Services committees to avoid further statements “that prejudice our client’s right to a fair trial.” The House committee last week issued a 98-page report criticizing the Obama administration’s decision to swap the five former Taliban leaders for Bergdahl.
Fidell pointed to a page of the report that said the committee would remain abreast of the disciplinary process and ensure that “Sgt. Bergdahl’s behavior is adjudicated as required.” Fidell said he read that as a call to “hammer” Bergdahl for his actions.
Bergdahl hasn’t spoken publicly about his decision to walk away from his post, his subsequent five-year imprisonment by the Taliban or the prisoner swap in May 2014 that secured his return to the United States. But during the past several months, he spoke extensively with screenwriter Mark Boal, who shared about 25 hours of the recorded interviews with Sarah Koenig for her popular podcast “Serial.”
Bergdahl says in the interviews that he walked off his base to cause a crisis that would catch the attention of military brass. He wanted to warn them about what he believed were serious problems with leadership in his unit. And he wanted to prove himself as a real-life action hero, like someone out of a movie.
“As a private first-class, nobody is going to listen to me,” Bergdahl says in the first episode of the podcast, released Thursday. “No one is going to take me serious that an investigation needs to be put underway.”
Bergdahl acknowledges his motives weren’t entirely idealistic.
“I was trying to prove to myself, I was trying to prove to the world, to anybody who used to know me … I was capable of being what I appeared to be,” Bergdahl says. “I had this fantastic idea that I was going to prove to the world I was the real thing.”
He also discusses the psychological torment of being held captive for years.
“How do I explain to a person that just standing in an empty dark room hurts?” Bergdahl recounts. “A person asked me: ‘Why does it hurt? Does your body hurt?’ Yes, your body hurts, but it’s more than that. It’s mental, like, almost confused. … I would wake up not even remembering what I was.”