Bowe Bergdahl avoids prison, receives dishonorable discharge for desertion

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl received a dishonorable discharge but will avoid prison time for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy after abandoning his outpost in 2009, a military judge ruled Friday.

Bergdahl will lose rank and forfeit pay, the judge ruled.

The Army soldier, who was held captive by the Taliban for five years after he deserted his Afghanistan outpost in 2009, pleaded guilty last month to charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.

Bergdahl was released in May 2014 in a controversial exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detainees.

He originally faced the possibility of life in prison, but the prosecution asked the judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance, for a 14-year sentence.

Bergdahl’s attorneys asked Col. Nance for a punishment of dishonorable discharge.

Bergdahl previously chose to be tried by a military judge instead of a jury.

Bergdahl’s lawyers asked the judge for leniency during sentencing hearings, arguing he had a previously undiagnosed mental illness when he left his post.

“Hypothetically, he probably should not have been in the Army,” said Capt. Nina Banks, one of Bergdahl’s military defense attorneys.

Bergdahl suffered from numerous mental illnesses, including schizotypal personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Dr. Charles Morgan, a forensic psychiatrist and professor at the University of New Haven and Yale University who testified for the defense Wednesday.

Morgan said Bergdahl was raised in a tense and sometimes scary household that contributed to social anxiety and cognitive defects that he was suffering from before he enlisted in the Army.

The defense also argued the information Bergdahl was able to provide upon his return — and his willingness to share that information and cooperate with investigators — warranted a more lenient sentence.

But government prosecutors said Bergdahl was aware of the risks when he deserted, and that doing so put his fellow soldiers in danger.

Soldiers who searched for Bergdahl after he deserted were called to testify by the prosecution and shared stories of the grueling conditions they endured while looking for him.

One of the witnesses, Capt. John Billings, was Bergdahl’s platoon leader in Afghanistan. Billings said the platoon searched for the then-private first class for 19 days, going without food or water.

Retired Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer James Hatch testified last week that he and his dog came under fire while looking for Bergdahl.

He was shot in the leg, and his K-9 partner, Remco, was shot in the face and killed.

“I thought I was dead,” said Hatch, who now walks with a heavy limp after 18 surgeries.

He said he was concerned because there was little time to plan the search for Bergdahl, and other soldiers knew he had willfully walked away.

When asked why he would go searching for Bergdahl, Hatch said, “He is an American.”

“He had a mom,” he added.

Bergdahl tearfully apologized this week to the service members who searched for him after he deserted.

“My words can’t take away what people have been through,” he said. “I am admitting I made a horrible mistake.”

Since his return home to the United States, the 31-year-old from Idaho has been the subject of scrutiny while the U.S. military investigated his decision to leave his post.

Bergdahl has said he abandoned his post because he wanted to travel to a larger base to report “a critical problem in my chain of command,” though he did not specify what the problem was.

He was charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy in March 2015.