The attorney for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl said Saturday that an investigating officer has recommended against the most serious kind of court-martial and prison time in the soldier’s desertion case, despite a months-long manhunt in Afghanistan that put other U.S. troops at risk after he walked away from his base.
The investigating officer, Lt. Col. Mark Visger, recommended a special court-martial, rather than a general court-martial, said Eugene Fidell, Bergdahl’s attorney. The process carries with it a maximum penalty of 12 months of confinement, forfeiture of two-thirds of a service member’s pay for a year, reduction in rank to private and a bad-conduct discharge.
Visger called for even lighter penalties than that, though, Fidell said. Visger recommended against both a bad-conduct discharge and confinement, Fidell said, potentially allowing the soldier to receive some military benefits after he leaves the Army.
The recommendation comes after a two-day preliminary hearing in San Antonio, in September, in which Visger heard testimony in Bergdahl’s case. He faces charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, and is accused of walking away from his patrol base late on June 29, 2009.
Fellow soldiers on his small combat outpost discovered Bergdahl was missing the following morning, but it was too late: He was captured by insurgents affiliated with the Taliban, and held captive for nearly five years. The United States recovered him in May 2014 in a controversial deal in which five Taliban detainees were released from the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They remain under supervised release in Qatar.
Gen. Mark Abrams, the commanding general of U.S. Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., could still decide to send Bergdahl to the more serious kind of court-martial, potentially upping his penalties. He faces up to life in prison if that occurs.
An Army spokesman, Paul Boyce, declined to comment on the case on Saturday.
“We will notify the public and interested news media when further information about this ongoing legal action potentially is available,” he said.
Army Spec. Joshua Cornelison, 26, a soldier who was in Bergdahl’s unit in 2009, said Saturday that he and several other soldiers who served with Bergdahl have decided to withhold further comment on the case until the Army announces what it will do. He and several others have said previously that Bergdahl should get the maximum punishment available.
In a court filing released to the media, Fidell praised Visger for his “balanced, judicious and humane approach” to the case.
“The operative word was ‘humane,'” Fidell added Saturday in an interview. “He ran an orderly — and as far as his powers are concerned — fair hearing.”
Fidell has called repeatedly since the hearing for the release of documents in the case, saying the American public deserves to be able to read them. He also recently took the unusual step of releasing the full transcript of the preliminary hearing.
“This case is now about transparency in the military justice system,” Fidell said. “In a way, that’s a larger issue than the disposition of these charges against this soldier.”
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