Bowe Bergdahl

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl admits to desertion, doubted he could get a fair trial

U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl pleaded guilty Monday to two charges stemming from walking away from his post in Afghanistan in 2009.

The 31-year-old soldier from Hailey, who spent nearly five years in captivity before being released in exchange for five Taliban prisoners, entered his plea during a four-hour hearing before a military court at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He had been scheduled to go to trial later this month.

“I understand that leaving was against the law,” said Bergdahl, whose decision to walk off his remote post in Afghanistan in 2009 prompted intense search and recovery missions. Some of his comrades were seriously wounded during those missions, the Associated Press reported.

The prosecution made no agreement to limit Bergdahl’s punishment in return for the soldier’s guilty pleas. The judge, Army Col. Judge Jeffery R. Nance, reminded Bergdahl that he could spend the rest of his life in prison, and asked him one last time if he wanted to plead guilty. “Yes,” Bergdahl replied, and the judge accepted the pleas, the AP reported.

In an interview aired by ABC News on “Good Morning America” hours before the hearing, Bergdahl told a British filmmaker that he doubted he could get a fair trial following comments made by Donald Trump while the latter ran for president.

“We may as well go back to kangaroo courts and lynch mobs that got what they wanted,” Bergdahl said in the interview, shot last year by British war filmmaker Sean Langan. “The people who want to hang me, you’re never going to convince those people.”

Bergdahl denied allegations that he sympathized with his captors or took up arms against his comrades.

“You know, it’s just insulting frankly,” Bergdahl told Langan. “It’s very insulting, the idea that they would think I did that.”

But the court of public opinion made up its mind about Bergdahl long ago. The ideas that Bergdahl betrayed his fellow soldiers or can be blamed for six of their deaths in the months after his capture still circulate online. (There’s no sign that the latter claim is factual, according to reporting by the people behind the “Serial” podcast, Reuters, Newsweek and others.)

During several campaign speeches, Trump called Bergdahl a “dirty rotten traitor” and said he should be executed by firing squad or thrown out of a plane without a parachute.

Former President Barack Obama was criticized by Republicans for the 2014 prisoner swap that brought Bergdahl home, saying it jeopardized national security. Then-National Security Adviser Susan Rice also inflamed critics for saying Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction.”

The city of Hailey initially planned a celebration for its rescued soldier, only to face an intense national backlash.

Now, three years later, Hailey Mayor Fritz Haemmerle said little recent attention had been paid to Bergdahl.

“Not a single person I know has brought that subject up to me. Nobody has mentioned that name to me for probably, until you called me, for a year,” Haemmerle told the Idaho Statesman last week.

“I am not surprised by that at all,” Haemmerle said. “This town, I think, is glad that an American soldier was returned home. I don’t think, quite frankly, in all due respect and all due candor to the Bergdahl family, no one sits on pins and needles worrying about what’s happening to Bowe.”

Bergdahl, who has been assigned to desk duty at a Texas Army base pending the outcome of his case, told Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl that he walked away from his base without authorization. He said he left intending to cause alarm and draw attention to what he saw as problems with his unit, the Associated Press reported. He described the same reasoning in a series of phone interviews with filmmaker Mark Boal, broadcast on “Serial.”

He was soon captured by the Taliban and turned over to the Haqqani Network, the same group that held Canadian Joshua Boyle, his American wife, Caitlan Coleman, and their children for five years. The Pakistani army rescued them last week.

Dahl, whose investigation formed the basis for the Army’s criminal case against Bergdahl, later testified that jailing Bergdahl would be inappropriate. He suggested that Bergdahl never intended to desert and that he had been delusional.

Legal scholars have said several pretrial rulings against the defense gave prosecutors leverage to pursue stiffer punishment against Bergdahl. The misbehavior charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, while desertion is punishable by up to five years.

But one ruling comes as good news for the sergeant: Nance decided that Bergdahl is guilty of just one day of desertion. There was a question as to whether Bergdahl’s entire time in captivity would count as being away without leave.

Nance said he would combine both charges for the purpose of sentencing, which is scheduled for Oct. 23, said John Boyce, a spokesman for the Army Forces Command.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Bergdahl’s defense has conceded that he’s responsible for a long chain of events that his desertion prompted, which included many decisions by others on how to conduct the searches, the AP reported.

“At the time, I had no intention of causing search and recovery operations,” said Bergdahl. “I believed they would notice me missing, but I didn’t believe they would have reason to search for one private.”

Bergdahl was a private first class when he went missing. Soldiers missing in action are due promotions and Bergdahl became a sergeant while in captivity.

Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Walter Huffman said it’s not common for a defendant in a military court to “just throw themselves on the mercy of the court,” but he said he has seen it happen.

Huffman, a former Army judge advocate general and current professor at Texas Tech University School of Law, said that by pleading guilty, Bergdahl might have increased his chance of getting a reduced sentence from Nance.

He said both the prosecution and defense will have strong arguments when Bergdahl is sentenced.

“I would say the primary defense argument on sentencing will be that this guy has already been punished,” Huffman said. “He made a mistake and he admitted to it and pleaded guilty and he’s also been punished. So he doesn’t need or deserve any more punishment. That’s certainly what I would argue, again, if I was the defense.”

Prosecutors will take a different view, he said.

“I suspect the prosecution will argue that was his own fault and that’s not punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” Huffman said. “He still faces that and the fact that during his misconduct found himself in untoward circumstances as a captive is a personal problem. That has no bearing on the sentence he should receive as a soldier who did wrong.”

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @JohnWSowell

Bowe Bergdahl timeline

2008: Robert Bowdrie “Bowe” Bergdahl enlists in the Army.

May 2009: Bergdahl is deployed to Afghanistan.

June 30, 2009: He is captured in Paktika province, Afghanistan, after leaving his base. Years later, he will say he was walking to another base to draw attention to reported issues he perceived with his unit.

July 2, 2009: A US military official says that a soldier is being held by the Haqqani Network, after being captured by the Taliban.

July 19, 2009: A video of Bergdahl is posted on the internet. Four more will be released by February 2011, including one lasting nearly 45 minutes.

June 12, 2010: Bergdahl is promoted to specialist, based on time served.

May 6, 2011: Bergdahl’s father makes his first statement since the disappearance of his son. He releases a YouTube video asking for his son’s release.

June 12, 2011: Bergdahl is promoted to sergeant, based on time served.

May 2012: The US government acknowledges that it has engaged in talks with the Taliban to free Bergdahl.

June 2012: An examination of Bergdahl’s case in Rolling Stone magazine offers some of the first broadly public hints as to why he may have walked away from his base,

June 6, 2013: Bergdahl’s family announces that “through the International Committee of the Red Cross, we recently received a letter we’re confident was written to us by our son.”

Feb. 18, 2014: A U.S. official says discussions are under way with intermediaries overseas to see if there is any ability to gain Bergdahl’s release. The discussions are being led by US diplomats and involve the Defense Department.

May 31, 2014: President Barack Obama announces the release of Bergdahl. In exchange, five detainees at Guantanamo Bay will be released to Qatar. A video of his release is posted.

June 13, 2014: Bergdahl returns to the United States.

June 16, 2014: The U.S. Army announces that a two-star general will investigate the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s decision to leave his post in Afghanistan in 2009.

July 14, 2014: The Army announces that Bergdahl has completed medical care and mental counseling at an Army hospital in San Antonio and will return to active duty with a desk job.

July 16, 2014: Bergdahl retains private defense attorney Eugene Fidell.

March 3, 2015: The U.S. military charges Bergdahl with one count each of desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty, and misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place.

March 25, 2015: Bergdahl’s attorney releases a statement outlining his defense of the soldier and containing a two-page letter from Bergdahl describing the torture he endured.

Sept. 18, 2015: Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, the Army general who led the investigation into Bergdahl’s actions in Afghanistan, testifies at a preliminary hearing that jail time would be “inappropriate” for Bergdahl. Dahl says he “did not find any evidence to corroborate the reporting that Bergdahl was ... sympathetic to the Taliban,” but rather, Bergdahl wanted to call attention to what he considered poor leadership of his unit.

Dec. 10, 2015: Bergdahl has largely declined interviews since his return. Americans hear him tell his story for the first time in the second season of the popular podcast “Serial,” built around excerpts from 25 hours of phone interviews between Bergdahl and film producer Mark Boal.

Dec. 14, 2015: Gen. Robert Abrams, the commander of US Army Forces Command, orders Bergdahl’s case to a general court-martial, breaking with the US military officer overseeing Bergdahl’s preliminary hearing who recommended that Bergdahl be referred to a special court-martial and face no jail time.

Feb. 9, 2016: A judge in the court proceedings involving Bergdahl issues a stay of proceedings, essentially putting the court-martial on hold. The stay is in place until an appeals court can resolve a dispute involving the sharing of classified evidence with Bergdahl’s defense team.

March 17, 2016: According to an Army Sanity Board evaluation, Bergdahl had schizotypal personality disorder “at the time of the alleged criminal conduct” and now also has post-traumatic stress disorder. That information is included in the hundreds of pages of documents that Bergdahl’s defense team releases on a website called the Bergdahl Docket.

April 28, 2016: The US Army Court of Criminal Appeals denies an appeal by the prosecution, granting Bergdahl’s defense team access to hundreds of thousands of pages of classified information. The court also lifts the stay of proceedings issued in early February, thus allowing Bergdahl’s court-martial to proceed.

Aug. 16, 2017: Bergdahl chooses to be tried by a military judge instead of a jury, according to a court filing posted by his defense team.

Oct. 6, 2017: The Associated Press, quoting sources close to the proceedings, reports Bergdahl plans to plead guilty just two weeks before his trial.