FORT BRAGG, N.C. – Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who walked away from his post in Afghanistan and triggered a search that left some of his comrades severely wounded, was spared a prison sentence by a military judge Friday in what President Donald Trump blasted as a “complete and total disgrace.”
The judge gave no explanation of how he arrived at his decision, but he reviewed evidence that included the five years Bergdahl was held captive by the Taliban and the wounds suffered by troops who searched for him, including one who now uses a wheelchair and cannot speak.
The case was politically divisive. President Barack Obama traded Taliban prisoners to bring Bergdahl back, drawing sharp Republican criticism. As a presidential candidate, Trump called for the soldier to face stiff punishment. He could have received up to life in prison.
The judge also gave the 31-year-old a dishonorable discharge, reduced his rank from sergeant to private and ordered him to forfeit pay equal to $1,000 per month for 10 months.
In court, Bergdahl appeared tense, grimaced and clenched his jaw. His attorneys put their arms around him and one patted him on the back. One defense attorney cried after the sentence was announced.
Defense lawyer Eugene Fidell told reporters that his client had “looked forward to today for a long time.”
Bergdahl “is grateful to everyone who searched for him,” especially those who “heroically sustained injuries,” Fidell added.
Trump’s statement came in a tweet about 90 minutes after the sentencing. “The decision on Sergeant Bergdahl is a complete and total disgrace to our Country and to our Military,” the president wrote.
Bergdahl pleaded guilty last month to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. He has said he left his post in 2009 with the intention of reaching other commanders and drawing attention to what he saw as problems with his unit.
The judge, Army Col. Jeffery Nance, had wide leeway in deciding the sentence because Bergdahl made no deal with prosecutors to limit his punishment.
Prosecutors sought a serious penalty because of wounds suffered by service members who searched for Bergdahl after he disappeared.
The defense tried to counter that evidence with testimony about Bergdahl’s suffering as a captive, his contributions to military intelligence and survival training, and his mental health problems. The argument for leniency also cited Trump’s harsh campaign-trail comments.
The dishonorable discharge threatens to deprive Bergdahl of most or all his veterans’ benefits, but it also triggers an automatic appeal to a higher military court. Before that, a general who can reduce, but not increase, the sentence will also review it.
Fidell told reporters that he looks forward to the appeals court review of Trump’s campaign statements, which included calling Bergdahl a “dirty, rotten traitor” and declaring that he should be shot or thrown out of an airplane without a parachute.
As a candidate, Trump “made really extraordinary reprehensible comments targeted directly at our client,” Fidell told reporters Friday, calling the situation “one of the most preposterous states of affairs” in American legal history. He said the defense team sees “an extremely strong basis for dismissal of the case.”
Earlier in the week, Bergdahl described the brutal conditions of his captivity, including beatings with copper wire, unending bouts of gastrointestinal problems brought on by squalid conditions and maddening periods of isolation. After several escape attempts, he was placed in a cage for four years, and his muscles atrophied to the point he could barely stand or walk.
A psychiatrist testified that his decision to leave his post was influenced by a schizophrenia-like condition called schizotypal personality disorder that made it hard to understand the consequences of his actions, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder brought on partly by a difficult childhood.
Prosecutors, who had asked for a sentence of 14 years in prison, did not speak to reporters. But one of them, Maj. Justin Oshana, said during closing arguments Thursday that Bergdahl “does not have a monopoly on suffering as a result of his choices.”
Scores of troops joined in an all-out search for Bergdahl in the weeks after he abandoned his remote post near the Afghan town of Mest.
Prosecutors cited two missions that resulted in wounds, including a soldier whose hand was shattered by a rocket-propelled grenade and another who suffered a head wound that put him in a wheelchair and rendered him unable to speak. A Navy SEAL suffered a career-ending leg wound, and a military dog was killed by an insurgent firing an AK-47.
The judge ruled that those firefights would not have happened if not for Bergdahl.
One of the wounded soldiers, Jonathan Morita of California, called the lack of prison time “unacceptable.” Morita, who testified during sentencing, still does not have full use of his dominant hand after he was hit by the RPG, which did not explode.
“The dishonorable discharge means he can’t receive any of these services like I can. He’ll pay the fine like people get fined for illegal fishing. Ok, whoop-de-doo,” Morita said in a phone interview.
Referring to the lack of prison time, he said: “That’s the one that’s completely unacceptable. It should have maybe not been the life sentence, but it should have been something.”
Without confinement hanging over him, Bergdahl already has a job offer from an animal sanctuary, and a military official who helps design survival training said he would like to use Bergdahl as a part of lectures to service members on how to survive captivity.
The soldier from Hailey, Idaho, was brought home by Obama in 2014 in a swap for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. He has been working a desk job at a military installation in San Antonio and has not been under any pretrial confinement.
At the time of Bergdahl’s release, Obama said the U.S. does not leave service members on the battlefield.
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