Who Is Bowe Bergdahl?
Idaho native Bowe Bergdahl enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2008 and was deployed to Afghanistan the following year. He disappeared from his outpost during the night of June 30, 2009, eventually surfacing in a video showing him being held captive by militants. Bergdahl was beaten and tortured extensively over the next five years, until the U.S. negotiated his release in May 2014 in exchange for five Taliban members who were being detained at Guantánamo Bay. A subsequent Army investigation resulted in the order of a court-martial, and in October 2017 Bergdahl pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
Bowe Robert Bergdahl was born on March 28, 1986, in Sun Valley, Idaho, the second child of Robert and Jani Bergdahl. Raised in the nearby mountain town of Hailey, Bergdahl developed a love for the outdoors through such activities as biking and skiing. Homeschooled, he made friends in town via classes in martial arts, fencing and ballet, with residents recalling him as polite and thoughtful.
Bergdahl also yearned for new experiences, and after earning his high school equivalency diploma he began training his sights past the surrounding mountains. He worked as a crew member on a boat that sailed along the East Coast and through the Caribbean, and spent time in Europe. Bergdahl also made an initial foray into the armed forces with the United States Coast Guard in early 2006, but spent just four weeks in basic training before being granted an administrative discharge.
U.S. Army Service and Capture
After enlisting in the U.S. Army in 2008, Bowe Bergdahl was assigned to the First Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, Fourth Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, at Fort Richardson, Alaska, where he developed a reputation as a keen marksman. In May 2009, he was deployed as a machine gunner to Outpost Mest Malak in Paktika Province of eastern Afghanistan. According to his parents, Bergdahl was initially thrilled by the experience, before souring on the purpose of American forces in the region.
Sometime overnight on June 30, 2009, Private First Class Bergdahl disappeared from his post, setting off an extensive search for his whereabouts. He surfaced in an online video the following month, seemingly unharmed, and U.S. intelligence came to believe he was being held captive by the militant Haqqani network, which had ties to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Over the next five years, additional videos posted online displayed Bergdahl in deteriorating condition as he decried American military actions. He later revealed that he had been brutally beaten and tortured, enduring long stints chained on all fours and locked in a cage, and had attempted numerous failed escapes.
Release and Controversy
On May 31, 2014, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. had successfully negotiated the release of Bergdahl, who had been promoted to the rank of sergeant while in captivity. In exchange, the U.S. agreed to release five Taliban members who were being detained at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba.
Initially sent to a military hospital in Germany, Bergdahl returned stateside in mid-June to continue his rehabilitation at San Antonio Military Medical Center. While his safe return was praised in some quarters, critics blasted President Obama for illegally bypassing Congress to release five known American enemies from Guantánamo Bay. Additionally, several former servicemen went public to speak unfavorably of the "deserter," citing reports of at least six killed while searching for him.
Investigation and Charges
Pronounced fit to return to active duty in mid-July 2014, Bowe Bergdahl was released from care and assigned administrative duty in San Antonio. Meanwhile, the Army launched an investigation into the circumstances surrounding his disappearance in 2009.
In March 2015, the Army concluded its investigation by charging Sergeant Bergdahl with one count of desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty and one count of misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place. The second charge brought the possibility of life imprisonment, but Sergeant Bergdahl was determined to be suffering from schizotypal personality disorder at the time of his departure, and investigators later recommended he be spared additional incarceration for his actions.
Over the winter of 2015-16, Bergdahl offered the first extensive account of his harrowing experience on the podcast Serial. He claimed that he initially left the outpost to rebel against the poor leadership of supervisors. Bergdahl then decided he would gather intelligence on his own, à la fictional hero Jason Bourne, but he was soon discovered and captured by armed Taliban members.
Shortly after the season's first episode of Serial aired, in December 2015, General Robert Abrams of U.S. Army Forces Command announced that he was rejecting the recommendations of investigators and referring Bergdahl’s case to a general court-martial.
The Bowe Bergdahl case proceeded in fits and starts through 2016, with a stay of proceedings issued as the defense sought to obtain classified information. Meanwhile, presidential candidate Donald Trump invoked Bergdahl on the campaign trail, suggesting he should be executed for deserting his fellow soldiers.
After President Trump's inauguration in early 2017, the defense unsuccessfully sought to have the case dismissed on the grounds that Trump's comments had eroded the potential of a fair trial. In May, it was announced that jury selection would begin on October 16.
In August 2017, Bergdahl elected to forego a trial by jury and place his fate in the hands of the military judge overseeing the case, Colonel Jeffery R. Nance. On October 16, Bergdahl again changed course and pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. His sentencing hearing begins on October 23 in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
In an interview with British journalist Sean Langan for a story published in The Sunday Times of London, Bergdahl said: “At least the Taliban were honest enough to say, ‘I’m the guy who’s gonna cut your throat. Here, it could be the guy I pass in the corridor who’s going to sign the paper that sends me away for life."
On November 3, 2017, a military judge ruled that Bergdahl will be dishonorably discharged and won't serve prison time. The ruling also called for his rank to be reduced from sergeant to E1 and he will be required to pay a $1,000 fine from his salary for the 10 months.
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