Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will always be defined by one historically foolish act: He walked out the gate of his base in southern Afghanistan in 2009, hoping to air grievances to a general 20 miles away, but quickly stumbled into Taliban hands and endured five years of brutal captivity.
The Army deserter’s irrational decision, and the tragic impact it had on fellow soldiers, played out during the first days of Bergdahl’s sentencing hearing last week at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Among the emotional witnesses, a Navy SEAL recalled an enemy shooting him in the leg during the weeks-long search for Bergdahl; the wound led to 18 surgeries and his forced medical retirement. Another soldier was shot in the head in a firefight during the manhunt, lost his ability to speak and is confined to a wheelchair.
“Everybody in Afghanistan was looking for Bergdahl,” Capt. John Billings, Bergdahl’s platoon leader, testified Wednesday.
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No wonder national sympathy runs shallow for the 31-year-old soldier. In military communities such as ours, you won’t hear a chorus calling for the judge, Army Col. Jeffrey Nance, to show mercy — not with our deep ties to JBLM special operators like the ones who tried to find Bergdahl, plus the many local veterans who lost friends in Afghanistan and other wars.
Even so, Nance should resist sentencing Bergdahl to the most serious punishment available: a life term in a military prison.
If that happens, one might suspect the courtroom gave in to the same politics plaguing this case from the beginning.
The posturing started when the Obama administration orchestrated a Taliban prisoner exchange for Bergdahl in 2014, then absurdly extolled him for serving “with honor and distinction.” It swung the other way when Republican candidate Donald Trump ranted last year that Bergdahl was a “dirty, rotten traitor” and should be executed.
The reality falls somewhere between: Bergdahl was delusionally unfit for combat, a young man who never should’ve been issued a uniform and must never wear one again.
Ultimately, the Army is responsible for admitting Bergdahl on a waiver, despite the fact he’d washed out of Coast Guard training, at a time when the Army was hurting for rank-and-file troops to fight two wars.
Loosened standards opened the door for Bergdahl, just as lax discipline and a poor command climate contributed to other catastrophes in Afghanistan, such as JBLM’s rogue Stryker “kill team” and the murderous rampage of Sgt. Robert Bales.
For his part, Bergdahl has owned up to his mistakes in decisive fashion: He pleaded guilty this month to charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. There was no plea deal with prosecutors. He trusts the judge will see the difference between reckless stupidity and treason.
Other clear-eyed military officers have already made that distinction. In 2014, Lt. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, who was based at JBLM (though Bergdahl was not), got the high-profile assignment to investigate the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s disappearance and capture. After a two-month probe, the general concluded Bergdahl shouldn’t go to prison.
Dahl described the young soldier as “unrealistically idealistic” but also “truthful.” There’s no evidence he gave up troop positions or other secrets to his captors.
Bergdahl is unlikely to walk away from this misadventure unscathed. Short of a life sentence, he could still get up to five years on the desertion charge. A strong case could be made for a dishonorable discharge, which would strip him of VA health care, education and other benefits.
Ironically, Trump’s bravado gives the soldier his best chance at a good outcome. The judge previously said that while he found the campaign trail comments “disturbing,” they wouldn’t compromise Bergdahl’s right to a fair proceeding.
But on Monday, when President Trump didn’t back off candidate Trump’s comments, the judge acknowledged the charges might be thrown out at some point due to unlawful command influence.
Regardless of whether this case goes the distance, Bergdahl should not spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Military justice is tethered to rules and precedents, not politics, and the harshest penalties should be reserved for competent service members who deliberately betray their country, not a hapless Walter Mitty character.
For Bowe Bergdahl, hearing the voices of damaged comrades who risked life and limb while looking for him is a life sentence all its own.