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The Trial (and Error) of Bowe Bergdahl

by | Oct 23, 2017 | Military Affairs

Last week, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. The sentencing hearing began today, and he faces up to life in prison. As our readers are well aware, SGT Bergdahl walked away from his Afghan outpost in 2009. Taliban forces captured him several hours later. Search and rescue operations resulted in the injuries of several service members. After nearly five years in captivity, the Taliban released Bergdahl in exchange for five prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Colonel Jeffrey Nance recessed the hearing after an hour due to a family emergency on the part of one of the prosecutors, NPR reports. This delay also provides COL Nance, the presiding judge, further time to examine a defense motion to dismiss the case due to “unlawful command influence” on the court-martial by President Trump.

Unlawful Command Influence?

SGT Bergdahl’s defense team has submitted a motion for dismissal on the grounds of unlawful command influence. For those unaware, the Uniformed Code of Military Justice acts as the legal system under which service members operate. Article 37 outlines unlawful command influence:

“No authority convening a general, special, or summary court-martial, nor any other commanding officer, may censure, reprimand, or admonish the court or any member, military judge, or counsel thereof, with respect to the findings or sentence adjudged by the court, or with respect to any other exercises of its or his functions in the conduct of the proceedings. No person subject to this chapter may attempt to coerce or, by any unauthorized means, influence the action of a court-martial or any other military tribunal or any member thereof, in reaching the findings or sentence in any case, or the action of any convening, approving, or reviewing authority with respect to his judicial acts.”

Unlawful command influence is serious business in the military. The hierarchical rank structure of the military means that those at the top have a great deal of power and influence over those below. Special care and consideration must be taken to ensure that this power is not used to alter the course of judicial actions. One’s rank must never outweigh another’s rights.

Bergdahl’s defense has argued that President Trump’s comments during the campaign trail, in which he called their client a traitor who “should be shot”, constituted a breach of this article. Initially, Colonel Nance had concluded that the comments, while disturbing, were made before President Trump’s status as Commander-in-Chief. This meant that they were not considered unlawful command influence, as Candidate Trump was not in command.

However, the President recently commented, “I can’t comment on Bowe Bergdahl, but I think people have heard my comments in the past.” The defense proposes that this recent statement reaffirms President Trump’s previous views on the case. As Commander-in-Chief, President Trump is both the judge and prosecution’s boss. His beliefs and statements could affect how they operate during the case. The prosecution, on the other hand, suggests that the response was focused on the question in particular and did not demonstrate a larger belief or reaffirmation of his previous comments.

COL Nance has not expressed his ruling on the motion but did comment during the hours’ worth of proceedings today that he intended to retire as a colonel and was not motivated by pleasing or displeasing commanders. Despite this, he took the prosecution to task with their interpretation of President Trump’s recent comments and stated that public opinion over the military justice system was something he must consider.

A Washout with a Waiver

There is a second point of note to Bowe Bergdahl’s misadventures in the Army. SGT Bergdahl had previous joined the Coast Guard and washed after 26 days of Basic Training. He received an “unspecific discharge” and was sent on his way. This type of discharge is administered to those who do not complete Basic Training.

Bergdahl joined the U.S. Army in 2008, two years after failing out of the Coast Guard. That year, 20% of recruits received waivers for conditions or statuses that would have otherwise prohibited them from joining the service. Bowe Bergdahl was part of that 20%. In the aftermath of his disappearance, Bergdahl’s journals, emails, and writings revealed a fragile, introspective young man who, by all rights, should never have joined the military.

The U.S. Army’s Sanity Board Evaluation diagnosed Bergdahl with schizotypal personality disorder, a condition that can result in paranoia, incorrect interpretation of events, persistent social anxiety and, at times, brief psychotic episodes with delusions or hallucinations, according to the Mayo Clinic. Bergdahl’s defense, naturally, attributed his decision to walk away from his outpost to this condition.

Bergdahl’s claims, recent comments, and journals all demonstrate characteristics of a young man experiencing such a condition. He claimed he intended to walk to headquarters and alert other commanders of problems within his unit. His journals show a man with illusions of grandeur who wanted to be an explorer, an adventurer, but at the same time saw darkness and emptiness within himself.

Bowe Bergdahl has been called many things since his return from captivity. Traitor. Coward. Fool. While there is no concrete evidence that shows an attempt to aid the enemy, at the end of the day, he abandoned his position and put the lives of his comrades in jeopardy. Bergdahl needs to be held accountable for his actions, but his saga is important for reasons you may not expect.

Liberty Nation, at times, has been critical of the military and the officials who run it. We believe in responsibility and accountability on both the individual and government level. Bergdahl should have never worn a uniform. His story serves as a clarion call to reexamine the lengths the military is willing to go to meet recruitment quotas. As the Pentagon seeks to regrow the force, it must remain vigilant in its recruiting standards, lest we allow another Bergdahl to enter the ranks.

Read More From Nathan Steelwater

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