FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) – For the first time in eight years, Bowe Bergdahl doesn't face confinement, or the threat of it, after a judge spared the soldier from a prison sentence for endangering his comrades by walking off his post in Afghanistan.
The sentence, which also includes a dishonorable discharge, was quickly condemned by President Donald Trump as a "complete and total disgrace." In the coming months, the final act of the legal drama will play out when Bergdahl's lawyers take his case to a military appeals court to argue that Trump's fiery views of the case merit further concessions – and possibly dismissal of the entire case.
The punitive discharge means the case will automatically be appealed to a higher military court. And a top commander will also review the case and consider arguments for leniency, as is standard in Army legal cases.
Bergdahl walked away from his post in Afghanistan, triggering a search that left some of his comrades severely wounded. He was also captured and held by Taliban allies for five years, and his legal case began when he returned to the U.S.
The judge gave no explanation of how he arrived at his decision, but he reviewed evidence that included Bergdahl's captivity and the wounds suffered by troops who searched for him.
The case was politically divisive. President Barack Obama traded Taliban prisoners to bring Bergdahl back in 2014, drawing sharp Republican criticism. As a presidential candidate, Trump called for the soldier to face stiff punishment. He could have received up to life in prison.
The judge also gave the 31-year-old 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.
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," especially those who "heroically sustained injuries," Fidell added.
Trump's statement came in a tweet about 90 minutes after the sentencing. "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 his mental health problems. The argument for leniency also cited Trump's harsh campaign-trail criticism.