Desertion charge intensifies debate over Bergdahl’s release

Published 9:53 am Thursday, March 26, 2015

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Charges that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl deserted and endangered his post in Afghanistan intensify the debate over his politically wrought release: Should he spend years in prison as punishment for endangering soldiers who risked their lives to find him?

Or was five years as a Taliban captive, where he was so isolated officials suggested it had affected his ability to speak English upon his return to the U.S., punishment enough?

Bergdahl, 28, won’t face a death sentence, although the punishment is an option for prosecutors to pursue against deserters in wartime. But his case does raise the question of whether military prosecutors will lock away for life a man the U.S. gave up five imprisoned Taliban commanders to bring home.

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A death penalty case was likely a non-starter after all that had to be sacrificed to bring him home, said Jeffrey K. Walker, a St. John’s University law professor, retired Air Force officer and former military lawyer. In fact, his defense attorney might successfully argue he deserves leniency after years as a prisoner.

“That’s pretty good mitigation evidence,” Walker said. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if what he ended up with was a dishonorable discharge and no jail time.”

Bergdahl’s “reintegration” when he returned to Fort Sam Houston in Texas suggests how difficult his life was in captivity. He was on a bland diet at first and did not initially have access to a television.