clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Bowe Bergdahl just pleaded guilty to desertion and may go to jail for life

The ex-Taliban captive, subject of a political controversy, and star of a Serial season, is now in serious trouble.

U.S. Army Conducts Military Legal Hearing In Bowe Bergdahl Case (Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the US Army soldier who disappeared from his base in Afghanistan in 2009 and ended up captured by the Taliban, pleaded guilty to charges of desertion and criminal misbehavior on Monday morning. He faces up to life in prison.

Ordinarily, this trial would just be an internal military matter, of interest mostly to Bergdahl’s family and other soldiers. But the sergeant has been at the center of a political controversy since 2014, when then-President Barack Obama negotiated a prisoner swap with the Taliban that freed Bergdahl in exchange for the release of five Taliban-linked prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.

Republicans slammed Obama for the agreement; Donald Trump made it a campaign issue in 2016, calling Bergdahl a “traitor” and even suggested that he should be executed. The controversy filtered out into broader pop culture; the second season of the mega-popular podcast Serial focused entirely on uncovering the truth about the sergeant and his disappearance.

But not everyone is a Serial fan, or has a good memory for 2014-vintage political controversies. What follows is a guide to what actually happened: What Bergdahl did, the charges he pleaded guilty to, and what comes next.

The basics of the Bergdahl case.

On the night of June 30, 2009, then-Private Bowe Bergdahl vanished. He left no indication of where he went; no one in his unit could find him the next morning. Apparently Bergdahl's unit was chronically lax about security, so it wasn't hard for him to sneak out.

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.

The desertion case was tricky 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?’"

This was a terrible, terrible plan — as became clear when Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban roughly a day after his disappearance. But it wasn’t necessarily desertion: Dahl testified in court that jailing Bergdahl would be “inappropriate,” as he did not plan to abandon the US military entirely.

Bergdahl’s intention to desert may have been hard to prove had he not pleaded guilty, but the fact that he endangered other soldiers, — by forcing the military to go looking for him, as they do when soldiers go missing — is hard to argue with.

Three fighters — National Guard Sgt. Mark Allen, Army Specialist Jonathan Morita, and Navy SEAL Senior Chief Jimmy Hatch — were injured during operations whose primary objective was reportedly finding and recovering Bergdahl. A service dog named Remco was also killed during Hatch’s mission, reportedly in the process of saving Hatch and his compatriots’ life.

Allen was shot in the head and is no longer capable of speech. Morita was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, which broke his hand. Hatch’s femur was broken by a bullet, which caused permanent damage even after 18 surgeries.

“The best evidence of endangerment ... remains the fact that service members were actually harmed during the crisis that the accused intentionally created,” the prosecutors wrote in a court filing.

After a lengthy trial, in which Bergdahl’s attorneys attempted to argue that he could not fairly be held responsible for the three men’s injuries, he finally pleaded guilty to both the misbehavior and desertion charges.

“I understand that leaving was against the law,” Bergdahl said in his plea, per the Associated Press. “At the time, I had no intention of causing search and recovery operations.”

It’s not clear what sentence is likely to be handed down after this guilty plea. There is not, as of yet, any indication of a deal between Bergdahl and prosecutors for a reduced sentence. The sentencing hearings which will determine Bergdahl’s fate — that is, whether he will be punished with the full life sentence allowed under the misbehavior charge — are scheduled to begin on October 23.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.