Military court, not Trump, best suited to judge Bergdahl

The sentencing of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was among the most difficult any military court will ever face. The judge, Army Col. Jeffrey R. Nance, utilized his intimate knowledge of military law and his experience as an officer in rendering a decision.

It was a controversial one, no doubt. A week ago Bergdahl escaped prison time for his crime of desertion. Prosecutors had asked for 14 years of incarceration. Nance did order a dishonorable discharge, reduced Bergdahl’s rank to private, and required him to forfeit $1,000 a month of pay for 10 months.

The sentence will automatically go through a review process, which allows reduction of the penalty, but not an increase in severity.

Critics of Nance’s ruling contend further punishment was called for given that other soldiers suffered severe, life-altering injuries in searching for Bergdahl after he walked off an Army base in Afghanistan in 2009. It would have helped provide context had Nance explained his reasoning. He chose not to do so.

In the final analysis, however, the military legal system was best suited to assess the punishment for the crimes of this confused soldier, not arm-chair judges, and certainly not the president.

President Trump acted in an unprincipled fashion, showing contempt for basic constitutional rights and the chain of command, when he sought to generate a lynch-mob mentality at his campaign rallies by characterizing this soldier as a “dirty rotten traitor” who deserved execution.

With his election, Trump became commander-in-chief, making him the top military authority. But instead of respecting the process, he again sought to poison the well, referring to his “comments in the past” when questioned last month about the Bergdahl sentencing hearing then underway.

And after the sentencing decision, this commander-in-chief showed disrespect for Judge Nance, who had done his duty as he best saw fit, by taking to twitter and denigrating the colonel, calling his ruling a “complete and total disgrace to our Country and to our Military.”

Rachael VanLandingham, a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles and a retired Air Force lawyer, told the New York Times the president’s statements were so inappropriate they “exponentially increased Bergdahl’s chances of getting this whole case tossed on appeal.”

Army investigators determined that a then 23-year-old Bergdahl, who according to defense testimony suffered from a severe personality disorder, left the relative safety of his base in a delusional effort to hike to a larger base and report to superior officers command problems in his own unit.

Captured within hours by the Taliban, he did not act in a traitorous fashion. There was no evidence he cooperated with his captors. Instead he sought to escape several times and return to his unit, in one case alluding capture for eight days.

During his five years in captivity, Bergdahl was beaten and tortured, suffered from severe dysentery much of the time and was largely confined to a metal cage less than seven feet square.

Upon his release in 2014, Bergdahl provided what Amber Dach, an intelligence analyst, called a “gold mine” of information about the treatment of captors by the Haqqani network, information that has already altered survival and captor training.

These are not the actions of a traitor.

Certainly Bergdahl, now 31, will face a life sentence of sorts, haunted by the mental and emotional damage stemming from his captivity, the guilt from having caused others to suffer by putting them in harm’s way, and the reality of being separated from the comrades he once served with and the help other soldiers receive.

This is not to dismiss the harm Bergdahl’s desertion caused. Sgt. First Class Mark Allen was shot through the head during a search for Bergdahl, leaving him unable to walk, talk, or care for himself. Senior Chief Petty Officer Jimmy Hatch saw his career as a Navy SEAL end due to the leg wounds suffered during an attempt to rescue the missing Bergdahl. They and all who joined in the search for the wayward officer are heroes.

This is a tragedy with no silver linings. The president should stop exploiting it.

 

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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