FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl told a military judge on Monday that he’s pleading guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
“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.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether his defense has conceded that he’s responsible for a long chain of events that his desertion prompted, which included many decisions by others on how to conduct the searches. Despite his plea, the prosecution and defense have not agreed to a stipulation of facts, said one of his lawyers, Maj. Oren Gleich.
This indicates that they did not reach a deal to limit his punishment, and that he may be hoping for leniency from the judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance. The misbehavior charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, while the desertion charge 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.
While Berghdahl’s pleas enable him to avoid a trial, he’ll still face a sentencing hearing 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.
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