Column: Whatever happened to military justice?

Editor’s note: Buz Williams is no longer writing for The Courier. To replace him as a conservative columnist, The Courier is pleased to welcome Wil Williams (no relation) to our opinion page mix. Wil has been writing for our weekly newspapers for years.

As a Vietnam veteran, I followed the news reports about Bowe Bergdahl with great interest. I’d never heard of him before he deserted his army unit in Afghanistan, but as more information was made public about him and the facts surrounding his desertion, two questions came to mind: First, with his record why was he allowed to enlist in the army and second, given the facts of his desertion, why didn’t he receive a harsher sentence?

He went into the Coast Guard in 2006 but was discharged after only 26 days for psychological reasons. At a time when our voluntary army allegedly selects only the best recruits, I question how he could have been accepted into the ranks in 2008. The military exercised bad judgement here and bears some responsibility for the actions that followed.

In 2009, his unit was sent to Afghanistan. Only a few weeks later, he walked from his post and into the arms of the Taliban. In a final email to his parents prior to deserting, he twice stated that he was ashamed to be an American and that “The horror that is America is disgusting.” These comments were supposedly made, in part, because of his perception of how American troops treated the Afghani people. Of course, poor troop behavior does not justify betraying one’s country.

I remember how our troops interacted with the Vietnamese people during my overseas tour in 1970. I saw the same lack of respect for a society that was primitive compared to our own. I didn’t like it but poor treatment of an indigenous population probably isn’t an uncommon aspect of military life in a war zone. In contrast, I was successful in building friendships with many Vietnamese who were/are wonderful people.

Even considering Bergdahl’s mental challenges, I feel that his sentence should have included prison time in addition to a dishonorable discharge. Apparently, during non-war time, the maximum penalty is five years for desertion, a dishonorable discharge, reduction in rank and loss of all military benefits. During war time, the maximum penalty is death.

There are several arguments for a stiffer sentence in my opinion. He took the oath of loyalty when he was sworn into the army. In that oath, all recruits swear to defend the U.S. Constitution and “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” He violated that oath.

Some troops blame the deaths of five enlisted personnel and one officer on the search for Bergdahl following his desertion, though others dispute that. Another soldier suffered serious brain damage. Seems to me he should bear some responsibility for those losses and injuries.

And finally, he pled guilty to the charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Case closed.

The Bergdahl experience was even more unfortunate since President Obama traded five top Taliban Guantanamo detainees for his release, three of whom returned to the fight against us. This “trade” rivals the cluelessness of negotiations with Iran and Cuba in recent years. Contrary to the practice of common sense, I remember the president and Susan Rice extolling Bergdahl’s honorable military service when he, in fact, has been dishonorably discharged for desertion.

Senator and member of the Senate Armed Services and Judiciary Committee Lindsey Graham stated, “Given the nature of the crime and the sacrifices made by others on Bergdahl’s behalf, this sentence in my view falls short of the gravity of the offense.” Senator Graham has some insight as to military justice having served 33 years in a Judge Advocate General capacity in the Air Force and retiring as a colonel.

With Bowe Bergdahl in mind, the question remains: Whatever happened to military justice?

Wil Williams, a resident of Chino Valley, is a retired advertising agency executive who served in the U.S. Army. Contact him at wilaugust46@gmail.com.