In 2014, the Obama administration secured the release of Bowe Bergdahl from captivity in Afghanistan by agreeing to release five Taliban prisoners being held at Guantanamo. At first, Bergdahl’s homecoming was celebrated as a hero’s return. What most Americans didn’t know at the time was that, back in 2009, Bergdahl had deserted his post in Afghanistan before he disappeared. He spent five years as a captive of the Taliban.
Upon his release, Bergdahl was flown to Texas for what the Army described as medical and psychiatric treatment. He was formally charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy – a rare charge that is invoked when servicemembers run away, surrender, or otherwise endanger fellow troops’ safety.
Monday, Bergdahl, now 31, pleaded guilty to both charges. What happens next?
Geoffrey Corn, a professor of law at South Texas College of Law Houston and a retired Army lieutenant colonel, says he’s not surprised that Bergdahl is pleading guilty.
“I don’t think there really was ever a significant issue related to whether he committed these offenses,” Corn says. “This has never been a whodunnit.”
Corn says the plea is unusual, though. “Because apparently he entered a plea without the benefit of any deal, he is at risk of the maximum penalty,” he says. “And the maximum penalty, because of the misbehavior charge, is life in prison.”
During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump made comments about the case.
“The candidate Trump statements regarding Bergdahl were definitely, in my view, outrageous and out of line, particularly by someone who anticipated maybe being the commander-in-chief at the time of the trial,” Corn says. “Having said that, I think Col. Nance, the military judge, made the right decision when he denied the defense motion to dismiss the charges based on those statements because, as he said, and I agree with him, he believed that a military jury could be instructed and would be able to set aside those comments and not let them influence their decision.”
Corn says there are no mandatory minimum sentences in the military, so the judge has absolute discretion in sentencing Bergdahl.
“If I were a betting man, I think there’s no question that he’s going to get a dishonorable discharge, which is the worst type of discharge that can be given to a servicemember,” Corn says. “And I think he’ll probably get some confinement, but I would say probably in the three to five year range.”
Corn says Bergdahl’s behavior was more than just a strategic nightmare for the United States.
“Within the military, members of the military viewed this as a serious breach of honor that put fellow soldiers in mortal jeopardy,” he says.
Written by Jen Rice.