By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.
© 2017 New York Times News Service
FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who walked off his base in Afghanistan in 2009, setting off a military manhunt and political furor, pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy Monday before a military judge here.
He was charged with desertion, which carries a potential five-year sentence, and with misbehavior — essentially, endangering the troops who were sent to search for him — which carries a potential life sentence.
The negotiations for his release became a presidential campaign issue and an attacking point for Republican critics of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Last year, as a candidate, Donald Trump called the sergeant a “traitor” and called for him to be executed.
Bergdahl had a different explanation, telling the Army’s chief investigator, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, that he decided to leave his base so he could walk to a larger base about 18 miles away to report what he felt were leadership problems in his own unit.
Dahl, whose investigation formed the basis of the military’s case against Bergdahl, later testified that jailing him would be “inappropriate,” suggesting that the sergeant had been delusional and that he had never intended to desert.
Army prosecutors have argued that Bergdahl’s departure forced the military to drastically alter its operations during the manhunt. They also say that two soldiers and a Navy SEAL suffered serious wounds searching for the sergeant in two separate operations.
Defense lawyers have said those injuries cannot be directly tied to Bergdahl. Military investigators later found grave faults with the leadership and planning of one mission, they say, adding that evidence indicates that the other mission “targeted a well-known enemy combatant” and thus had a purpose apart from rescuing Bergdahl.
Defense lawyers have also argued that the comments made by Trump before his election made a fair trial impossible. But a military judge ruled in February that while Trump’s statements were “troubling,” they had not prejudiced the case against Bergdahl.