Army Files Desertion Charges Against Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has been charged by the US Army for desertion and misbehavior for leaving his base in Afghanistan in 2009.  Sgt. Bergdahl’s story became the focus of media attention last year due to the controversial decision to secure his release from Taliban captivity by freeing suspected terrorists in US custody.

Bowe Bergdahl Prisoner Exchange Causes Controversy

In May of 2014, President Obama exchanged five US prisoners held in Guantanamo with connections to the Taliban for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been captured in Afghanistan in 2009.  Opponents to the deal on both sides of the political aisle criticized the President for making the decision without providing notice to Congress, arguably in violation of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act which requires a notice of prisoner transfer that the White House did not adhere to.  The President argued that the notice requirement unconstitutionally inhibited him from performing his duties to negotiate with foreign enemies, and stated that the tactical decision to release Bergdahl required speed and secrecy that would have been spoiled with Congressional notification.

While Congress and the Administration debated the legality and justification of the Bergdahl prisoner exchange, the US Army began to investigate the circumstances of his disappearance and capture in 2009 that necessitated the President’s action.  This week, Army officials announced that they would charge Sgt. Bergdahl for voluntarily leaving his post before his capture by the Taliban.

Sgt. Bergdahl Charged with Desertion by US Army

After concluding its investigation in December of last year, the Army announced this week that it would charge Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.  The military has allowed Sgt. Bergdahl to continue to serve at an administrative post at Fort Sam Houston during the investigation, which settled on the two most serious charges available. If convicted on both counts, Bergdahl could face a sentence of life in a military prison, although reports suggest that defense officials are not inclined to confine the 28-year-old sergeant for a lengthy sentence considering the 5 years he spent in Taliban captivity. 

Sgt. Bergdahl will be charged under military law, which means he faces a hearing called to determine whether or not the proposed charges are appropriate considering the facts of his case.  If the charges are approved by a military panel, he will be tried at a court martial before a military court.  The details of the investigation against Bergdahl are still confidential, and the only public information about why Bergdahl, then a private first class, left his post in 2009 come from members of his former platoon who claim that he deserted without justification. 

Bergdahl Charges Awaken Prisoner Exchange Controversy

The announcement of charges against Sgt. Bergdahl for desertion has re-ignited the controversy surrounding the deal securing his release.  Opponents of the President’s prisoner exchange including House Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R – South Carolina, greeted the Army’s decision by reiterating their opposition to the exchange in the first place.  Said Graham, “I wouldn't have done this trade for a Medal of Honor winner.  No military member should expect their country to turn over five Taliban commanders to get their release. Nobody should expect that. It's not the nature of his service that drives my thinking it's just the illogical nature of the swap."  Adding more fuel to the opposition are recent reports that at least one of the prisoners exchanged for Bergdahl has reconnected with the Taliban since being freed last year.

Members of Bergdahl’s former platoon welcomed the charges and reemphasized their accusation that he deserted his post in 2009, putting the lives of his fellow soldiers at risk.  Former Army sergeant Evan Buetow, who was Bergdahl’s squad leader in 2009, said of the charges, “I’m just incredibly happy that the Army chose to do the right thing.  To those of us who were there, it was very plain and simple, and Bergdahl definitely needs to answer for what he did.”  Now that the Army has filed desertion charges against Sgt. Bergdahl, the long process of military justice will determine what punishment, if any, is appropriate.

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