Bowe Bergdahl has avoided jail time, but will he manage to avoid the rest of his punishment?
Last Friday, the world was shocked when the judge in Bowe Bergdahl’s court-martial ruled that the admitted Army deserter would serve no jail time for his crimes. While many veterans were disappointed with COL Nance’s ruling, many took consolation in the fact that Bergdahl was going to receive a Dishonorable discharge. This is because a Dishonorable discharge renders a former service member ineligible for any and all Veterans Affairs benefits. This means no medical treatment, no disability checks, no VA home loans, no GI Bill, and none of the other benefits that various organizations require”good” discharges for. At least this is true in theory; the reality is something that many people are not talking about.
First, the sentence must be ratified by the convening authority of the court-martial. While he cannot increase his sentence, GEN Robert Abrams has the option of reducing the sentence during the mandatory review of a court-martial’s punishment. Even if he confirms the sentence, Bergdahl’s lawyers have announced that they will be appealing the Dishonorable discharge.
Even though the defense team requested the Dishonorable discharge while asking that their client receive no jail time during their closing arguments, they know that it will now prevent Bergdahl from receiving a lifetime of taxpayer-funded benefits. When the judge told Bergdahl what it meant to receive a Dishonorable discharge, he said he understood completely. One of his lawyers, CPT Nina Banks called a Dishonorable discharge an appropriate punishment. Now that Bowe has avoided justice in the form of confinement, we see a legal team maneuvering to eliminate all negative impacts for Bergdahl’s actions.
If Bergdahl can get the severity of his discharge reduced to an Other Than Honorable (OTH) discharge, he can take part of a little-known option through the Department of Veterans Affairs: the Character of Service Determination (CSD) Board. Under this program, the VA reserves the right to grant individuals with “bad paper” full benefits; no special application is required, the process starts if someone with a bad discharge applies for benefits. The only veterans not eligible for a CSD are those who received a Dishonorable or Bad Conduct discharge as the result of a General court-martial conviction.
If Bergdahl can get his Dishonorable discharge overturned by the convening authority, through the military appeals system, or by the Army Board for Correction of Military Records, he will likely be able to collect full VA benefits.
In another disgusting grab, Bergdahl’s lawyers announced their intention to seek the Prisoner of War medal for their client. While this may seem to be a petty move on the surface, the implications are actually much deeper.
One of the most under-discussed topics around Bergdahl is the fact that he had an estimated $150,000 in back pay due him after his 5 years in Afghanistan. If Bergdahl is determined to have been a Prisoner of War, he stands eligible for $148,000 in special compensation on top of this. This money had been frozen pending determination of his final disposition.
Some experts have stated that under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a conviction for desertion would mean that Bergdahl would forfeit all rights to compensation and could actually be held liable for the cost of returning him to the United States. What remains unclear is if this is actually the case; part of Bergdahl’s sentence involved a forfeiture of future pay that only totals $10,000. If the system works like it should, Bergdahl’s status and authorization for pay should have stopped the moment he deserted his post. However, if this case has shown us anything, it is that too often the military system doesn’t work like it should.
We were told Bowe Bergdahl served with honor and distinction. Bergdahl said that the Taliban treated him better than the military did after he returned. Now he is just some careful legal maneuvering away from having any negative repercussions for his actions. It remains to be seen if his appeals will be resolved before the book and movie deals start rolling in.