FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who walked off his Army base in Afghanistan in 2009 and was held captive by the Taliban for five years, received no prison time for desertion or endangering troops, but was ordered by a military judge on Friday to be dishonorably discharged from the Army.
The sentencing took only minutes in a case where prosecutors had sought 14 years in a military prison.
The military judge, Col. Jeffery R. Nance of the Army, also reduced Sergeant Bergdahl’s rank to private and required him to forfeit $1,000 a month of his pay for 10 months.
President Trump, who has labeled Sergeant Bergdahl a “dirty rotten traitor,” called Friday’s sentence “a complete and total disgrace to our Country and to our Military.”
Colonel Nance did not explain his reasoning for the sentence, which will be reviewed by Gen. Robert B. Abrams, who convened the court-martial and has the power to lessen the punishment. If the final sentence still includes a punitive discharge, it will automatically be reviewed by the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals.
After trading Sergeant Bergdahl for five Taliban detainees in 2014, the Obama administration embraced him, with the national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, even saying he had served with “honor and distinction.” But the prisoner swap, and the sergeant’s portrayal, angered many Republicans. Senator John McCain even threatened to hold a hearing if the sergeant was not punished.
Last year, Mr. Trump made denunciations of Sergeant Bergdahl a staple of his campaign speeches, repeatedly calling for him to be executed.
Ironically, Mr. Trump’s comments may have contributed to the decision not to sentence him to prison. After Mr. Trump seemed last month to endorse his harsh criticism from the campaign trail, Colonel Nance ruled that he would consider the comments as mitigating evidence at sentencing.
With the sentence still facing review by General Abrams and military appellate judges, Mr. Trump’s post-verdict comments on Twitter seemed to bolster efforts by the defense to have the sentence thrown out on appeal, some military law experts said, on the grounds that the president had unlawfully influenced the case.
“Trump just exponentially increased Bergdahl’s chances of getting this whole case tossed on appeal,” said Rachel VanLandingham, a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles and a retired Air Force lawyer.
The tweet could be interpreted as an effort to pressure officers who still have some control over the sergeant’s fate not to reconsider his sentence, military law experts said.
Sergeant Bergdahl’s chief defense lawyer, Eugene R. Fidell, called the sentence “a tremendous relief” and said his client was still absorbing it.
Standing outside the military courthouse here, Mr. Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, then took sharp aim at the commander in chief.
Even though the defense had told the judge that a dishonorable discharge would be appropriate, Mr. Fidell said he hoped that it would be overturned. He noted that such a discharge would deprive his client of health care services and other “benefits he badly needs” from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Sergeant Bergdahl is expected to return to an Army base as the case winds through the appeals process.
Sergeant Bergdahl was 23 and a private first class when he left his base in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009. Army investigators would later characterize his departure as a delusional effort to hike to a larger base and cause enough of a stir that he would get an audience with a senior officer to report what he felt were problems in his unit.
But the soldier, who is now 31, was captured by the Taliban within hours and spent five years as a prisoner, his treatment worsening after every attempt to escape. He was beaten with copper cables and held in isolation in a metal cage less than seven feet square. He suffered dysentery for most of his captivity, and cleaned feces off his hands with his own urine so that he could eat enough bread to survive
The military searched for him, and several troops were wounded during those missions. One of them, Sgt. First Class Mark Allen, was shot through the head and lost the ability to walk, talk or take care of himself, and now has minimal consciousness. His wife, Shannon, testified that he is not even able to hold hands with her anymore. On a separate rescue mission, Senior Chief Petty Officer Jimmy Hatch, a Navy SEAL, suffered a leg wound that required 18 surgical procedures and ended his long career in special operations.
Army investigators quickly dismissed claims that troops had died searching for Sergeant Bergdahl — who was promoted during captivity — or that he had intended to defect to the Taliban. They suggested that he could be prosecuted for desertion and for some lesser crimes. But in March 2015, the Army raised the stakes, accusing him not only of desertion but also of misbehavior before the enemy, an ancient but rarely charged crime punishable by up to life in prison. In this case, the misbehavior was endangering the troops sent to search for him.
Even so, the sergeant’s defense seemed to have some momentum. The Army’s chief investigator on the case testified at Sergeant Bergdahl’s preliminary hearing that he did not believe any jail time was warranted, and the preliminary hearing officer suggested the whole episode might have been avoided “had concerns about Sergeant Bergdahl’s mental health been properly followed up.”
But at Fort Bragg, General Abrams ordered that Sergeant Bergdahl face a general court-martial on both charges.
Once Mr. Trump was inaugurated, Sergeant Bergdahl’s defense team demanded that the case be dismissed. There was no way the sergeant could receive a fair trial, his lawyers said, since everyone in the military justice system now reported to President Trump as commander in chief.
Colonel Nance labeled Mr. Trump’s comments about Sergeant Bergdahl “disturbing,” but declined to throw out the case. Then, last month, Mr. Trump seemed to endorse his earlier sentiments about Sergeant Bergdahl, saying, “I think people have heard my comments in the past.”
After another protest by the defense, Colonel Nance ruled that he would consider the president’s comments as mitigation evidence.
During the sentencing hearing, Sergeant Bergdahl apologized for his misconduct, saying he never intended for anyone to get hurt, and that he grieved “for those who have suffered and their families.”
He added, “I’m admitting I made a horrible mistake.”
The lead Army prosecutor, Maj. Justin Oshana, drew a comparison between Sergeant Bergdahl and those who were hurt through his actions.
“It wasn’t a mistake,” Major Oshana said of the sergeant’s decision to walk off his base. “It was a crime.”
Responding to testimony about how captivity had left Sergeant Bergdahl with physical pain, Major Oshana noted that at least the sergeant was able to talk about it. Sergeant Allen was constantly in pain, too, he said, but no longer possessed the ability to describe it.
“Sergeant Bergdahl does not have a monopoly on suffering as a result of his choices,” Major Oshana added.
The defense argued that Sergeant Bergdahl had already suffered a severe penalty for his crimes by being tortured during five years in captivity.
“It is undisputed that Sergeant Bergdahl paid a bitter price for the decision he made,” one of his lawyers, Capt. Nina Banks, told Colonel Nance. She said that a dishonorable discharge was appropriate, but asked that he be spared prison.
The defense argued that Sergeant Bergdahl’s decision to walk away was influenced by a then-undiagnosed severe personality disorder.
Captain Banks also told the judge that the harsh comments by Mr. Trump meant that the sergeant’s persecution did not stop when he was freed.
“Sergeant Bergdahl has been punished enough,” she said.