Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was rescued from Taliban captivity last spring after being held hostage in Afghanistan for five years, was formally charged with desertion, Col. Daniel J. W. King, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Forces Command, said in a news conference Wednesday.
The Army formally charged Bergdahl under the U.S. Armed Forces’ Uniform Code of Military Justice with “Desertion with Intent to Shirk Important or Hazardous Duty” and “Misbehavior Before The Enemy by Endangering the Safety of a Command, Unit or Place.”
From Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the Army official said the case has been referred to an Article 32 preliminary hearing, which will take place in Texas and will decide whether the case can be tried by a General Court-Martial.
Bergdahl could face a maximum sentence of five years for desertion, in addition to a reduction to the rank of E-1, total forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and punishment of dishonorable discharge, the Army spokesman said. However, defense and military officials previously told NBC News that if charged, the five years he spent in captivity would be taken into consideration.
Bergdahl could have also been charged by the Army with going AWOL (absent without leave), a lesser charge. For the charge of ”Misbehavior Before The Enemy by Endangering the Safety of a Command, Unit or Place,” he could face possible confinement for life.
Sen. John McCain called the move an “important step in the military justice process towards determining the accountability of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl” in a statement following the announcement. “I am confident that the Department of the Army will continue to ensure this process is conducted with the utmost integrity under the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” the Arizona Republican said.
Bergdahl was released in a prisoner swap in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay prisoners on May 31, raising questions about his disappearance from his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and whether he had left his fellow soldiers in danger by doing so. The Army subsequently began an investigation last June into the events leading up to his capture.
In January, senior defense officials told NBC News that Bergdahl would likely be charged with desertion because he allegedly abandoned his post “in the middle of a combat zone, potentially putting the lives of his fellows soldiers at risk.”
Roughly a month after his return to the U.S., Bergdahl was moved to outpatient treatment in Texas, where he has been receiving medical care and counseling. The psychological circumstances which led him to leave his post are unknown.
The terms of Bergdahl’s release remain politically contentious. Republicans have accused President Obama, who approved the prisoner swap, of violating the National Defense Authorization Act, which requires the president to inform Congress 30 days before transferring prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. Obama said he would make “no apologies” for the swap, which then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel defended as “the right decision.”