State News

Eight years after deserting, Bergdahl's fate in judge's hands

Posted November 2, 2017 3:59 a.m. EDT
Updated November 2, 2017 5:18 p.m. EDT

— A military judge began Thursday deliberating how best to punish Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for walking away from his remote post in Afghanistan eight years ago.

Bergdahl, 31, of Hailey, Idaho, pleaded guilty last month to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. The latter charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, but Army Col. Jeffrey Nance, the judge handling the case, has wide discretion on sentencing and could give him no prison time at all.

Prosecutors called for 14 years in prison, a reduction in rank to private and a punitive discharge, while Bergdahl's defense argued for a dishonorable discharge with no prison time.

Defense attorneys said the five years Bergdahl spent as a Taliban prisoner before he was released in a 2014 prisoner swap was enough punishment for him. They also cited mitigating factors such as his mental state and the public criticism from President Donald Trump he has endured in pleading for leniency.

A forensic psychiatrist testified Wednesday that Bergdahl's difficult childhood and his washout from Coast Guard boot camp stoked serious psychiatric disorders that helped spur him to walk off his post in Afghanistan without any thought to the consequences.

Trump last year called Bergdahl a traitor and said he should be shot or thrown from an airplane without a parachute. Nance agreed with the defense that the comments amounted to unlawful command influence but said that they would have no affect on the sentence he hands down.

In his closing argument Thursday, prosecutor Maj. Justin Oshana sadi Bergdahl made a choice, and he contrasted that choice with the choice scores of soldiers made to search for him, even though they knew he had deserted.

"The effort that was put forth searching for him was similar to the invasion of Kuwait," Oshana said. "The Army put forth the same operational tempo that it uses at the start of war."

During the sentencing hearing, prosecutors have focused on the serious injuries some searchers suffered because of Bergdahl's actions.

Oshana said Bergdahl walked into hostile territory in an effort to prove himself worthy of a Special Forces assignment..

"It wasn't a mistake. It was a crime," he said. "He executed a well-thought-out plan to leave his post."

Bergdahl has previously said he walked off because he wanted to draw attention to what he saw as problems in his unit, and defense attorney Capt. Nina Banks said mental problems prevented him from seeing the long-term impact of his decision.

"He left his post to accomplish bigger purpose and created a series of unfortunate circumstances which he couldn't have foreseen," Banks said.

The defense has maintained that Bergdahl cannot be held responsible for the wounds suffered by searchers, arguing that the search effort was poorly planned and carried out.

Bergdahl "has paid a bitter price" for his actions, Banks said, noting that he was confined to a squalid cage for four of his years in captivity.

She added that he has accepted responsibility for his actions and expressed remorse for the wounds the suffered during the search. Bergdahl read a statement in court earlier this week in which he said sorry wasn't an adequate response to the suffering some troops and their families have endured.

Todd Conormon, a former military attorney, said even a dishonorable discharge will trail Bergdahl for the rest of his life.

"It's going to be looked at by prospective employers. It's going to make [him] ineligible for (Department of Veterans Affairs) benefits," Conormon said.