The U.S. Army has charged Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy nine months after he was released by Taliban captors, an Army official said Wednesday.
Bergdahl, who spent five years in captivity after going missing from his post in Afghanistan in 2009, faces a maximum sentence of "confinement for life," Col. Daniel J. W. King, a spokesman for the Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., announced on Wednesday.
The Army charged Bergdahl with "desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty" under Article 85 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and "misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place" under Article 99.
The Army's charges against Bergdahl were first disclosed by his lawyer, Eugene Fidell, a military law specialist. Fidell declined initial comment on whether he thought the charges could be sustained.
Bergdahl will next face an Article 32 hearing under the UCMJ, often compared to a grand jury proceeding in civilian law. The hearing was expected to begin April 22 at Fort Sam Houston, King said.
The officer presiding over the Article 32 hearing will make a recommendation to the Army's convening authority on whether there is sufficient evidence to send Bergdahl to a general court martial trial, King said.
The convening authority could refer the charges to a general court martial or a lesser special court martial. The officer could also choose to dismiss the charges, or "take any other action deemed appropriate," King said.
Bergdahl went missing from Command Outpost Mest-Lalak in Afghanistan's Paktika province on June 30, 2009. He is believed to have been held mostly in Pakistan by the Haqqani network, an insurgent group allied with the Taliban.
He was released last spring in a controversial deal that resulted in the release of five Taliban commanders who were being held in the Guantamo Bay, Cuba.
Members of Bergdahl's unit in Afghanistan have charged that he willingly left his post and that other soldiers were killed or wounded searching for him.
"Bowe Bergdahl deserted during a time of war, and his fellow Americans lost their lives searching for him," Sgt. Matt Vierkant, who was in Bergdahl's unit, told CNN.
"The question isn't whether he did it, the question is whether you can prove it," said Gary Solis, a retired colonel who served 26 years in the Marines – 15 of them as a Judge Advocate General.
Solis said he expected Bergdahl's legal team would press for a plea bargain and "the government might be willing to go for a deal."
"I think there's enough evidence there to convict for desertion," Solis said, referring to e-mails Bergdahl sent his parents and other evidence that Bergdahl packed up and left behind his gear before leaving his post.
Should the case go to a court martial, Solis said he expected Fidell to ask for a trial by a military judge rather than risk Bergdahl going before a jury.
Solis also said he was fairly certain that Bergdahl would lose his back pay, estimated at about $300,000.
The release of the five Taliban prisoners in exchange for Bergdahl triggered criticism from Republicans in Congress against the Obama administration.
"I wouldn't have done this trade for a Medal of Honor winner," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told CNN Wednesday. "No military member should expect their country to turn over five Taliban commanders to get their release."
President Obama called it a "good day" for America when Bergdahl was released. He made the announcement in the White House Rose Garden flanked by Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl. Bergdahl's hometown of Hailey, Idaha, originally planned a celebration but canceled it in the ensuing controversy over the release.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com