US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured and held by the Taliban for five years after walking away from his post in Afghanistan, has pleaded guilty to desertion and endangering his comrades — charges that could put him behind bars for the rest of his life.
- Bergdahl walked away from his post in 2009 to draw attention to what he saw as problems with his unit
- Says he did not intend to cause search operations, and didn't believe Army would look for him
- His sentence will be decided by a military court on October 23 (local time)
"I understand that leaving was against the law," Bergdahl said, admitting guilt without striking a deal with prosecutors, meaning his punishment will be up to a military judge when he is sentenced later this month.
The guilty plea brings the highly politicised saga closer to an end eight years after Bergdahl vanished.
Then-president Barack Obama brought him home in 2014, swapping him for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, saying the US did not leave its service members on the battlefield.
Republicans roundly criticised Mr Obama, and Donald Trump went further while campaigning for president, repeatedly calling Bergdahl a "dirty, rotten traitor" who deserved to be executed by firing squad or thrown out of a plane without a parachute.
Bergdahl, 31, has said he walked away from his remote post in 2009 with the intention of reaching other commanders and drawing attention to what he saw as problems with his unit.
His case was featured in the second season of popular US podcast Serial.
Bergdahl didn't think Army would look for 'one private'
He told the judge, Colonel Jeffrey R Nance, that he understood his actions prompted an intensive search during which some of his comrades were seriously wounded.
"At the time, I had no intention of causing search-and-recovery operations," he said in court.
"I believed they would notice me missing, but I didn't believe they would have reason to search for one private."
Bergdahl, who received a promotion due all missing-in-action soldiers while he was in captivity, pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehaviour before the enemy, a relatively rare charge brought against him for endangering comrades sent to find him.
The misbehaviour charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, the desertion charge up to five years.
Bergdahl's answers to the judge's questions represented some of his most extensive public comments yet.
He told the judge he tried to escape from his captors 12 to 15 times with varying degrees of success.
Once, he was on his own for about a week — hoping US drones would spot him — before he was recaptured. He said he also tried to escape on his first day in captivity.
"As I started running there came shouts, and I was tackled by people. That didn't go so well," Bergdahl, who spoke in even tones and wore a blue dress uniform, said.
He also reflected on what he thought were questionable tactics by US soldiers and their Afghan allies in guarding a remote crossroads that could be bypassed by the Taliban on other routes.
He said the setup "seemed to be a bit of a joke".
Years in captivity could temper sentencing
Pressed by the judge about his actions, Bergdahl acknowledged endangering his fellow service members.
"I left my platoon in a battlefield … a situation that could easily turn into a life-or-death situation," he said.
At his sentencing, set to begin October 23 (local time), his years in captivity could be factored in, but the hearing is also likely to feature damning testimony from fellow service members.
A Navy SEAL who suffered a career-ending leg wound and an Army National Guard sergeant whose head wound put him in a wheelchair would not have been hurt in firefights had they not been searching for Bergdahl, the judge has ruled.
Earlier this year, the defence was rebuffed in an effort to prove Mr Trump had unfairly swayed the case.
The judge ruled in February that the President's comments were "disturbing and disappointing" but did not constitute unlawful influence by the soon-to-be commander in chief.
Bergdahl, who is from Hailey, Idaho, has been assigned to desk duty at a Texas Army base in the meantime.