Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will face a general court-martial in connection with his 2009 disappearance from his base in Afghanistan, service officials said Monday, raising the possibility that the soldier could face life in prison after being held captive by the Taliban for five years.
The Army has chosen a type of trial that could yield a more severe sentence than what an officer recommended earlier this year. Bergdahl, 29, has been charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, and the court-martial could touch off even more scrutiny of what has become a bizarre and controversial case.
The Obama adminstration arranged a prisoner swap last year to release Bergdahl from captivity, approving an exchange of five Taliban officials being held at Guantanamo Bay in return. That decision triggered an intense political backlash from soldiers who viewed Bergdahl as a traitor for leaving his post, saying he endangered U.S. troops who went looking for him.
General court-martial is the highest level of trial in the military justice system. If convicted, Bergdahl could face life in prison. Desertion can carry a death penalty, but Army officials have said that will not occur in Bergdahl’s case.
Bergdahl’s attorney, Eugene Fidell, said in a statement Monday that the decision by Gen. Robert Abrams to pursue court-martial “did not follow the advice of the preliminary hearing officer.” Bergdahl’s defense team “had hoped the case would not go in this direction,” Fidell said.
His attorney has also argued that a panel of psychiatrists found that Bergdahl was suffering from a mental defect when he walked away from his base.
Monday’s judgment is more severe than what an Army officer, Lt. Col. Mark Visger, recommended after overseeing a two-day hearing for Bergdahl’s case in September, according to Bergdahl’s lawyer. Visger recommended that Bergdahl face a lower form of judicial proceeding known as a special court-martial, which would have come with a maximum penalty of 12 months of confinement. He also said Bergdahl should not face any confinement at all.
Bergdahl’s story has become one of the most unusual and polarizing moments to emerge from the battlefield during the Obama administration.
Just before midnight on June 29, 2009, Bergdahl left a tiny combat outpost in an area in which the Taliban were known to operate. He wanted to cause a large enough crisis to get the attention of a general officer and relay concerns he had about his leaders, according to a senior officer who investigated his case, Lt. Gen. Kenneth Dahl.
Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban within hours and moved within days over the border into Pakistan. His disappearance prompted a months-long manhunt that endangered the lives of U.S. troops, Army officials allege. Some of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers say that at least six U.S. troops died because of his actions. It has been difficult to determine, though, which of those fatal expeditions were aimed at finding Bergdahl and which would have been undertaken anyway.
For the next five years, Bergdahl was held by the Haqqani network, a group affiliated with the Taliban. He was moved several times, tortured and kept primarily in the dark and isolated from other people.
What led Bergdahl to leave his post has been somewhat mysterious since his release. He initially said he was worried his leaders weren’t pursuing the Taliban aggressively enough and exhibited poor leadership, and he wanted to reach a general at a larger base to share his concerns. But Bergdahl has since explained more of his thinking in a popular podcast called “Serial,” which is devoting its latest season to telling his story.
In the first episode, which was released Thursday, Bergdahl said that within 20 minutes of leaving his base, Observation Post Mest-Malak, with plans to go to the larger Forward Operating Base Sharana, he had second thoughts and realized he would face a “hurricane of wrath” from commanding officers. But rather than turning back or continuing on, he decided to try to find intelligence that he hoped would make the Army go easier on him, but got lost in some hills and captured by Taliban on motorcycles, he said.
“Doing what I did is me saying that I am like, I don’t know, Jason Bourne. . . . I had this fantastic idea that I was going to prove to the world that I was the real thing,” Bergdahl said. “You know, that I could be what it is that all those guys out there that go to the movies and watch those movies, they all want to be that, but I wanted to prove that I was that.”
A spokesman for Abrams, John Boyce, said the decision to go forward with a general court-martial had nothing to do with Bergdahl’s participation in the “Serial” podcast.
But soldiers in Bergdahl’s battalion said the soldier’s participation in the podcast only added to the case against him.
A former enlisted specialist in Bergdahl’s infantry company, Jon Thurman, said Monday that he wasn’t surprised the Army was going forward with a general court-martial. Thurman, who also was interviewed for “Serial,” speculated that Bergdahl’s comments in the podcast could hurt his case.
“When that first episode aired, I mean, he sort of hung himself by saying that he walked off and was kinda thinking about doing his own Jason Bourne thing,” Thurman said. “The guilty verdict might come from just that.”
Thurman said he wants to see Bergdahl punished. “I want to see him serve time for what he did,” he said.
Another soldier in Bergdahl’s battalion, former Capt. Nathan B. Bethea, said he was dumbfounded when he heard Bergdahl say on “Serial” that he deliberately walked away, even though Bergdahl’s legal team had acknowledged it previously.
“Hearing it in his own voice . . . it’s hard for me to get away from saying, ‘Hey, this is desertion and misbehavior before the enemy,’ ” Bethea said. “After I heard it, there’s no way to get away from it.”
Dahl, the investigating officer of the case, said during the preliminary hearing in September that Bergdahl had outsize perceptions of his own ability as a soldier and judged others unrealistically harshly. Other soldiers in Bergdahl’s unit did not see the same problems with leadership that he did, Dahl said.
Bergdahl will require a lifetime of medical care as a result of the injuries he sustained while in captivity, according to Curtis Aberle, a family nurse practitioner and case manager for Bergdahl at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Aberle has said the soldier 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. The nurse practitioner has also said Bergdahl suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.
A spokesman for Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R.-Calif.), whose office has closely tracked the case, questioned whether Bergdahl participating in the podcast may have forced the Army to seek the most serious form of trial.
“He came across nuttier than anyone could have foreseen, and there was already consensus he wasn’t all together to begin with,” said the spokesman, Joe Kasper. “There has to be little sympathy left, where there was some to take.”
Fidell, Bergdahl’s attorney, expressed frustration that the case continues to be politicized. Republicans in the House Armed Services Committee accused the White House in a report released last week of having an ulterior motive in exchanging Bergdahl for Taliban officials: closing down the Guantanamo Bay prison.
The report said the congressional committee will “remain abreast of the disciplinary process which is underway” and “ensure that standard procedures are properly implemented and administered.”
The case should be handled by the courts, not politicians, Fidell said.
“That’s not their role at all,” Fidell said of the committee. “This is a dog whistle.”
An arraignment hearing for Bergdahl will be held at a later date at Fort Bragg, N.C., Army officials said. Bergdahl is currently assigned to Joint Base San Antonio, Tex., with a desk job.