Why Bowe Bergdahl might avoid a court-martial

The general who led the investigation into Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's alleged desertion in Afghanistan urged compassion for the 'unrealistically idealistic' soldier.

Brigitte Woosley/AP
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl (l.) and defense lead counsel Eugene Fidell (c.) look on as Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl is questioned during a preliminary hearing Friday at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, to determine if Sergeant Bergdahl will be court-martialed. Bergdahl, who left his post in Afghanistan and was held by the Taliban for five years, is charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.

The Army general tasked to lead the investigation into Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s capture by the Taliban testified Friday that he believes jail time for the soldier would be “inappropriate.”

Instead, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl urged some measure of compassion for the “unrealistically idealistic” Sergeant Bergdahl, who he added was remorseful that his disappearance caused panic and a massive search by his fellow soldiers. “I do not believe that there is a jail sentence at the end of this process,” Major General Dahl told the military court at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

It remains to be seen what the impact of this recommendation will be. The proceedings, known as an Article 32 hearing in military parlance, were convened Thursday to determine whether Bergdahl should face a court-martial for leaving his small outpost in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009.

Bergdahl has been charged by the Army with desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy,” which carries with it a life sentence should he be found guilty.

But Dahl’s testimony could go far to help Bergdahl’s defense team make the argument that he should be discharged from the Army before his case reaches a court-martial, says a retired military official who served as a top judge advocate general (JAG) and spoke on condition of anonymity because he continues to sit on a panel that hears military cases.

“I think this is all working toward Bergdahl and his attorney submitting a request for discharge in lieu of a trial by court-martial,” he says. “Then he’s off the Army’s hands, and the Army doesn’t have to hold a court-martial,” he adds. “The Army is not going to get anything out of having him go to trial.”

Bergdahl was in Taliban captivity for five years before he was traded for detainees held at Guantánamo Bay. During that time, he was hurt and mistreated even by women and children, Terrence Russell of the Pentagon’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency said in tearful testimony Friday, according to The Washington Post.

One child beat him repeatedly with a chain, and they tripped a blindfolded Bergdahl on the way to the bathroom and spit in his food.

“Sergeant Bergdahl was held in conditions where if it were a dog, you would be thrown in jail for pet abuse,” Mr. Russell said. Under these circumstances, Bergdahl tried repeatedly to escape, once making it free for nine days, eating grass to stay alive before he hurt himself and was recaptured.

“He did the best job he can do,” Russell said, “and I respect him for it.”

The commander at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston could grant Bergdahl an administrative discharge, because he is an enlisted soldier. If Bergdahl were an officer, a discharge would have to come from Army leadership at the Pentagon.

While it would not be an honorable discharge, it would allow Bergdahl to avoid the felony charge that would come with any court-martial conviction.

Dahl interviewed Bergdahl in August 2014, compiling a 371-page transcript of their conversation, according to the Post, concluding that Bergdahl was “very bright and very well read.”

He left his outpost without his automatic weapon, a decision Bergdahl realized would have consequences. He did it anyway, Dahl testified, because he was concerned that his platoon was in danger as a result of poor leadership.

Bergdahl was promptly captured and beaten by enemy forces. “I think he actually believed that if five Taliban rolled up on him, he would have been able to dispose of them,” Dahl said in testimony, according to the Post.

He speculated that Bergdahl’s idealism and unconventional behavior were the result of growing up “near the edge of the grid” in Idaho.

He added that there was no evidence that Bergdahl was sympathetic to the Taliban, but rather that he had “outsize impressions of his capabilities.”

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