New documents have been released surrounding the case of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. He is currently awaiting court-martial for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy after leaving his post in rural Afghanistan in 2009. The sergeant was subsequently captured by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani Network and held in captivity in Pakistan for nearly five years. Bergdahl was released in 2014 as part of a controversial prisoner exchange involving five suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay. The recently-released documents include transcripts of the sergeant’s Aug. 2014 interview with Gen. Kenneth Dahl, as well as transcripts of Bergdahl’s Sept. 2015 Article 32 preliminary hearing. In his statements to Dahl, the sergeant described his intention to walk from his post to a nearby forward operating base to draw attention to what he considered dangerous mismanagement by the leadership of his unit.
Bergdahl also described a previous mental health incident while he was in the Coast Guard, as well as the circumstances of his capture and captivity. D. Chris Russell, a civilian attorney with expertise in military law, spoke about how the sergeant’s testimony could affect his upcoming court-martial. “They hurt him in the context that it’s a clear expression that he intended to walk away from his post,” Russell said.
At the same time, Russell noted, Bergdahl’s statements could also help mitigate the severity of his sentence. “It helps him in the context that his expressions are (that) he only temporarily meant to leave military authority, and that, in his words, involuntary capture obviously prevented his ability to return,” Russell said. “That’s not a defense, if you will, but it’s certainly an extenuating factor…” More importantly, in Russell’s estimation, the sergeant’s words could work toward changing public opinion of the case.
“People’s imaginations are probably, and often are, a lot worse than reality, and this case for this defense attorney obviously has a very significant political stigma,” he said. “It seems to me that the defense was trying to mitigate public opinion.” Still, many current and former military personnel hold a low view of Bergdahl’s actions. Jesse Gomez, an MCC student and former Marine who did tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, discussed his impressions of the case. “I think he’s just very lucky to be alive,” he said. Gomez acknowledged how Bergdahl’s motives and possible mental illness could have been a factor in what he did. “Maybe he had some issues… before he even went into the military, you know, and all this trauma just exacerbated it,” he said. “I know a lot of guys who crack… There’s tons of people that join, but they might have a different mentality than you and I.”
Gomez was also unsure whether life imprisonment was appropriate for the sergeant.
“Maybe they might be able to figure out a different sentence,” he said. “What’s he going to do, sit around and waste taxpayer money sitting in there?” For Gomez, however, Bergdahl nevertheless ought to stand accountable for his actions. “You can’t tell me he didn’t know what was happening,” he said. “You can’t tell me he thought everything was going to be okay. You’re in the military, so you don’t have no say.” “That’s on him. He did that to him… Nobody did that to him,” he added. According to Gomez, Bergdahl’s impact go beyond his own life – his actions represent a black mark on the Army as a whole. “You can’t erase that,” he said. Regardless of the outcome of the court-martial, Gomez is skeptical over whether justice is even possible in this case. “In the end, I think that he’s never going to get any kind of justice,” he said. “If he dies, he’s not going to get justice. If he stays in prison, he’s not going to get justice… Nobody’s getting justice.”