FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured and held by the Taliban for five years after walking away from his post in Afghanistan, pleaded guilty yesterday to desertion and endangering his comrades — and could be sentenced to life in prison at his sentencing later this month.
“I understand that leaving was against the law,” said Bergdahl, who admitted guilt without striking a deal with prosecutors, meaning his punishment will be up to a military judge.
Pressed by the judge, Army Col. Judge Jeffery R. Nance, Bergdahl acknowledged that his actions endangered his fellow service members.
“I left my platoon in a battlefield … a situation that could easily turn into a life-or-death situation,” he said.
The sentencing hearing on Monday is likely to feature damning testimony from a Navy SEAL who suffered a career-ending leg wound and an Army National Guard sergeant whose head wound put him in a wheelchair after firefights in the search for Bergdahl.
The guilty plea brings the highly politicized saga closer to an end eight years after Bergdahl vanished.
Former President Barack Obama brought him home in 2014 in a controversial swap for five high-ranking Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, saying the U.S. does not leave its service members on the battlefield. Republicans roundly criticized Obama, and Donald Trump went further while campaigning for president, repeatedly calling Bergdahl a “dirty, rotten traitor” who deserved to be executed by firing squad or thrown out of a plane without a parachute.
Bergdahl, 31, of Hailey, Idaho, has claimed he walked away from his remote post in 2009 with the intention of reaching other commanders and drawing attention to what he saw as problems with his unit.
“At the time, I had no intention of causing search-and-recovery operations,” Bergdahl said in court. “I believed they would notice me missing, but I didn’t believe they would have reason to search for one private.”
Bergdahl, who received a promotion due all missing-in-action soldiers while he was in captivity, pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, a relatively rare charge brought against him for endangering comrades sent to find him.
The misbehavior charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, the desertion charge up to five years.
Bergdahl’s answers to the judge’s questions represented some of his most extensive public comments yet.
He claimed he tried to escape from his captors 12 to 15 times with varying degrees of success. Once, he claimed he was on his own for about a week — hoping U.S. drones would spot him — before he was recaptured. He said he also tried to escape on his first day in captivity.
“As I started running there came shouts, and I was tackled by people. That didn’t go so well,” said Bergdahl, who spoke in even tones and wore an Army blue dress uniform.
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