Time For Resolution On The Bergdahl Case: Those Who Searched For Him Deserve It

Michael G. Waltz Senior National Security Fellow, New America Foundation
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Reports indicate Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who apparently walked off his post in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Haqqani Network for five years, will soon be charged with desertion. While the Army denies any decisions have been made, several news organizations have reported that a court martial is imminent. This critical step has already been delayed for too long.

For those of us who served in the military, particularly those who put their lives on the line searching for Bergdahl, it’s time for justice.

June 30, 2009, the day then-Private Bergdahl went missing, I took command of a U.S. Army Special Forces company with responsibility for operations in Ghazni, Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces in Afghanistan. That evening, two of my Special Forces teams boarded helicopters on a mission to search an Afghan compound where there were some indications Bergdahl may have been held. This marked the beginning of many missions into some of the most hostile areas of Afghanistan to find him.

U.S. infantry units, along with the Afghan Army and police, would man round-the-clock checkpoints on key roads and mountain passes in an effort to prevent the Taliban from escaping with Bergdahl across the border into Pakistan’s tribal areas. Simultaneously, my Special Forces teams and other special operations units would conduct raids into locations suspected of harboring Bergdahl or his captors. We received orders to halt all other ongoing missions and initiatives — including, notably, security preparations for the Afghan national elections — in order to devote all energy and resources to the search for Bergdahl.

Worse, the Taliban quickly realized what we were up to. They began feeding false information to our informants in order to lure our forces into a trap. On several occasions, my men were ambushed. Mercifully, the explosives planted for my men failed to detonate, but other soldiers were not so fortunate. At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last year, I heard Mr. Andy Andrews speak heartbreakingly about his son, 2nd Lt. Darryn Andrews, who had died while on a patrol looking for Bergdahl.

May 31, 2014, the Obama Administration traded five Taliban leaders for Bergdahl and hailed the deal at a Rose Garden ceremony. The backlash was instant. Those of us who knew what Bergdahl had done bristled to hear the Obama administration describe him as having served “with honor and distinction.” Backpedaling, the Pentagon assured the uniformed services and veterans that the investigation started in Afghanistan when Bergdahl disappeared would be brought to an objective conclusion. Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey assured a furious military community that, “Our Army’s leaders will not look away if misconduct occurred.”

December 22, that investigation was officially completed. Since then, it has been sitting on the desk of Gen. Mark Milley, commanding general of Forces Command and the General Courts Martial Convening Authority.

The Army has tremendous latitude in deciding how to handle this matter. It is up to Milley to determine whether Bergdahl’s actions deserve prosecution, non-judicial punishment, or no penalties at all.

Convening a court-martial is the right move. It would get the Army brass out of the middle of a case fraught with politics.

The court-martial proceedings will take up a number of critical questions about what punishment Bergdahl will face, if any. A key factor is whether he will be declared a deserter or allowed to retain his Prisoner of War (POW) status. This has financial implications. If Bergdahl is allowed to remain a POW, he will be eligible for an estimated $300,000 in back pay that accumulated during his detention.

Additionally, there is the question of the status of Bergdahl’s discharge from service. An honorable discharge would provide Bergdahl the numerous financial benefits afforded to veterans who have served honorably. For example, he would receive access to the G.I. Bill, providing tens of thousands of dollars of education benefits, as well as a lifetime of health care.

Moreover, if Bergdahl is found to have deserted, he may or may not face imprisonment. One school of thought is that his five years of detention by the Haqqani network and Taliban should stand as “time served” even if he is found to have deserted before he was captured. Others believe Bergdahl should face additional time in prison.

Politically, the situation is difficult for the Obama administration, which I believe is the reason the case has progressed so slowly. If Bergdahl retains his POW status and receives an honorable discharge, the Army will come under fire for being too lenient. If Bergdahl is determined to be a deserter, it will further discredit National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who told ABC News that Bergdahl not only “served the United States with honor and distinction,” but also “wasn’t simply a hostage; he was an American prisoner of war captured on the battlefield.”

There is also the issue of the terms of the trade and whether America paid too high a price in trading five of the Taliban’s most senior former Ministers and Commanders to bring home a soldier who deserted. When the former Guantanamo detainees “house arrest” Qatar expires in just five months, nothing will be stopping them from returning to lead the fight in Afghanistan at a fragile time. It will also mean that the administration endangered troops in Afghanistan for the benefit of a deserter.

Of greater concern to me than the political consequences are the moral ones. If Bergdahl is able to retain his POW status, he will find himself in the same honorable category as national heroes such as Louis Zamperini of the book Unbroken, Senator John McCain, Admiral Stockdale, and the thousands of brave POWs from past wars. An honorable discharge would allow Bergdahl to stand amongst veterans who truly have served honorably.

I know my men will be watching closely.

Those of us on the ground in Afghanistan were certain at the time that Bergdahl had walked off his post. We knew we had to do whatever we could to get him back, but all of us — including me — were absolutely furious and resentful that a fellow American soldier had put us in this position. It violated the most fundamental and basic ethos of a soldier’s creed — to never put the men and women to the left and right of you in harm’s way.

For those of us who risked life and limb to find Bergdahl, and most especially for the families of those who lost their lives looking for him, it is past time to put to bed the questions surrounding this case. I pray for a swift resolution, free of political pressure.

Holding Sgt. Bergdahl accountable for his actions will provide a sense of justice to those who truly served their country.