Bergdahl spared from prison; Trump calls sentence ‘disgrace’

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who walked away from his post in Afghanistan and triggered a search that left some of his comrades severely wounded, was spared a prison sentence by a military judge Friday in what President Donald Trump blasted as a “complete and total disgrace.”

The politically divisive case 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, 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 from sergeant to private and ordered him to forfeit pay equal to $1,000 per month for 10 months.

The judge gave no explanation of how he arrived at his decision, but he reviewed evidence including Bergdahl’s time spent in captivity and the wounds suffered by troops who searched for him.

In court, Bergdahl appeared tense, grimaced and clenched his jaw. His attorneys put their arms around him and one patted him on the back. One defense attorney cried after the sentence was announced.

Defense lawyer Eugene Fidell told reporters that his client had “looked forward to today for a long time.”

Bergdahl “is grateful to everyone who searched for him in 2009, especially those who heroically sustained injuries,” Fidell added.

Trump’s statement came in a tweet about 90 minutes after the sentence was announced. “The decision on Sergeant Bergdahl is a complete and total disgrace to our Country and to our Military,” the president wrote.

Bergdahl 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 Trump’s harsh campaign-trail criticism.

The dishonorable discharge threatens to deprive Bergdahl of most or all his veterans’ benefits, but it also triggers an automatic appeal to a higher military court. Before that, a general who can lower, but not increase, the sentence will also review it.

Fidell told reporters that he looks forward to the appeals court review of Trump’s campaign statements, which the president appeared to reaffirm on the day Bergdahl pleaded guilty last month.