(CN) – Declining to hand down a prison sentence, a military judge on Friday dishonorably discharged Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl based on desertion and misbehavior before the enemy charges for leaving his base in Afghanistan, triggering a years-long search and divisive prisoner exchange.
Bergdahl, 31, must also forfeit $1,000 of pay a month for 10 months and was reduced to the rank of E-1 private, according to an Army news release.
The soldier pleaded guilty on Oct. 16 to walking away from his combat outpost in June 2009. He was captured by the Taliban-linked Haqqani network within hours of his disappearance, and his absence set off an intensive manhunt that is blamed for some of his comrades being seriously wounded.
Army Judge Col. Jeffery R. Nance’s decision to spare Bergdahl a prison sentence falls in line with what other high-ranking military officials with deep knowledge of the case have recommended.
Lt. Col. Mark A. Visger, the hearing officer who presided over Bergdahl’s pretrial hearing in 2015, recommended that Bergdahl receive no jail time and Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, the Army’s lead investigator, has testified that sending Bergdahl to prison “would be inappropriate.”
Bergdahl offered an apology Monday to the wounded soldiers who searched for him and his defense attorneys argued that his nearly five years spent as a Taliban captive is punishment enough. They asked the judge for a dishonorable discharge and no prison time.
Prosecutors asked for a sentence of 14 years in prison and said during closing arguments that Bergdahl “does not have a monopoly on suffering as a result of his choices,” the Associated Press reported. They insisted that he must be held accountable for walking away from his duties, a move they said triggered an exhaustive manhunt and injuries to several U.S. troops looking for him.
President Donald Trump wrote Friday on Twitter that Judge Nance's decision "is a complete and total disgrace to our country and to our military."
Bergdahl spent four years and 11 months as a Taliban prisoner, described by one military agent as “absolute torture and horror.” The soldier has said his captors routinely beat him with rubber hoses and copper wire and that he spent most of his time in captivity blindfolded inside a 7-foot metal cage after at least eight failed escape attempts. He became dehydrated, weak and had uncontrollable diarrhea for months.
Defense attorneys presented evidence during Bergdahl’s sentencing phase of the several mental illnesses he suffered from, including schizotypal personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. They also presented testimony about the intelligence Bergdahl revealed after being returned to the U.S., which they argued offered officials a rare glimpse into insurgents in Afghanistan and how they detain hostages.
But Bergdahl’s story has deeply divided the American public and challenged the military justice system with punishing a former prisoner of war who defense attorneys say will require lifetime care for his injuries.
In one of the most closely watched military proceedings in years, injured soldiers testified last week during Bergdahl’s sentencing phase about efforts to find the missing soldier.
Air Force Lt. Colonel John Marx testified about a July 2009 firefight during the grueling 45-day initial search that began the day Bergdahl went missing. That attack on the joint U.S. and Afghan search team caused Army Master Sgt. Mark Allen to suffer a severe head wound and injured Army Specialist Jonathan Morita, who also testified last week.
Bergdahl’s platoon leader, Capt. John P. Billings, described the deterioration of soldiers’ physical and emotional well-being during the search. He said the hunt for Bergdahl took a toll on soldiers, who grew exhausted and angry.
Their T-shirts were rotting off and some had to use their socks as toilet paper, testimony has revealed.
Prosecutors said Bergdahl’s disappearance reduced troop patrols, forced unplanned assets such as helicopters and special troops know as Pathfinders to join in and exposed thousands of soldiers scouring the enemy-infested desert to unnecessary risk.
The desertion charge carried with it a possible five-year sentence, while Bergdahl could have been sentenced to life in prison for misbehavior before the enemy.
Nance had broad discretion in his sentencing, as Bergdahl did not make an agreement with prosecutors to limit punishment in exchange for his guilty pleas.
Questions have lingered over the case for years. Bergdahl has been portrayed as a traitor, and his May 2014 exchange for five Taliban detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay created a political firestorm that still fuels criticism from Washington lawmakers.
Bergdahl’s attorneys had unsuccessfully argued that a fair trial under President Trump would be impossible.
Judge Nance wrote in a February ruling that Trump’s repeated criticism of Bergdahl was merely “inflammatory campaign rhetoric.”
Trump has referred to Bergdahl as “a no-good traitor” and “a dirty, rotten traitor,” according to a motion filed by Bergdahl’s attorneys.
Bergdahl told Maj. Gen. Dahl that he left his platoon’s base to begin a 20-mile run, hoping that his absence would cause enough attention to allow him to air his leadership grievances with a general.
But he quickly found himself tangled in the hills before six to seven men on motorcycles carrying high-powered weapons snatched him away less than 24 hours after he walked into the enemy-infested desert.
A military expert who debriefed Bergdahl said the soldier’s five years in captivity were the worst a U.S. prisoner of war has suffered in 60 years.
Military prosecutors had conceded that Bergdahl “suffered greatly” but insisted that he be held accountable for walking away from his duties and single-handedly altering U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
Bergdahl had been working a clerical job at a San Antonio military base while his legal proceeding unfolded.
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