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FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl on Monday pleaded guilty to walking away from his post in Afghanistan eight years ago.
“I understand that leaving was against the law,” Bergdahl told Col. Jeffrey Nance, the military judge handling his court-martial.
“At the time, I had no intention of causing search and recovery operations,” Bergdahl added, saying that now he does understand that his decision prompted efforts to find him.
Bergdahl disputed military prosecutors’ contention that he deserted for a lengthy period of time – he even pleaded not guilty initially to the desertion charge – arguing that he was a prisoner of war after being captured by Taliban forces within hours of leaving his post.
He told Nance that he repeatedly tried to escape his captors and get back to U.S. forces, once getting away for eight days. But he was unable to signal drones flying overhead and be located by his comrades before the Taliban recaptured him, he said.
The Army introduced evidence to support its position that Bergdahl was a deserter for the entire period of his captivity, but Nance found Bergdahl guilty of both desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, with a one-day period of desertion.
Bergdahl, 31, is charged with endangering his comrades by walking away from his post. Despite his guilty pleas, the prosecution and defense have not agreed to a stipulation of facts in the case, according to one of his lawyers, Maj. Oren Gleich, which is an indication that they did not reach a deal to limit his punishment.
Military experts say such “naked pleas” can be risky because they provide no safety net for the defendant when the judge is deciding a sentence.
“For a judge, that signals that the government hasn’t been reasonable in negotiating a deal, so sometimes a judge will be a little be more sympathetic, knowing that you’re pleading naked without the benefit of a deal,” said Greg Rickney, a former military judge. “But it can also be very risky because you’re stuck with whatever the judge gives you.”
The misbehavior charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, while the desertion charge is punishable by up to five years. Nance denied a defense motion to dismiss one of the charges as excessive but said he would combine both charges for sentencing purposes.
Bergdahl appears to be hoping for leniency from Nance during sentencing next week.
The guilty pleas bring the highly politicized saga closer to an end eight years after his disappearance. President Barack Obama was criticized by Republicans for the 2014 Taliban prisoner swap that brought Bergdahl home, while President Donald Trump harshly criticized Bergdahl on the campaign trail.
The serious wounds to service members who searched for Bergdahl are still expected to play a role in his sentencing. Bergdahl’s five years of captivity by the Taliban and its allies also will likely factor into what punishment he receives.
Bergdahl, who’s from Hailey, Idaho, previously chose to have his case heard by a judge alone, rather than a jury.
Legal scholars have said that several pretrial rulings against the defense have given prosecutors leverage to pursue stiff punishment against Bergdahl. Nance ruled that a Navy SEAL and an Army National Guard sergeant wouldn’t have wound up in separate firefights that left them wounded if they hadn’t been searching for Bergdahl.
The defense also was rebuffed in an effort to prove Trump had unfairly swayed the case with scathing criticism of Bergdahl, including suggestions of harsh punishment. The judge wrote in a February ruling that Trump’s campaign-trail comments were “disturbing and disappointing” but did not constitute unlawful command influence by the soon-to-be commander in chief.
Defense attorneys have acknowledged that Bergdahl walked off his base without authorization. Bergdahl himself told a general during a preliminary investigation that he left intending to cause alarm and draw attention to what he saw as problems with his unit. He was soon captured.
But the defense team has argued that Bergdahl can’t be held responsible for a long chain of events that included many decisions by others on how to conduct the searches.
The military probe of Bergdahl began soon after he was freed from captivity on May 31, 2014, in exchange for five Taliban prisoners. Facing Republican criticism, Obama noted that the U.S. doesn’t leave its service members behind.
Bergdahl has been assigned to desk duty at a Texas Army base while his case unfolds.