'Serial's Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl Has Been Court-Martialed — Here’s What That Means

If you’ve been following the news or the second season of the exceedingly popular podcast, Serial, you may have heard the name Bowe Bergdahl. An Army sergeant who was stationed in Afghanistan and captured by the Taliban back in 2009, Bergdahl was held for five years — the longest of any known Taliban POW to come out alive — eventually released back to the U.S. military. But despite the seemingly heroic nature of the story, it was revealed today that Bergdahl will be facing a court-martial for charges set against by the U.S. Army. So what does this mean for the Army sergeant?

Well, to start, it’s important to know what charges have seen set against Bergdahl by the U.S. Army. As revealed in the first episode, Bergdahl is currently being tried for having left his post in the first place, on one count of desertion and one count of misbehavior before the enemy. It’s also important to know what it means to face a court-martial. If you’re not too familiar with the term court-martial, or if your only familiarity of it comes from a few episodes of The Good Wife, you’re not alone. Here’s a quick and relatively simple explanation of what a court-martial is and what it might mean for Bergdahl, along with a bit of backstory about his case.


What Happened In Afghanistan?

Sgt. Bergdahl originally planned to walk off base in order to trigger something called a DUSTWUN, or an alert for missing soldiers. Berdahl claims he did this because he was worried about the leadership of his direct superiors, whom he felt were endangering the lives of their troops. But when Bergdahl walked off at night on June 30, 2009, he was quickly discovered by Taliban forces. Hours after his capture, a massive manhunt began for the sergeant that some claim resulted in the deaths of six other soldiers (others state that there’s no way of directly pinning this on Bergdahl). When he was finally located five years later, the White House negotiated with the Taliban and had to offer five Guantanamo prisoners in exchange for Bergdahl. It seems straightforqard, but there has been a lot of speculation regarding how Bergdahl managed to survive so long and whether he was a Taliban sympathizer from the start.


What Is A Court-Martial?

Citizens are normally tried in a criminal or civil trial. In cases dealing with a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, military personnel are tried via court-martial, or a military court. The court-martial determines the guilt or innocence and the potential sentencing of members of the military, subject to military law. Like a standard trial, courts-martial also have a judge, defense, and prosecution, plus a jury, though these are always composed of officers or other military personnel.


How Many Court-Martials Are There?

When Sergeant Bergdahl was originally charged, Major General Kenneth Dahl, who presided over the initial hearing in September, requested that Bergdahl’s case go to a lower-level court-martial. Otherwise known as a summary or special court-martial, these trials are mainly reserved for minor offences, and sentencing usually deals with reductions in pay grade, with few chances of confinement. In trials of this nature, the accused may either have a trial with just the judge or be judged by a small panel of officers. At worst, the accused may face up to a year of confinement or a dishonourable discharge. It was Dahl’s opinion that due to Bergdahl’s time as a POW, he should not see any more time in prison. Sergeant Bergdahl is facing a general court-martial, the highest military court level. Comparable to felony court, general court-martial is the only level at which an accused may face life in prison or even a death penalty.


What Does This Mean For Sergeant Bergdahl?

If convicted on the charge of desertion, Bergdahl could face up to five years in confinement--the same amount of time he spent as a captive of the Taliban, during which he allegedly faced all kinds of torture, including being chained to a bed, being struck by copper cables and rubber hoses, and having to hear endless threats of bodily harm. Additionally, if found guilty of "misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit, or place," Bergdahl could see life in prison.

We’ll have to see what awaits Bergdahl in the future. For now, you can get more details by listening to Serial season two.

Images: U.S. Army/Getty; PBS News Hour/YouTube