WASHINGTON — The Army will not decide whether alleged deserter Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will receive two significant medals that could be associated with his five years of captivity until after he is court-martialed for deliberately walking away from his infantry platoon's base in 2009, an Army official said.
The awards are the Prisoner of War Medal and the Purple Heart. The POW Medal goes to service members who are granted "creditable U.S. military service" and who were held captive while involved in a conflict with an opposing force, while the Purple Heart goes to troops who are killed or wounded by an enemy force. Bergdahl, who had been based in Afghanistan, was held hostage by the Haqqani network, a group affiliated with the Taliban, and tortured while held captive, according to Army officials who have testified in the soldier's criminal case.
The Army also will not decide whether Bergdahl is eligible to receive the Afghanistan Campaign Medal and the NATO Medal until after the trial. The campaign medal goes to service members who served in Afghanistan for 30 days consecutively or 60 days non-consecutively, while the NATO Medal goes to service members who serve in a variety of international commands in which NATO is involved.
"To ensure compliance with governing statutes and regulations, the Army cannot determine Sgt. Bergdahl's eligibility for any award until the conclusion of his court-martial," said Lt. Col. Jerry Pionk, an Army spokesman, in an email to The Washington Post.
Bergdahl, 29, faces charges of desertion and misbehavior for the enemy in connection with his disappearance and could be sentenced to up to life in prison. His disappearance spawned a massive manhunt by the U.S. military in Afghanistan that endangered U.S. troops and altered operations across the country for months, U.S. military officials have said.
Bergdahl was recovered in May 2014 by a U.S. Special Forces team in Afghanistan following a controversial prisoner swap approved by the White House in which five Taliban officials were released to the Qatari government. Obama said at the time that the United States has an "ironclad commitment to bring our prisoners of war home."
The decision to withhold any medals until the end of the court-martial was met on Friday with criticism from Bergdahl's civilian attorney, Eugene Fidell. The lack of the awards was raised by another attorney for Bergdahl, Army Lt. Col. Franklin Rosenblatt, during a pretrial hearing on Tuesday, but it was not clear when the issue would be resolved.
"Sgt. Bergdahl was advised just the other day to initiate the paperwork for the four additional decorations to which he is entitled," Fidell said in a statement. "If higher-ups in the Army have indeed decided to withhold them without even waiting for his submission, we are both surprised and disappointed. Preventing the accused from wearing his or her decorations is a major issue in a court-martial. A soldier has a right to appear in court wearing all military decorations to which he or she is entitled. Why can't Sgt. Bergdahl be treated like any other soldier — and afforded the presumption of innocence?"
In interviews with the Army and separate conversations aired recently during the podcast "Serial," Bergdahl has said he knew leaving his base would prompt a crisis but that he wanted to move to a larger base nearby to air grievances about his unit's leaders to a general. His lawyers have made the case that he should have been charged with going absent without leave (AWOL), a lesser charge that would have limited confinement after a conviction to 30 days.
Dwight Mears, a medically retired Army major and former history professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, said that it is unlikely that the service will want to award the POW Medal to Bergdahl even if he is acquitted of the charges he faces because he already admitted to walking away from his post deliberately.
"Even if he wasn't playing with a full deck, he's still admitted some culpability in leaving the base," said Mears, who has spent years investigating the military's POW Medal process and helped get the award in 2013 for 143 members of the U.S. Air Force who were held in a notorious Swiss internment camp during World War II.
Doug Sterner, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam and is well-known for his research of military awards, said that he doesn't think that Bergdahl should get either award because he walked away from his unit. It's difficult to picture him getting the POW Medal in particular, Sterner said, citing the legislation that created the medal, which said that it should "recognize that character of military service which arises under the most hostile and difficult of circumstances — that of being held prisoner by the enemy."
But Sterner said a case can be made that he should at least get the Purple Heart because he was in fact wounded while in captivity.
"As much as it's going to gall a whole lot of veterans, we have a system and we have to respect the system, even when it doesn't go the way we would like it to," Sterner said of the possibility Bergdahl could get the Purple Heart.
Either way, he added, it makes sense to him that the service waits on any awards decision until after Bergdahl's trial.