Bergdahl spared from prison; Trump calls sentence 'disgrace'

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FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) - Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who walked away from his post in Afghanistan and triggered a search that left some of his comrades severely wounded, was spared a prison sentence by a military judge Friday in what President Donald Trump blasted as a "complete and total disgrace."

The judge gave no explanation of how he arrived at his decision, but he reviewed evidence that included the five years Bergdahl was held captive by the Taliban and the wounds suffered by troops who searched for him, including one who now uses a wheelchair and cannot speak.

The case was politically divisive. President Barack Obama traded Taliban prisoners to bring Bergdahl back, drawing sharp Republican criticism. As a presidential candidate, Trump called for the soldier to face stiff punishment. He could have received up to life in prison.

The judge also gave the 31-year-old a dishonorable discharge, reduced his rank from sergeant to private and ordered him to forfeit pay equal to $1,000 per month for 10 months.

In court, Bergdahl appeared tense, grimaced and clenched his jaw. His attorneys put their arms around him and one patted him on the back. One defense attorney cried after the sentence was announced.

Defense lawyer Eugene Fidell told reporters that his client had "looked forward to today for a long time."

Bergdahl "is grateful to everyone who searched for him," especially those who "heroically sustained injuries," Fidell added.

Trump's statement came in a tweet about 90 minutes after the sentencing. "The decision on Sergeant Bergdahl is a complete and total disgrace to our Country and to our Military," the president wrote.

Bergdahl pleaded guilty last month to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. The judge had wide leeway in deciding the sentence because Bergdahl made no deal with prosecutors to limit his punishment.

Prosecutors had sought a stiff penalty because of wounds suffered by service members who searched for Bergdahl after he disappeared in 2009.

The defense sought to counter that evidence with testimony about Bergdahl's suffering as a captive, his contributions to military intelligence and survival training and his mental health problems. The argument for leniency also cited Trump's harsh campaign-trail criticism.

The dishonorable discharge threatens to deprive Bergdahl of most or all his veterans' benefits, but it also triggers an automatic appeal to a higher military court. Before that, a general who can reduce, but not increase, the sentence will also review it.

Fidell told reporters that he looks forward to the appeals court review of Trump's campaign statements, which the president appeared to reaffirm on the day Bergdahl pleaded guilty last month.

As a candidate, Trump "made really extraordinary reprehensible comments targeted directly at our client," Fidell told reporters Friday, calling the situation "one of the most preposterous states of affairs" in American legal history. He said the defense team sees "an extremely strong basis for dismissal of the case."

Earlier in the week, Bergdahl described the brutal conditions of his captivity, including beatings with copper wire, unending bouts of gastrointestinal problems brought on by squalid conditions and maddening periods of isolation. After several escape attempts, he was placed in a cage for four years, and his muscles atrophied to the point he could barely stand or walk.

A psychiatrist testified that his decision to leave his post was influenced by a schizophrenia-like condition called schizotypal personality disorder that made it hard to understand the consequences of his actions, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder brought on partly by a difficult childhood.

Prosecutors, who had asked for a sentence of 14 years in prison, did not speak to reporters. But one of them, Maj. Justin Oshana, said during closing arguments Thursday that Bergdahl "does not have a monopoly on suffering as a result of his choices."

Scores of troops joined in an all-out search for Bergdahl in the weeks after he abandoned his remote post near the Afghan town of Mest.

Prosecutors cited two missions that resulted in wounds, including a soldier whose hand was shattered by a rocket-propelled grenade and another who suffered a head wound that put him in a wheelchair and rendered him unable to speak. A Navy SEAL suffered a career-ending leg wound, and a military dog was killed by an insurgent firing an AK-47.

The judge ruled that those firefights would not have happened if not for Bergdahl.

One of the wounded soldiers, Jonathan Morita of California, called the lack of prison time "unacceptable." Morita, who testified during sentencing, still does not have full use of his dominant hand after he was hit by the RPG, which did not explode.

"The dishonorable discharge means he can't receive any of these services like I can. He'll pay the fine like people get fined for illegal fishing. Ok, whoop-de-doo," Morita said in a phone interview.

Referring to the lack of prison time, he said: "That's the one that's completely unacceptable. It should have maybe not been the life sentence, but it should have been something."

Without confinement hanging over him, Bergdahl already has a job offer from an animal sanctuary, and a military official who helps design survival training said he would like to use Bergdahl as a part of lectures to service members on how to survive captivity.

The soldier from Hailey, Idaho, was brought home by Obama in 2014 in a swap for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. He has been working a desk job at a military installation in San Antonio and has not been under any pretrial restrictions.

At the time of Bergdahl's release, Obama said the U.S. does not leave service members on the battlefield. Republicans roundly criticized Obama, and Trump went further while campaigning for president, repeatedly calling Bergdahl a traitor who deserved serious punishment.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


Previous Story

President Donald Trump says Bowe Bergdahl's sentence for leaving his post in Afghanistan is "a complete and total disgrace to our Country and to our Military."

The president's comment on Twitter came Friday, less than an hour after the White House declined to comment on the military sentence given to Bergdahl.

A military judge in North Carolina ruled Friday that Bergdahl should serve no prison time for endangering his comrades by walking off his Afghanistan post. The judge also gave Bergdahl a dishonorable discharge, reduced his rank to private and said he must forfeit pay equal to $1,000 per month for 10 months.

While campaigning for president, Trump repeatedly called Bergdahl a traitor who deserved serious punishment.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


Previous Story

A military judge ruled Friday that Bowe Bergdahl should serve no prison time for endangering his comrades by walking off his Afghanistan post.

The sentence caps a politically divisive episode that centered on one soldier's decision that affected many other lives. President Barack Obama was criticized for trading Taliban prisoners to bring him back. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump had called for Bergdahl to face stiff punishment.

The judge also gave Bergdahl a dishonorable discharge, reduced his rank to private and said he must forfeit pay equal to $1,000 per month for 10 months. The judge made no other comments.

Bergdahl appeared tense, grimaced and clenched his jaw. His attorneys put their arms around him and one patted him on the back.

Bergdahl pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy and had faced up to life in prison. The judge had wide leeway because Bergdahl made no deal with prosecutors to limit his sentence.

Prosecutors had sought stiff punishment because of wounds to service members who searched for Bergdahl after he disappeared in 2009. He was held captive by Taliban allies for five years.

The defense sought to counter that evidence with testimony about Bergdahl's suffering during five years as a captive of Taliban allies, his contributions to military intelligence and survival instruction and his mental health problems.

A punitive discharge deprives Bergdahl of most or all his veterans' benefits.

Bergdahl had faced up to life in prison after pleading guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.

In closing arguments, defense attorneys argued Bergdahl already suffered enough confinement during five years of brutal captivity by Taliban allies. They asked the judge to give their client a dishonorable discharge and no prison time. Their argument for leniency also cited harsh campaign-trail criticism by Donald Trump and Bergdahl's mental disorders.

Capt. Nina Banks, a defense attorney, said it wouldn't be justice to rescue Bergdahl from the Taliban "only to place him in a cell" now.

During the multiday sentencing hearing, Bergdahl himself testified that he was sorry for the wounds suffered by searchers. He also described brutal beatings by his captors, illness brought on by squalid conditions and maddening periods of isolation. A psychiatrist testified that his decision to leave his post was influenced by a schizophrenia-like condition called schizotypal personality disorder that made it hard to understand consequences of his actions, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder brought on partly by a difficult childhood.

Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 14 years in prison, citing serious wounds to service members who looked for Bergdahl.

"Sgt. Bergdahl does not have a monopoly on suffering as a result of his choices," said Maj. Justin Oshana, a prosecutor.

Bergdahl pleaded guilty Oct. 16. The judge has wide discretion on sentencing because Bergdahl didn't strike a deal with prosecutors to limit his punishment.

The 31-year-old soldier from Hailey, Idaho, was brought home by Obama in 2014 in a swap for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Obama said at the time the U.S. does not leave its service members on the battlefield. Republicans roundly criticized Obama, and Trump went further while campaigning for president, repeatedly calling Bergdahl a traitor who deserved serious punishment.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


Previous Story

A military judge has found that Bowe Bergdahl should serve no prison time for endangering his comrades by walking off his Afghanistan post.

The judge also gave Bergdahl a dishonorable discharge, reduced his rank to private and said he must forfeit pay equal to $1,000 per month for 10 months. The judge made no other comments.

Bergdahl appeared tense, grimaced and clenched his jaw. His attorneys put their arms around him and one patted him on the back.

Bergdahl pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy and had faced up to life in prison. The judge had wide leeway because Bergdahl made no deal with prosecutors to limit his sentence.

Prosecutors had sought stiff punishment because of wounds to service members who searched for Bergdahl after he disappeared in 2009. He was held captive by Taliban allies for five years.

The defense sought to counter that evidence with testimony about Bergdahl's suffering during five years as a captive of Taliban allies, his contributions to military intelligence and survival instruction and his mental health problems.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)