FORT BRAGG, N.C.— Accused Army deserter Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl should be awarded several medals including the Purple Heart and Prisoner of War Medal, his military lawyer asserted Tuesday during a pre-trail hearing.
Army Lt. Col. Franklin Rosenblatt said Bergdahl, accused of abandoning his eastern Afghanistan post in 2009 before he was captured by the Taliban, was entitled to the awards and the Army’s failure to grant them could bias potential jurors in the trial.
Bergdahl faces a general court-martial on charges of “misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place” and “desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty.” He has not yet entered a plea.
“We believe this is a prejudice and casts a semblance of guilt,” Rosenblatt told Army judge Col. Jeffrey R. Nance, during the hearing that largely focused on the defense’s ability to access classified material related to Bergdahl’s case. “We encourage the government to correct that.”
Bergdahl, who appeared for the first time in front of Nance on Tuesday, wore a pressed dress blue uniform with sergeant’s stripes, a Combat Infantryman Badge and 10 overseas service bars, representing his five years in captivity. Rosenblatt said Bergdahl should be authorized to wear the Purple Heart, the POW Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal and the NATO medal.
Nance, who will oversee Bergdahl’s court-martial scheduled for Aug. 8-19 at Fort Bragg, said there was time to resolve the issue before the trail, adding any prejudice that could be caused by the lack of medals on future pre-trial proceedings is “minimal.”
Bergdahl, 29, remains on active duty at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston assigned to U.S. Army North. He spent five years imprisoned by the Taliban-linked Haqqani Network before he was released in May 2014 in a controversial prisoner swap for five Taliban commanders who had been held in a detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The soldier faces up to life in prison if convicted of the more serious misbehavior charge. The desertion charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, a dishonorable discharge, reduction to the rank of E-1 and forfeiture of all pay and allowances.
Throughout the hearing, Bergdahl remained mostly silent, answering three questions from Nance, “Yes, sir.” The ex-captive sat straight up in his chair throughout the nearly two-hour hearing, maintaining his focus on the judge.
Meanwhile, the prosecution and defense wrangled over wording in a protective order governing how classified information, including some 300,000 pages related to the case, is handled.
While Rosenblatt said his team must be granted greater access to that information in order to properly prepare Bergdahl’s defense, the prosecution argued safeguards must be in place to protect the unauthorized leak of classified information.
“It’s prejudicial to Sgt. Berdahl if he can’t get to (classified information) right now,” Rosenblatt said, adding his client is “the guy who has the most need to know, but the least access to it.”
The prosecution, represented by Capt. Michael Petrusic, argued any such classified information — and any witnesses who might have access to such details — should be screened by a senior military official with authorization to classify or declassify material before it can be released to Bergdahl’s defense.
Nance, noting the complexity that the vast amount of classified material adds to the case, said he would determine in the near future how such information should be handled, adding some of it has already been made public.
“The fact of it being released to the public, does not declassify it,” Nance said, indicating such information could not be used in public court unless it is properly declassified.
Nance did not set a date for Bergdahl’s next court appearance. A spokesman for Army Forces Command, which is overseeing the court-martial, said the date would be announced later.