Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who vanished in Afghanistan and spent five years in brutal captivity before the United States recovered him in a controversial prisoner swap, pleaded guilty Monday to two crimes in connection with his disappearance.
Bergdahl, now 31, was a private first class when he went missing in 2009. Appearing in an Army courtroom at Fort Bragg, N.C., he entered guilty pleas to charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
The desertion charge could yield up to five years’ confinement. The misbehavior charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Rarely used, it’s applied when service members run away, surrender or otherwise endanger fellow troops’ safety through disobedience, neglect or intentional misconduct.
“I understand that leaving was against the law,” he told the judge, according to the Associated Press, adding later, “I believed they would notice me missing, but I didn’t believe they would have reason to search for one private.”
Bergdahl walked away from his combat outpost just before midnight June 29, 2009, in what an Army investigation determined was an attempt to cause a crisis and draw attention to concerns that Bergdahl had about his leaders. The soldier was captured within hours by armed Taliban fighters on motorcycles and turned over to the Haqqani network, a group in Pakistan that tortured him on and off for years.
A U.S. Special Forces team recovered Bergdahl in May 2014 as part of a deal in which the Obama administration released five Taliban operatives held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The move was bitterly protested by some critics, including Donald Trump, who declared during his bid for the White House that Bergdahl was a traitor. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office concluded that the Obama administration violated the law by failing to provide Congress with sufficient notice about its plans.
Obama administration officials defended the prisoner swap, saying the United States does not leave soldiers behind on the battlefield.
Bergdahl was charged in March 2015. It is not clear what punishment he will receive from the case’s judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance. He is expected to be sentenced at Fort Bragg in an Oct. 23 hearing that could include testimony from several U.S. service members and veterans who Nance ruled this year were injured while searching for Bergdahl.
Thousands of U.S. troops were involved in that effort over Bergdahl’s five years in captivity.
Nance also could take into account Bergdahl’s treatment in Pakistan. An Army physician who testified in the case found that Bergdahl, who was at times kept in a cage, 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. In addition to confinement, Bergdahl could receive a dishonorable discharge and lose his medical benefits.
Bergdahl’s defense team has said he was unable to receive a fair trial due to Trump’s repeated attacks. One attorney, Eugene Fidell, accused Trump of treating Bergdahl as “a political chew toy,” but Nance rejected a request to dismiss the case on grounds that Trump had unlawfully altered the course of the case.
In an interview published by ABC News on Monday, Bergdahl complained bitterly about his prospect of a fair trial due to Trump, and said it was “insulting” that some critics accuse him of sympathizing with the Taliban.
“We may as well go back to kangaroo courts and lynch mobs that got what they wanted,” Bergdahl said. “The people who want to hang me — you’re never going to convince those people.”
Lt. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, a senior Army officer who interviewed Bergdahl, testified in 2015 that he found Bergdahl “unrealistically idealistic” and believed a jail sentence would be inappropriate, given the circumstances of the case. A military doctor determined that Bergdahl, who had previously washed out of the Coast Guard, exhibited symptoms of a mental disorder known as schizotypal personality disorder, which is considered a variant of schizophrenia that has less frequent or intense psychotic episodes.
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who briefly served as Trump’s national security adviser, said in the ABC News report published Monday that he also does not think that Bergdahl deserves jail time.
“So the guy deserted his men, his soldiers, his squad — no doubt,” Flynn said. “[But] I don’t think he should serve another day in any sort of confinement or jail or anything like that, because frankly, even though he put himself into this situation to a degree, we — the United States government and the United States military — put him in Afghanistan.”