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Bowe Bergdahl deserted his post in Afghanistan. Originally facing the possibility of a life-sentence, prosecutors ultimately attempted to give him a 14-year sentence.

This seems like an absolutely horrific and barbaric way to punish soldiers who, for whatever reason, felt compelled to leave their post (in this particular case, apart from suffering from a mental disorder, Bergdahl seemingly wanted to reveal some bad things happening in his unit).

My question is, has anybody ever been actually given these large sentences, simply for leaving their post?


Note: desertion to the enemy is of course an entirely different matter. Here, we are simply talking about the act of walking away, of not wishing to be part of something anymore. I would even go as far as saying that a person who does this is, more often than not, doing it in good faith, probably due to having witnessed wrongdoings and wishing to distance themselves from it.

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    Desertion and "Misbehavior before the Enemy" are two separate charges, Article 85 and 99 respectively. – Drunk Cynic Nov 3 '17 at 21:00
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    It’s worth noting that the US isn’t the only country with severe sentences authorized for desertion. In the UK, desertion to avoid active service is punishable by life imprisonment. Deserting your post in wartime is an extremely serious matter. – cpast Nov 3 '17 at 21:37
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    "This seems like an absolutely horrific and barbaric way to punish soldiers who" ... get people killed. That's the risk he was taking. – Don Branson Nov 3 '17 at 22:04
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    "This seems like an absolutely horrific and barbaric way to punish soldiers who [...]". No, its needed to keep up order. When you sign up for the army, you agree to follow the rules and the chain of command. Deserting a post is no cavaliers offense, but a serious problem. by deserting your post, you deliberately risk getting your comrades killed. In his case, he was kidnapped by the Taliban, and was later released in exchange for five taliban members. 3 people were severly injured while searching for him. So he actively harmed at least 3 people. thats not a small thing. – Polygnome Nov 3 '17 at 23:42
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    Bergdahl doesn't get to spontaneously call a private, one-man, wild-cat strike in the face of the enemy. – Pieter Geerkens Nov 3 '17 at 23:58
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Eddie Slovik was executed by firing squad for desertion during World War II (the only U.S. solider to have the death sentence carried out for desertion during the war). He requested from his commander an assignment behind the front lines, was denied, and took it upon himself to leave his post, walk to the rear and presented a note to a cook there confessing to the crime of desertion.

Hundreds of U.S. soldiers (on both sides) were executed during the Civil War for desertion, or "simply walking away."

Ebenezer Leffingwell was almost executed during the Revolutionary War for "running away from where the firing was, with every mark of fear and trepidation." This case is complicated by the fact that, after first being told to return, Leffingwell made a feint to do so then tried to desert again. After Col. Joseph Reed again "admonished" him with the broadside of his saber and instructing him back to the fight, Leffingwell turned and attempted to fire his weapon at his superior, though it failed to discharge. General George Washington approved the sentence, and Leffingwell received a last minute pardon after his grave had already been dug and the firing squad had lined up.

To answer your title question, there is this quote from Wikipedia:

The maximum U.S. penalty for desertion in wartime remains death, although this punishment was last applied to Eddie Slovik in 1945. No U.S. serviceman has received more than 24 months imprisonment for desertion or missing movement post-September 11, 2001

It also highlights § 885. Art. 85 from the 2012 edition of US Manual for Court Martial:

Any person found guilty of desertion or attempt to desert shall be punished, if the offense is committed in time of war, by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct, but if the desertion or attempt to desert occurs at any other time, by such punishment, other than death, as a court-martial may direct.

  • It is worth noting that the Bergdahl case in Afghanistan involved a desertion in a war zone during a declared war (the AUMF), in which it is alleged that his actions gave rise to deaths or serious injuries to fellow soldiers trying to retrieve him. – ohwilleke Nov 6 '17 at 15:35
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By describing the situation with:

This seems like an absolutely horrific and barbaric way to punish soldiers who, for whatever reason, felt compelled to leave their post (in this particular case, apart from suffering from a mental disorder, Bergdahl seemingly wanted to reveal some bad things happening in his unit).

You've demonstrated a misunderstanding of Bergdahl's crimes. The major prison sentence is not for "simply deserting their post." Bowe Bergdahl did not simply desert his post; he did much worse. He plead guilty to desertion and "Misbehavior before the Enemy." Of the two, desertion is the lesser offense, more frequently applied; the US Army alone had 1900 cases since 2001. By comparison, the last article 99 case was in 1968:

The last time Article 99 was raised in such a high-profile case was in the wake of the 1968 seizure of the spy ship USS Pueblo by the North Korean navy. The skipper, Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher, surrendered the Pueblo without firing a shot, becoming the first American officer to give up his ship since the War of 1812.

Misbehavior before the Enemy is the larger crime. This is defined by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Article 99.

“Any member of the armed forces who before or in the presence of the enemy-

(1) runs away;

(2) shamefully abandons, surrenders, or delivers up any command, unit, place, or military property which it is his duty to defend;

(3) through disobedience, neglect, or intentional misconduct endangers the safety of any such command, unit, place, or military property;

(4) casts away his arms or ammunition;

(5) is guilty of cowardly conduct;

(6) quits his place of duty to plunder or pillage;

(7) causes false alarms in any command, unit, or place under control of the armed forces;

(8) willfully fails to do his utmost to encounter, engage, capture, or destroy any enemy troops, combatants, vessels, aircraft, or any other thing, which it is his duty so to encounter, engage, capture, or destroy; or

(9) does not afford all practicable relief and assistance to any troops, combatants, vessels, or aircraft of the armed forces belonging to the United States or their allies when engaged in battle; shall be punished by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct.”

The governments case against Bergdahl leans on the harm done to members of his unit that searched for him after his intentional abandonment of his post

The government has focused this evidence on three service members who engaged in search-and-rescue operations once the unit realized that Bergdahl was missing. All three service members suffered life-altering injuries during these search operations.

In pleading guilty to misbehavior before the enemy, Sgt. Bergdahl has admitted that he, “through disobedience, neglect, or intentional misconduct endanger[ed] the safety of [his or] any such command, unit, place, or military property” when he intentionally walked away from his post. Now the defense cannot claim Bergdahl was unaware his unit was placed at risk because that is one of the elements of the charge he conceded he violated for the judge to accept his guilty plea.

Conviction under Article 99 can result in even more severe punishment than the desertion charge Bergdahl faces. The maximum punishment for misbehavior before the enemy is life imprisonment, compared with up to five years in prison, a dishonorable discharge, reduction in rank to E-1 and loss of pay and allowances for desertion.

In closing, walking off your post and endangering your fellows is not the appropriate approach to "reveal some bad things." Call a representative, JAG, OGC, etc.

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