Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured and held by the Taliban for five years after walking away from his post in Afghanistan, pleaded guilty Monday to desertion and endangering his comrades — charges that could put him behind bars for the rest of his life.
“I understand that leaving was against the law,” said Bergdahl, who admitted guilt without striking a deal with prosecutors, meaning his punishment will be up to a military judge when he is sentenced later this month.
The guilty plea brings the highly politicized saga closer to an end eight years after Bergdahl vanished.
President Barack Obama brought him home in 2014 in a swap for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, saying the U.S. does not leave its service members on the battlefield. Republicans roundly criticized Obama, and Donald Trump went further while campaigning for president, repeatedly calling Bergdahl a “dirty, rotten traitor” who deserved to be executed by firing squad or thrown out of a plane without a parachute.
Bergdahl, 31, has said he walked away from his remote post in 2009 with the intention of reaching other commanders and drawing attention to what he saw as problems with his unit.
He also reflected on what he thought were questionable tactics by U.S. soldiers and their Afghan allies in guarding a remote crossroads that could be bypassed by the Taliban on other routes. He said the setup “seemed to be a bit of a joke.”
Pressed by the judge about his actions, Bergdahl acknowledged endangering his fellow service members.
“I left my platoon in a battlefield … a situation that could easily turn into a life-or-death situation,” he said.
At his sentencing, set to begin Oct. 23, his years in captivity could be factored in, but the hearing is also likely to feature damning testimony from fellow service members.
A Navy SEAL who suffered a career-ending leg wound and an Army National Guard sergeant whose head wound put him in a wheelchair would not have been hurt in firefights had they not been searching for Bergdahl, the judge has ruled.
Earlier this year, the defense was rebuffed in an effort to prove Trump had unfairly swayed the case. The judge ruled in February that the new president’s comments were “disturbing and disappointing” but did not constitute unlawful influence by the soon-to-be commander in chief.
Bergdahl, who is from Hailey, Idaho, has been assigned to desk duty at a Texas Army base in the meantime.