What Kind of Punishment Might Bowe Bergdahl Face?

March 25, 2015 Updated: March 25, 2015

In the military, desertion is something you don’t want to be accused of.

If convicted, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl could become the highest-profile deserter in recent memory. Bergdahl, 28, was held captive by Taliban-aligned militants in Afghanistan and was part of a prisoner exchange for five members of the Taliban who were held at the Guantanamo Bay prison. The swap has been subjected to a great deal of media scrutiny. He was charged with the crime on Wednesday.

There’s been speculation that Bergdahl–who was held captive by the Taliban for five years–could get the death penalty, but that’s not the case. Specifically, he was charged with misbehavior before the enemy, which could get him a maximum sentence of up to life in prison. He was also faces desertion charges, which carries a maximum of five years behind bars.

What does it mean to be charged with desertion?

The military terms desertion as abandoning a post or duty without permission, and it is generally done with the intention of not returning. It differs from failure to report for duty or going AWOL.

Says FindLaw.com: “A military service member who fails to report for duty often faces serious charges. There are three related offenses that fall under this category—absence without leave (or AWOL), desertion, and missing movement—all carrying very serious penalties, up to and including the death penalty for desertion during war. Being AWOL for 30 days is considered desertion, while missing movement is charged when a service member misses the movement of a ship or aircraft intentionally or out of neglect.”

It adds that an offender “who is AWOL for 30 days automatically is considered to have deserted his or her post (without proof of intent). An example would be a service member deployed in a foreign war leaving his post after informing his commanding officer that he no longer wants to serve.”

The punishment for desertion can be severe. If one deserts during a time of war, the death penalty can be used under the discretion of a court-martial.

However, that doesn’t happen too often.

“Desertion carries a maximum punishment of dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay, and confinement of five years,” FindLaw says.

Last year, in an editorial piece, former Army officer Nathan Bradley Bethea wrote for the Daily Beast that “we lost soldiers in the dead of night” because of Bergdahl’s actions.

“And that the truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down,” he wrote for the publication.

He added: “I believe that Bergdahl also deserves sympathy, but he has much to answer for, some of which is far more damning than simply having walked off. Many have suffered because of his actions: his fellow soldiers, their families, his family, the Afghan military, the unaffiliated Afghan civilians in Paktika, and none of this suffering was inevitable. None of it had to happen. Therefore, while I’m pleased that he’s safe, I believe there is an explanation due.”