Seen here, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sits in the back of a car after being taken by U.S. troops as part of a prisoner exchange.

Seen here, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sits in the back of a car after being taken by U.S. troops as part of a prisoner exchange. AP Photo/Voice of Jihad

Bergdahl Charged With Desertion

The former Taliban captive could face a life sentence and lose all pay.

The Army has charged Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with desertion after a lengthy investigation into the former Taliban captive’s disappearance in 2009 in eastern Afghanistan.

Bergdahl was charged Wednesday 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,” under the military justice system known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Gen. Mark Milley, the commander of U.S. Army Forces Command, conducted the investigation, the results of which were thought to have been completed many weeks ago yet only now released by the Army.

For the desertion charge, Bergdahl faces a maximum punishment of a reduction of rank to private, forfeiture of all pay and confinement of five years. The other charge, that of “misbehavior before the enemy,” also carries a maximum of life in prison. Bergdahl has not been paid by the Army until sometime after his capture and it’s expected that he is owed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It’s likely that under whatever punishment Bergdahl is given, he will lose that money and be dishonorably discharged. But it’s somewhat less likely that Bergdahl, held by the Taliban for almost five years, would see any jail time. An Article 32 preliminary hearing, the military equivalent of a grand jury inquiry, will determine if the evidence against Bergdahl merits that he face a general court-martial.

“The Army's 2014 investigation into the circumstances of the soldier's 2009 disappearance and capture in Afghanistan is currently being treated as potential evidence in the pending Article 32 preliminary hearing,” said Col. Daniel King in a statement he read at Fort Bragg, N.C., Wednesday afternoon.

The charge answers one question: What would the Pentagon do with the man who walked off a combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009 and was later captured by the Taliban? Bergdahl’s unit looked for him for weeks, but to no avail. Ultimately it became clear that he was held by the Taliban and was later thought to have been brought to Pakistan.

Berghdal’s release in May 2014 was controversial within military and political circles because it was the result of a secret deal approved by the Obama administration in which five detainees from the military’s prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were remanded to Qatar in exchange for Bergdahl. Critics of the deal believed the U.S. gave too much away in return for one soldier who appeared from the start to have wandered off his base. The White House, which seemed to view securing the release of a lost soldier in a war zone as an honorable objective, appeared to be blind to the nuances of Bergdahl’s disappearance. Critics didn’t decry the attempt to find and free Bergdahl, which senior military leaders insisted was the nation’s responsibility, but the cost of doing so.

In the meantime, other soldiers came forward to say that the search for Bergdahl resulted in dangerous search missions in which some soldiers had lost their lives or been wounded. The Pentagon was never able to link the search for Bergdahl with any loss of life.

The deal also caused quiet waves within the Pentagon since even high-level officials were not aware of the planned swap until after it was announced on television one Saturday in May.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., has been one of the most vocal critics of the deal. “At the heart of this whole situation, there’s still the decision to trade five Taliban detainees for a deserter, when there were in fact other options on the table” Hunter said in a statement. “We’re aware of those options and frankly, the White House made a big mistake… The Army’s going to continue its process, which has taken way too long already, but it’s evident the Administration screwed this up and nothing exists to justify the swap."