Bergdahl to Face Court-Martial on Charges of Desertion, Misbehavior
The U.S. Army on Monday ordered Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to face a general court-martial on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy that could bring a term of life imprisonment for leaving his post in Afghanistan in 2009.
As the convening authority in Bergdahl's case, Gen. Robert B. Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Command, referred the most serious charges to the highest trial court venue in the military despite recommendations for leniency from a preliminary hearing officer.
Abrams, the son of the legendary former U.S. commander in Vietnam, the late Gen. Creighton Abrams, had wide discretion under the Uniform Code of Military Justice to dismiss the charges, order trial on lesser offenses, or proceed to a general court-martial in the high-profile case.
Beregdahl was charged specifically under the code's Article 85 -- desertion with Intent to shirk important or hazardous duty -- and Article 99 -- misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place, the command said in a statement.
No immediate date for an arraignment hearing was set for Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where the court-martial also will take place.
In a statement, Bergdahl's lead lawyer, Eugene Fidell, said Abrams "did not follow the advice of the preliminary hearing officer who heard the witnesses" and recommended against a general court martial. "We will continue to defend Sgt. Bergdahl as the case proceeds," Fidell said.
However, in military law it is not unusual for a convening authority, in this case Abrams, to go against the recommendations of hearing officers.
The decision by Abrams came four days after Bergdahl's first public interviews were disclosed in the first episode of the new season of "Serial," the popular weekly podcast spun off from the public radio show "This American Life." Bergdahl claimed that he sneaked away from his post with the vision of becoming a Jason Bourne-type action hero by disclosing wrongdoing in his unit to commanders.
"Doing what I did is me saying that I am like, I don't know, Jason Bourne -- I had this fantastic idea that I was going to prove to the world that I was the real thing," Bergdahl said.
"You know, that I could be what it is that all those guys out there that go to the movies and watch those movies, they all want to be that, but I wanted to prove that I was that," the 29-year-old Bergdahl said in interviews for the popular podcast "Serial."
Bergdahl is currently assigned to clerical duties at Army North, based at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. He is allowed off post, but only in the company of two non-commissioned officers.
Bergdahl walked away unnoticed from Observation Post Mest in Afghanistan's southeastern Paktika province on June 30, 2009. He said his intention was to proceed 20 miles to Forward Operating Base Sharana, where he would tell superiors of problems at Observation Post Mest that allegedly threatened the lives of fellow soldiers.
Bergdahl said he quickly became lost in the desert hills, where he was run down by men on motorcycles who were from the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. He was held for nearly five years until his release in May 2014 in a controversial exchange for five Taliban detainees at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, naval base.
In a report last week that coincided with the disclosure of the Bergdahl interviews, the House Armed Services Committee Republican majority charged that the Obama administration violated the law by failing to give Congress proper and timely notification of the prisoner exchange.
At a White House lawn ceremony with Bergdahl's parents in May 2014, President Barack Obama initially hailed the release as a tribute to the lengths to which the U.S. will go to bring home a missing soldier.
However, on March 25 this year, Gen. Mark Milley, then the head of U.S. Forces Command and now the Army's chief of staff, charged Bergdahl with the offenses that have now led to a general court-martial.
Milley's action triggered a lengthy fact-finding investigation by then-Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl and a later Article 32 hearing under the UCMJ on whether the charges should go to trial.
In October, Army Lt. Col. Mark Visger, the hearing officer in the Article 32 proceeding, "recommended that the charges be referred to a special court-martial and that a punitive discharge and confinement would be inappropriate given all the circumstances," according to Bergdahl's defense team.
Former members of Bergdah's unit in the the1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska, have charged in numerous TV and print interviews that Bergdahl was a misfit and a traitor. They also have charged that soldiers were killed in fruitless searches for Bergdahl.
In his own report on the case, Gen. Dahl said that no troops died in specific search operations for Bergdahl.
Bergdahl's former platoon commander, Capt. John Billings, testified at the Article 32 hearing on his "utter disbelief that I couldn't find one of my own men."
The Bergdahl case has become political fodder in the run-up to the presidential primary season, with Republican candidates citing the deliberations on how to proceed as examples of the Obama administration's failure to support the military.
In his statement, defense lawyer Fidell said, "We again ask that Donald Trump cease his prejudicial months-long campaign of defamation against our client. We also ask that the House and Senate Armed Services Committees avoid any further statements or actions that prejudice our client's right to a fair trial."
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard Sisk@military.com.
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