With all the peripheral confusion surrounding the exchange of five terror suspects for the return of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the national conversation inevitably includes widespread accusations the prisoner of war was in reality a deserter who hated his own country and its military.
Starting with an email he sent his parents in the days before he went missing, Bergdahl’s story is packed with evidence that he had no intention of remaining loyal to America in Afghanistan. His fellow soldiers report that, just before he left his platoon, he got rid of personal items and left behind his military equipment along with a note explaining his desertion.
Nevertheless, reports indicate a search and rescue mission ensued that led to the death of as many as eight individuals.
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The Associated Press reported that even the Pentagon recognized Bergdahl left the base on his own accord as far back as 2010.
Now that he is home, the Obama administration seems determined to protect his reputation as much as possible. For some military experts, however, it appears Bergdahl’s troubles are far from over.
Victor Hansen, who has served as both a military prosecutor and defense lawyer, said a court martial is a distinct possibility for someone facing such allegations.
“Death is still a lawful sentence for desertion in a time of war,” he said.
Short of that sentence, he continued, “there could be significant punishment, significant confinement.”
Though there are only two cases of a soldier being executed for desertion in about the past 150 years, former military attorney and judge Lisa Schenck said Bergdahl could face charges related to both types of desertion recognized by the military. The first, she explained, results from a soldier’s intention to permanently leave his post; and the second involves leaving to avoid hazardous conditions.
She said some of the aspects necessary to prove his intent – especially considering the five years of captivity since his alleged desertion – could be hard to prove.
“That doesn’t mean he’s going to get an honorable discharge,” she explained.
Hansen, however, noted that it could be quite easy for Bergdahl to claim his intention was simply to leave the base for a short time. Without a written confession, he explained, assertions to the contrary will likely be considered circumstantial.
As the New York Times reported Tuesday, such a written confession might exist. The article states Bergdahl left behind a note explaining that he had grown disillusioned with the military, no longer supported his mission, and intended to leave permanently to begin a new life away from his fellow soldiers.
Hansen concluded the administration seems to have already established its preferred narrative.
“Since these pronouncements have been made and the president has said he’s a prisoner of war and all that stuff,” he said, “the subtle message here – or maybe not-so-subtle message – is that we don’t want anything to happen to this guy.”
Richard Rosen, who served as the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s School’s commandant, said he feels securing capital charges against Bergdahl is a long shot.
In all likelihood, he said, any charges would be noncapital; “and the maximum punishment is five years, a dishonorable discharge, and forfeiture of pay.”