Desertion charge could cost Bergdahl’s back pay

WASHINGTON — Army officials said Wednesday that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl might have to pay back the Pentagon wages he accrued during nearly five years of Taliban captivity if an investigation finds that he deserted his outpost in Afghanistan before his 2009 capture.

Bergdahl hasn’t been read his rights and hasn’t requested or received a military lawyer, but anything he says during what the Pentagon calls his “reintegration” process could be used against him in the ongoing probe of his unusual case, Army officials said.

Two Army officials familiar with military legal and career administrative processes briefed reporters at the Pentagon on the condition that they not be identified in order to discuss circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s case.

Bergdahl, 28, was freed May 31 in a controversial swap for five senior Taliban militants released from the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Idahoan is at Joint Base San Antonio after having received medical treatment for 12 days at a U.S. Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.

Bergdahl’s current military classification is “temporary duty,” a status that usually lasts up to 60 days, and was changed from “missing/captured” on the day of his release, the officials said.

The Army officials declined to provide any information about Bergdahl’s emotional or physical condition, and they wouldn’t say whether he’s spoken with his parents or whether his movements are restricted while he’s being treated on an outpatient basis at Brooke Army Medical Center on the San Antonio base.

Army Maj. Gen. Kenneth R. Dahl, who was named to head the investigation June 16 when it was launched, can interview former members of Bergdahl’s military unit, but he has no subpoena power and cannot compel those who are now civilians to answer questions, the officials said.

Dahl plans to interview Bergdahl as part of the probe, but he hasn’t done so yet, the officials said. Before being questioned by Dahl, Bergdahl will be informed of his rights and provided with a lawyer if he asks for one, they said.

Some current and former soldiers, including several who served with Bergdahl, have made public statements accusing him of desertion and alleging that servicemen died during the July 2009 search for him after his June 30 disappearance.

If the probe finds that Bergdahl went AWOL or left his combat outpost in Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan, he’d face a range of possible punishments, from counseling to reprimand to a court-martial, the Army officials said Wednesday.

Going AWOL is a less serious infraction than desertion because it usually means a temporary absence without the intent to take permanent leave of the military.

Asked whether any military lawyers are participating in the process of helping Bergdahl recover from his five-year ordeal, one Army official said: “There are attorneys on the reintegration team, but they don’t represent Sgt. Bergdahl.”

Asked whether Bergdahl is entitled to a lawyer, the official responded, “We would give him an attorney” if he requested one, but said he hadn’t done so.

In a series of cryptic and somewhat confusing exchanges with reporters, the Army officials provided some details about Bergdahl’s past and present finances. For a while after his capture, Bergdahl’s pay was automatically deposited into his bank account, but that account became inactive for non-use at some point. The Army then began to hold Bergdahl’s wages in escrow.

Asked whether Bergdahl now has access to that money, one official responded: “partial.”

The official indicated that Bergdahl can tap his personal bank account but not the holding account that was set up after his capture.

According to Army pay scales for an E-5 sergeant, Bergdahl was likely earning an annual average of about $29,000 in base salary, with extra hardship pay for his Afghanistan posting during his captivity. That means Bergdahl accumulated on the order of $145,000 during his captivity. He was single without children, so there were no close family members eligible to use that money at the time.

Asked whether Bergdahl would have to reimburse the Pentagon if he’s eventually deemed a deserter, one Army official responded: “That is a possibility, yes, absolutely.”

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