A military judge just ruled that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the US Army soldier who disappeared from his base in Afghanistan in 2009 and ended up captured by the Taliban, won’t serve any jail time — even though he pleaded guilty on October 16.
However, Bergdahl received a dishonorable discharge from the Army, which means he won’t get health benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Bergdahl also had his rank reduced from sergeant to private, the lowest Army rank. Finally, he will have to pay $1,000 per month for the next 10 months.
Thus concludes one of the most high-profile US military trials in recent memory. Bergdahl has been in the public eye since 2014, when then-President Barack Obama negotiated a prisoner swap with the Taliban that freed him in exchange for the release of five Taliban-linked prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. It was a controversial decision that drew the ire of members of Congress, especially Republicans.
Donald Trump made it a campaign issue in 2016, calling Bergdahl a “traitor,” even suggesting that he should be executed. About an hour after the ruling by a military judge, Trump tweeted his thoughts: “The decision on Sergeant Bergdahl is a complete and total disgrace to our Country and to our Military.”
Bergdahl’s case was also the subject the second season of the podcast Serial, which focused entirely on uncovering the truth about the sergeant and his disappearance.
It’s expected that both military personnel and civilians will be upset with this decision, but Bergdahl is surely relived he isn’t headed to prison.
The drama isn’t over
The Bergdahl drama started on June 30, 2009, when he disappeared and told no one in his unit where he went. Military prosecutors alleged that Bergdahl committed the crime of desertion — meaning abandoning his post with no intention of returning — and something called “misbehavior before the enemy,” which means putting soldiers at unnecessary risk by forcing them to search for him in hostile territory in the weeks after his disappearance.
My colleague Zack Beauchamp explained in October why that was a hard case for prosecutors to make:
According to Bergdahl’s own account, confirmed by an internal military investigation led by Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, Bergdahl’s goal wasn’t to disappear into the Afghan wilderness or (as Trump alleged) turn traitor and defect to the Taliban.
Instead, he had a plan to blow the whistle on (apparently largely imagined) "officer incompetence" and mismanagement in his unit. He aimed to run across 20 miles of hostile territory to get to a forward operating base (FOB) called Sharana and inform the general there about what was going on.
He also planned to report and uncover new intelligence on the Taliban. “When I got back to the FOB, you know, they could say, ‘You left your position," he said in comments aired on Serial. "But I could say: ‘Well, I also got this information. So what are you going to do?’"
Bergdahl’s defense team claimed he had mental illness at the time he vanished. "Hypothetically, he probably should not have been in the Army," Capt. Nina Banks, one of Bergdahl's lawyers, said in her closing argument. Dr. Charles Morgan, a forensic psychiatrist, testified on Wednesday that Bergdahl did have mental problems, including “schizotypal personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.”
However, Bergdahl still pleaded guilty last month, which may have factored into military judge Army Col. Jeffery Nance’s decision to hand down such a lenient sentence. Gen. Robert Abrams will now review Nance’s ruling. Abrams has the power to ease the punishment further, but not make it more severe.
That means the Bergdahl case isn’t officially over yet — and neither is the drama.