Before President Barack Obama left office, many requested that he pardon Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who is now facing a possible life sentence at Fort Bragg on charges of desertion and misbehavior while stationed in Afghanistan.
Obama failed to pardon Bergdahl, who left his post while on duty in 2009 and within hours was captured by members of the Taliban. They held him caged and captive for five years, until he was swapped for five Guantanamo Bay Taliban prisoners.
Sen. John McCain has improperly called Bergdahl a deserter and claimed that Obama had made a bad deal. McCain believes Bergdahl should have been held by the Taliban indefinitely, or allowed to die in captivity, unless a better deal could be arranged.
“If Bergdahl has no punishment,” McCain said, “we are going to have a hearing in the Armed Services Committee.”
The Military Commissions Act holds, “No person may attempt to coerce or influence the actions of a military commission.” McCain has put persistent and improper pressure on the Army in this case.
George Washington set the precedent for prisoner swaps and did many during the Revolutionary War. Abraham Lincoln also encouraged very large prisoner swaps. In the Civil War, 211,000 Northerners were captured. Between 1861 and 1863, most were almost immediately paroled in prisoner exchanges.
The exchange system broke down after 1863, when Confederates refused to treat captured black prisoners as equal to white men. Prison populations then soared, and about 16 percent of all prisoners died in captivity.
Donald Trump, a draft avoider when faced with military service during the Vietnam War, has repeatedly called Bergdahl a “dirty rotten traitor” before millions of TV viewers. Trump did not stop there. He also specifically claimed Bergdahl should be “executed or sent back to his Taliban captors.” Trump defamed this Army combat volunteer at least 60 times on TV. Such reckless and foul rhetoric only encourages death threats, which Bergdahl’s family has received.
Because of Trump’s frequent derogatory public pronouncements against a soldier seeking military justice, Bergdahl’s lawyers presented a motion to the military judge at a Feb. 13 pretrial hearing, arguing that Trump’s comments violate Bergdahl’s due process rights.
The trial judge, Col. Jeffrey R. Nance, called Trump’s comments “disturbing material,” and a potential “black eye on the Army’s criminal justice system.” Bergdahl’s lead attorney, Eugene Fidell, wrote, “In a democratic society, it is a core promise that statements made by those who seek elective office must be taken seriously, especially when those statements are made repeatedly.” Fidell believes Bergdahl was actually AWOL when captured, and not a deserter.
A 2014 Army investigation, led by Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, found “no evidence Bergdahl engaged in any misconduct during his years in captivity.” The 59-day investigation interviewed 57 witnesses, including Bergdahl. He was returned to active duty. It found that he left his position to report “misconduct in his unit.”
He had serious concerns about certain conditions there and decided that the only way to get any attention to them would be to personally deliver that information to a general officer. He intended to return quickly. Dahl concluded that there was no evidence Bergdahl was “sympathetic to the Taliban.” He said imprisonment would be an “inappropriate” penalty for Bergdahl, and found “no soldiers had been killed in efforts to retrieve him.”
Bergdahl is not a typical GI. At 20, he tried to enlist in the French Foreign Legion, which rejected him. He then enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, where after only 26 days he was cashiered under an RE-3L re-enlistment code. In 2006, he joined the Army and trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he was cited as an expert rifleman. He served in Alaska and then saw deadly combat in Afghanistan.
Home-schooled, Bergdahl was raised on a small Idaho farm and fed a diet of the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, Saint Augustine, Kant and Hume. If the Army had been aware of his Coast Guard discharge, it probably would have denied his enlistment.
Bergdahl’s fate should not ultimately rest in the hands of President Trump, who has repeatedly slandered this volunteer soldier. Trump clearly fails to comprehend the significant difference between being absent without leave (AWOL) and being guilty of treason.
Bergdahl has already paid a heavy price for being AWOL for just a few hours: five years of cruel and inhumane punishment. His military trial is planned for April unless the court determines that he cannot get a fair trial.
Paul R. Dunn lives in Pinehurst. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.