Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was arraigned Tuesday on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy during a hearing preceding his court-martial at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Sporting a shaved head and a blue military dress uniform, Bergdahl did not enter a plea and did not indicate a preference for a jury or bench trial. He showed little expression and looked straight ahead during the hearing.
Col. Christopher Frederikson, the judge in the case, explained that if Bergdahl opted against a bench trial, he would face a panel of at least five officers, all ranked higher than the sergeant. If the jury found Bergdahl guilty and elected to sentence him to more than 10 years in prison, it would require a three-fourths vote via secret ballot, the judge said.
The majority of Berghdahl’s public comments consisted of “Sir, yes, sir,” in response to Frederikson’s questions. He also whispered occasionally to Lt. Col. Franklin D. Rosenblatt, one of his attorneys. In one of the few decisions to come out of Tuesday’s hearing, Bergdahl told Frederikson he was pleased with his military and civilian counsel.
About 50 people, an even split of journalists and military personnel, attended the 11-minute proceeding, and then Bergdahl exited the courtroom with two military escorts and Rosenblatt. Bergdahl said hello to one reporter, but for the most part, did not make eye contact with the press corps.
The next hearing is set for January 12 at Fort Bragg. Frederikson said Col. Jeffery Nance, another judge, “has been detailed for all future judicial hearings in this case,” according to a news release.
Generals disagree on jail time
Bergdahl stands charged with one count of desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty, aka Article 85, and one count of misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place, aka Article 99. A conviction could command life in prison.
Bergdahl disappeared from Combat Outpost Mest-Malak in Afghanistan’s Paktika province near the Pakistan border in June 2009 and was later captured by the Taliban. President Barack Obama secured his release in a prisoner swap announced May 31, 2014. In the deal, Bergdahl was exchanged for five Guantanamo Bay detainees. He returned to the United States two weeks later.
His attorney Eugene Fidell, who did not attend Tuesday’s hearing, has said his client endured torture during his captivity, including months chained to a bed and years chained on all fours or locked in a cage.
Army Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, who led the Bergdahl investigation, testified this year that imprisoning Bergdahl would be “inappropriate” because Dahl’s lengthy interview with the 29-year-old sergeant yielded no evidence that he was “sympathetic to the Taliban.”
Dahl contended that Bergdahl left his post to call attention to what he felt was poor leadership within his unit, an assertion Bergdahl has made in interviews with filmmaker Mark Boal. The interviews with Boal have provided the storyline for the second season of the popular podcast “Serial.”
“I had this fantastic idea that I was going to prove to the world that I was the real thing,” Bergdahl told the “Zero Dark Thirty” producer during 25 hours of interviews. “You know, that I could be what it is that all those guys out there that go to the movies and watch those movies — they all want to be that — but I wanted to prove I was that.”
He hoped his disappearance would spur investigations into the “leadership failures” at his outpost, he said.
Deserter or Jason Bourne?
Bergdahl, who is presently on administrative Army duty in San Antonio, said that once he left the outpost he realized he could face serious punishment and decided to emulate the fictional action hero, Jason Bourne, and collect intelligence on the Taliban so he could return to the U.S. military with something to show for his absence.
Instead, he said, Taliban fighters on motorcycles, armed with AK-47s, found him walking along a desert road and took him captive.
The leader of Bergdahl’s platoon, Sgt. Evan Buetow, told CNN this year that he felt Bergdahl’s actions were “completely dishonorable” and he doesn’t believe Bergdahl was trying to expose problems in his platoon.
Troops were injured and killed looking for Bergdahl, Buetow said, and others in his platoon were in constant fear that Bergdahl would give up information — either voluntarily or via torture — that would endanger them.
“You could go to sleep and never wake up because some guy just sneaks up because he knows your shortcomings in your security, or he knows your shortcomings here or there, and you don’t wake up the next morning because they come and they attack you,” Buetow said.
On December 14, Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command, broke from the recommendation of Dahl, his fellow general — as well as the testimony of Lt. Col. Mark Visger, an Army investigator — that Bergdahl should face no jail time. Instead, Abrams ordered that Bergdahl face a general court-martial that could end with the sergeant spending his life behind bars.