Blaine County native and former Taliban captive Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was arraigned Tuesday at Fort Bragg, N.C., during the first hearing of a military court-martial.
Bergdahl, who was raised near Hailey, left his Army base in Afghanistan without authorization in 2009. After being captured by the Taliban and spending five years in captivity, he was released in May 2014 in a prisoner swap for five Taliban commanders held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Bergdahl, 29, was charged in March with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. If convicted of the second charge, he could spend his life in prison.
As the military trial proceeds, the public will have unprecedented insights into the Bergdahl saga from a collection of interviews that he gave to Academy Award-winning filmmaker Mark Boal. The interviews have been produced by the “Serial” podcast into weekly installments that parallel the legal proceedings. Boal wrote the films “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker.”
Bergdahl entered no plea during the arraignment, presided over by military judge Col. Christopher T. Frederick.
Bergdahl is represented by civilian lawyer Eugene Fidell and military lawyer Capt. Frank Rosenblatt.
After an exhaustive investigation of Bergdahl’s case, Major Gen. Kenneth Dahl recommended in September a special court-martial, which would have carried a less severe sentence if Bergdahl were convicted.
“I do not believe there is a jail sentence at the end of this process,” Dahl said. “I think it would be inappropriate.”
Dahl also stated that Bergdahl was delusional. Fidell called for a medical evaluation for his client.
Yet Gen. Robert Abrams, head of U.S. Army Forces Command, decided last week to refer the case to a general court-martial, about a week after the first “Serial” podcast was released.
Military lawyer Eric Montalvo told the Idaho Mountain Express this week that Bergdahl’s recent interviews for “Serial” may have curtailed the defendant’s options regarding a mental-illness defense.
Montalvo, a former Marine Corps lawyer, was a combat soldier in the first Gulf War and subsequently deployed as an attorney in Iraq and Afghanistan. He defended U.S. soldier Adam Winfield, who tried to report heinous acts of premeditated murder and mutilation in his military unit in Afghanistan, a case that resulted in the documentary “The Kill Team.”
“I believe the podcast removed one key element of the military’s decision to prosecute Bergdahl, which was his mental state at the time,” said Montalvo. “What we hear from him in his own words is that he had consciousness about his decision [to leave the base] and he also acknowledges that he was going to be suffering consequences from that decision.”
During the second episode of “Serial,” Bergdahls’ fellow soldiers and commanders describe a widespread search that followed his disappearance. The ordeal brought his platoon and many other soldiers into harm’s way on a 45-day coordinated effort of roadblocks, house-to-house searches and raids on enemy strongholds.
During the search, Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers carried 100-pound packs in 95-degree heat, risking improvised explosive devices and enemy attacks to find him, witnesses reported. One of Bergdahl’s former platoon mates told Boal that if Bergdahl had been found at that time, he may have been killed on the spot by angry U.S. soldiers.
According to a Newsweek article written in April by former Idaho Mountain Express reporter Michael Ames, the Army seized the opportunity of Bergdahl’s disappearance during this period to hit enemy “hard targets” in Paktika Province.
“Blackfoot Company team leader, Sergeant Johnathan Rice, suspected his commanders weren’t really looking for Bergdahl,” wrote Ames. “Rice saw a method in the Army’s madness.”
“From an infantryman standpoint, we were doing our job for once,” Rice told Ames. “We were actually going to towns, doing our assaults, raiding places … we had excuses to hit high-value targets or hit people of interest.”
The latest “Serial” episode features interviews with Bergdahl’s former captors and Taliban leaders, speaking through interpreter Sami Yousafzai. They called Bergdahl a “ready-made loaf, a gift from God,” which would be very valuable.
The Taliban story differs from Bergdahl’s in that they say the soldier was taken after hiding out in a nomad’s tent.
Bergdahl said in a previous “Serial” episode that he was taken by Taliban soldiers who approached him in the open on motorcycles.
Listeners to the “Serial” podcast and court-martial trial watchers can expect further details about the reasons why Bergdahl left his post. He claims to have taken the risk of being jailed by the Army, or tortured by the enemy, to draw attention to “leadership failures” in his unit, which he said were putting his fellow soldiers’ lives in danger.
Bergdahl told Boal during interviews that he chose not to take a plea deal with the military prosecution because it would keep his true intentions for leaving his base from coming out, and render the five years he spent in Taliban captivity “a joke.”
Montalvo said legal motions by Bergdahl’s defense team in coming weeks could include a claim of “unlawful command influence,” which could call into question any improper influence on the judicial process so far. He said the defense could also call for expert advice on Bergdahl’s mental health and related medical records.
“Serial” producer Sarah Koenig said the third episode will provide details about Bergdahl’s first year in captivity, including his attempts to escape.
“Serial” episodes air Thursday mornings at 8 a.m. The podcast can also be found on the Internet at the iTunes Store.
The next hearing in the Bergdahl court-martial is scheduled for Jan. 12.