WASHINGTON — The fate of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl now rests with a top U.S. general in North Carolina who will decide if the soldier should be charged with desertion after he left his Afghanistan post in 2009 and was captured by the Taliban.
The charge of desertion during wartime carries a maximum penalty of death. But the Army, which referred the case to Gen. Mark Milley, head of U.S. Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., said he has a range of options.
Milley could decide not to charge Bergdahl, recommend administrative action, or convene a court martial on more serious offenses, such as desertion or absent without leave (AWOL).
The investigation into Bergdahl’s disappearance on June 30, 2009, is complete and senior Pentagon and Army leaders got briefed on the results last week. Details about the report’s conclusion have not been released.
Bergdahl reportedly walked away from his unit after expressing misgivings about the U.S. military’s role — as well as his own — in Afghanistan. He was captured by the Taliban and held by members of the Haqqani network, an insurgent group tied to the Taliban that operates both in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
On May 31, Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. special forces in Afghanistan as part of an exchange for five top Taliban commanders who were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After spending about two weeks recuperating at a U.S. military hospital in Germany, Bergdahl was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in Texas on June 13. He is now doing administrative duties at the base, awaiting the conclusion of the case.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth R. Dahl was tasked to conduct an exhaustive investigation into the matter, and spent months interviewing unit members and commanders, and meeting with Bergdahl and his attorney, Eugene Fidell, a military justice expert who is also a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School. He submitted his report in mid-October, setting off a lengthy legal review on his report and how the Army can proceed legally in the case.
Army officials briefed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday on the findings of Dahl’s investigation.
Navy. Rear Adm. John Kirby said Monday that Hagel is “confident that Army leadership will use the information gleaned from the investigation to make the most appropriate decisions with respect to Sgt. Bergdahl.”
While hundreds of service members have gone absent without leave (AWOL) since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, many disappear for only a short time and eventually return. Those cases are usually are settled through non-judicial punishments such as being assigned additional duties, getting their pay docked or other administrative actions.
A charge of AWOL suggests that the service member left a post or did not arrive for duty when required, but intended to return. A charge of desertion is when a service member leaves and has no intention of ever returning.
Punishment for desertion in peacetime can range from life in prison to a dishonorable discharge. Deserting a post in a warzone during a time of combat is a much more serious offense, and therefore can carry the maximum punishment of death.
Any final disposition of the case will determine what type of discharge Bergdahl receives — honorable or something less than honorable — and also whether he will get as much as $300,000 in back pay and other benefits, including continued health care.
An initial U.S. military investigation in 2009 concluded that Bergdahl deliberately walked away, based on evidence available at the time. Since his release, some former soldiers who served with him have labeled him a deserter and said he should be held accountable for leaving his post. Others have suggested that troops were put in danger, and even killed, as they tried to find Bergdahl.
But there are also those who contend that even if Bergdahl deliberately walked away, his five years in captivity were more than enough punishment for the soldier.
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