Bergdahl Charged With Desertion and Misbehavior by U.S. Army

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U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured and held by the Taliban and its allies in Afghanistan for five years, has been charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, the Army said Wednesday.

The case has been referred for a preliminary hearing that’s equivalent to a grand jury in the military’s court-martial system, according to an Army statement.

While Bergdahl’s years in captivity may mitigate any potential punishment, he could face a maximum penalty of life in a military prison if convicted on the charge of “misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place.” The charge of “desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty” can bring a maximum of five years’ confinement.

Both charges also could result in forfeiture of pay and a dishonorable discharge. The Army didn’t disclose details of its case against Bergdahl, and said it won’t answer questions while the case is pending.

Bergdahl was released in May in a swap that freed five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after the U.S. said it received warnings that his life was in danger. Since then, the Army has been investigating the circumstances under which he left his unit at a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan.

Taliban Trade

Military leaders have said the deal to free Bergdahl reflected a U.S. credo that no prisoners should be left behind, but some war veterans and lawmakers criticized President Barack Obama’s decision to trade Taliban prisoners for a soldier who abandoned his unit.

Commenting on the charges against Bergdahl on Wednesday, Representative Mac Thornberry, the Texas Republican who heads the House Armed Services Committee, said “this case has been made more difficult by the administration’s failure to follow the law surrounding the release of the Taliban Five.”

“But Sergeant Bergdahl’s conduct should be considered under the Code of Military Justice as would any other service member’s, and I trust it will be,” Thornberry said in an e-mailed statement.

The Army has never described the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance from his Afghanistan post or his capture by the Taliban. He had been classified by the Army as “missing/captured.”

Loyalty Questioned

The decision to charge Bergdahl endorses the complaints of those who served with him that he was a deserter who never would have been captured had he not abandoned his post.

The charges were announced at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where Bergdahl’s case had been under review by General Mark Milley, commander of U.S. Army Forces Command.

Bergdahl, an Idaho man, was captured in 2009 and released on May 31 of last year.

Questions about Bergdahl’s loyalty were raised three years ago, when Rolling Stone magazine obtained e-mail messages it said were sent by the soldier to his parents describing his disillusionment with the U.S. offensive in Afghanistan.

“I am sorry for everything,” he wrote, according to the magazine. “The horror that is America is disgusting.”

In defending his decision to exchange Bergdahl for Taliban prisoners, Obama said in June that the American deserved to come home “regardless of the circumstances” of his capture.

Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in June that “the questions about this particular soldier’s conduct are separate from our effort to recover any U.S. service member in enemy captivity.”

Dempsey also promised that “our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred.”

The preliminary hearing, known as an Article 32 hearing, will be held at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, the Army statement said. The timing hasn’t been announced.