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What's the Punishment for Military Desertion?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Two and a half years after he was charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, Bowe Bergdahl pleaded guilty to those charges this week. According to reports, there was no pre-trial agreement between Bergdahl and Army prosecutors prior to the guilty plea, meaning he could face the maximum penalty for both counts.

So what are the penalties for military desertion? And could Bergdahl be looking at more time in confinement for the misbehavior charge?


Bergdahl admittedly left his post from a base in Afghanistan in 2009, allegedly to report "a critical problem in my chain of command." Therefore, his attorney claims leaving the post without intent to remain away permanently disqualifies him from desertion charges. But there are three types of desertion listed in the Manual for Courts-Martial, including "desertion with intent to avoid hazardous duty or important service," where the accused left his or her place of duty without authority, intended to remain away from his or her place of duty, and was apprehended. Bergdahl was captured by Taliban forces and held for five years.

While desertion generally carries a maximum punishment of dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay, and confinement of five years, desertion during a time of war may carry the death penalty.

Misbehavior Before the Enemy

Article 99 of the Armed Forces Code also carries the death penalty, applicable to any member of the armed forces who, in the presence of the enemy, "runs away; shamefully abandons, surrenders, or delivers up any command, unit, place, or military property which it is his duty to defend; [or] through disobedience, neglect, or intentional misconduct endangers the safety of any such command, unit, place, or military property." Military prosecutors say two soldiers and a Navy SEAL were wounded while searching for Bergdahl.

His sentencing hearing is scheduled for October 23, 2017.

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