Bowe Bergdahl, the Army sergeant who walked off his post in Afghanistan and triggered a search that wounded some of his comrades, will serve no prison time, a military judge ruled Friday at the end of the politically divisive case that stirred debate during the president campaign.
The charges centered on a decision by one soldier that affected many other lives. Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban and held for five years, until President Barack Obama traded Taliban prisoners to bring him back. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump called for Bergdahl to face stiff punishment. He could have received up to life in prison.
The judge also gave Bergdahl a dishonorable discharge, reduced his rank to private and ordered him to forfeit pay equal to $1,000 per month for 10 months. The judge made no other comments.
In court, Bergdahl appeared tense, grimaced and clenched his jaw. His attorneys put their arms around him and one patted him on the back.
He pleaded guilty last month to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. The judge had wide leeway in deciding the sentence because Bergdahl made no deal with prosecutors to limit his punishment.
Prosecutors had sought a stiff penalty because of wounds suffered by service members who searched for Bergdahl after he disappeared in 2009.
The defense sought to counter that evidence with testimony about Bergdahl’s suffering as a captive, his contributions to military intelligence and survival training and his mental health problems. The argument for leniency also cited harsh campaign-trail criticism by Trump.
The White House said it had no comment on the sentence and referred back to a statement from several weeks ago that said Trump expects everyone in the military justice system “to exercise their independent professional judgment, consistent with applicable laws and regulations.”
A punitive discharge deprives Bergdahl of most or all his veterans’ benefits.
Capt. Nina Banks, a defense attorney, said it would not be justice to rescue Bergdahl from the Taliban “only to place him in a cell” now.
During the multiday sentencing hearing, Bergdahl testified that he was sorry for the wounds suffered by searchers. He also described brutal beatings by his captors, illness brought on by squalid conditions and maddening periods of isolation.
A psychiatrist testified that his decision to leave his post was influenced by a schizophrenia-like condition called schizotypal personality disorder that made it hard to understand the consequences of his actions, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder brought on partly by a difficult childhood.
Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 14 years in prison.
Bergdahl “does not have a monopoly on suffering as a result of his choices,” Maj. Justin Oshana said.
The sergeant already has a job offer from an animal sanctuary, and a military official who helps design survival training said he would like to use Bergdahl as a part of lectures to service members on how to survive captivity.
The 31-year-old soldier from Hailey, Idaho, was brought home by Obama in 2014 in a swap for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. He has been stationed at a military installation in San Antonio.
At the time of Bergdahl’s release, Obama said the U.S. does not leave its service members on the battlefield. Republicans roundly criticized Obama, and Trump went further while campaigning for president, repeatedly calling Bergdahl a traitor who deserved serious punishment.