FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a Taliban captive for five years after abandoning his post in Afghanistan, pleaded guilty Monday to desertion and misbehavior-before-the-enemy charges that could put him in prison for life.
“I understand that leaving was against the law,” said Bergdahl, whose decision to walk off his remote post in Afghanistan in 2009 prompted intense search and recovery missions, during which some of his comrades were seriously wounded.
“At the time, I had no intention of causing search and recovery operations,” Bergdahl said, but he added that now he does understand that his decision prompted efforts to find him.
Bergdahl, 31, is accused of endangering his comrades by abandoning his post without authorization. He told a general after his release from five years in enemy hands that he did it with the intention of reaching other commanders and drawing attention to what he saw as problems with his unit.
The prosecution made no agreement to limit Bergdahl’s punishment in return for the soldier’s guilty pleas. The judge, Army Col. Judge Jeffery R. Nance, reminding Bergdahl that he could spend the rest of his life in prison, and asked him one last time if he wanted to plead guilty. “Yes,” Bergdahl replied, and the judge accepted them.
Bergdahl may be hoping for leniency. Misbehavior carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, while desertion is punishable by up to five years.
The guilty pleas bring the highly politicized saga closer to an end eight years after Bergdahl vanished in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama, who approved the Taliban prisoner swap that brought Bergdahl home in 2014, said the U.S. does not leave its service members on the battlefield, but he was roundly criticized by Republicans. Campaigning for president, Donald Trump suggested Bergdahl would have been executed in a previous era.
Berghdahl’s sentencing hearing is scheduled to begin Oct. 23. His years as a captive of the Taliban and its allies could be factored into his punishment, but the hearing also will likely feature damning testimony from his fellow service members. The judge has ruled that a Navy SEAL who suffered a career-ending leg wound and an Army National Guard sergeant whose head wound put him in a wheel chair would not have been hurt in firefights had they not been searching for Bergdahl.
The defense also was rebuffed in an effort to prove that Trump had unfairly swayed the case with his scathing criticism from the campaign trail. The judge ruled in February that the new president’s comments were “disturbing and disappointing” but did not constitute unlawful command influence by the soon-to-be commander in chief.
Bergdahl, who’s from Hailey, Idaho, has been assigned to desk duty at a Texas Army base while his case unfolds.