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Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl Bergdahl faces court-martial

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl prepares to be interviewed by Army investigators in August 2014.
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl prepares to be interviewed by Army investigators in August 2014.
David S. Cloud Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON – A top Army commander Monday unexpectedly ordered Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive for five years by the Taliban, to face a court-martial on charges of desertion and endangering other troops for walking off his combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan in 2009.

Bergdahl’s trial could begin by May, two years after he was handed over to U.S. forces in a swap approved by the White House for five Taliban prisoners from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The decision by Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was the latest twist in a case that has been divisive in the military and a partisan issue in Congress.

Abrams’ order came as a surprise because the Army lawyer who presided over a preliminary hearing in San Antonio, Texas, last September recommended that Bergdahl face a lower-level court-martial reserved for misdemeanor-level offenses in the military justice system, and that he be spared any jail time.

In a brief statement, Abrams did not explain why he was pressing far more serious charges. Under military law, he is the convening authority who decides whether evidence warrants a court-martial.

The charges are severe enough that Bergdahl could face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if he is convicted.

Some Pentagon and Obama administration officials argued that Bergdahl suffered enough during his Taliban captivity, while critics in Congress and the Army said an aggressive prosecution was needed to demonstrate the seriousness of desertion.

Bergdahl was a private when he walked off Observation Post Mest in Paktika Province on June 30, 2009. Over the next few months, commanders ordered numerous search parties in rugged territory laced with Taliban fighters. The Army has said no soldiers were killed or wounded during the hunt for Bergdahl, but his commanders have said his actions put lives at risk.

Taliban militants quickly captured Bergdahl and transferred him to the militant Haqqani network, who moved him to strongholds in neighboring Pakistan. He was repeatedly tortured, kept in the dark, and held in solitary confinement for much of the next five years, officials have said.

Bergdahl was freed in May 2014 after President Barack Obama agreed to swap him for five senior Taliban prisoners, who were moved to supervised watch in Qatar.

Bergdahl, who is from Hailey, Idaho, is assigned to a desk job at Joint Base San Antonio. He avoided public comment until last week, when he told the podcast “Serial” that he left his base to catch the attention of military commanders, and to alert them to what he said was “leadership failure” in his unit.

“As a private first-class, nobody is going to listen to me,” Bergdahl said in a “Serial” episode released last Thursday. “No one is going to take me serious that an investigation needs to be put underway.”

Another motivation for leaving was “to prove to myself … to prove to the world, to anybody who used to know me … I was capable of being what I appeared to be,” he said. “Doing what I did was me saying I am like Jason Bourne. I had this fantastic idea that I was going to prove to the world I was the real thing.”

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