The case has been politically charged ever since the Obama administration decided to recover Bergdahl in a May 2014 trade in which the U.S. government released five Taliban officials from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, into supervised release in Qatar. Pentagon officials said that doing so was necessary to protect the life of a U.S. citizen, but the decision triggered intense backlash from soldiers and veterans who considered him a traitor for deserting his post and endangering others who were ordered to search for him.
President Trump regularly campaigned on the case while running for president, repeatedly calling Bergdahl a “dirty rotten traitor” and suggesting that if he had walked away from his base 50 years ago, he would have been shot. In reality, no deserter has been executed by the military since World War II.
Bergdahl’s defense team has protested that he could not get a fair trial in light of Trump’s repeated criticism, but the Army declined to drop the charges.
The plea is expected at a pretrial hearing at Fort Bragg, N.C., where proceedings in Bergdahl’s case have slowly unfolded since he was arraigned there in December 2015. The decision was first reported as likely by the Associated Press last week, and the Army disclosed Thursday that a plea is expected as it began registering media to cover the hearing.
Bergdahl’s civilian attorney, Eugene Fidell, declined to comment Thursday in a brief phone conversation. If the plea is entered as expected, sentencing probably will occur Oct. 23, when Bergdahl’s court-martial trial was scheduled to begin.
With a guilty plea likely, scrutiny will center next on the sentence Bergdahl receives. Fidell has said that an Army officer who oversaw an early hearing for Bergdahl’s case in September 2015 recommended a special court-martial, which would have come with a maximum penalty of 12 months of confinement. The Army decided instead to proceed with a general court-martial, which comes with the possibility of a lifetime sentence on the charge of misbehavior before the enemy.
A military doctor determined that Bergdahl exhibited at the time of his disappearance symptoms of a mental condition known as schizotypal personality disorder. It is considered a variant of schizophrenia, but psychotic episodes, delusions or hallucinations are not as frequent, prolonged or intense as schizophrenia, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Bergdahl is expected to need a lifetime of care for injuries he suffered while in captivity, according to a nurse practitioner who examined him and testified at one of his pretrial hearings. The conditions include muscular nerve damage in his lower legs, degenerative back damage and a loss of range of motion in his left shoulder that prevents him from lifting heavy objects.
Among the penalties Bergdahl could face if he receives a dishonorable discharge is a loss of his medical benefits.