FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured and held by the Taliban for five years after walking away from his post in Afghanistan, pleaded guilty Monday to desertion and endangering his comrades — charges that could put him behind bars for the rest of his life.
“I understand that leaving was against the law,” said Bergdahl, who admitted 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 politicized saga closer to an end eight years after Bergdahl, of Hailey, vanished.
President Barack Obama brought him home in 2014 in a swap for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, saying the U.S. does not leave its service members on the battlefield. Republicans roundly criticized 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.
He told the judge, Col. Jeffrey R. Nance, that he now understands that 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 misbehavior before the enemy, a relatively rare charge brought against him for endangering comrades sent to find him.
The misbehavior 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 U.S. 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,” said Bergdahl, who spoke in even tones and wore a blue dress uniform.
He also reflected on what he thought were questionable tactics by U.S. 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.”
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 Oct. 23, 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 defense was rebuffed in an effort to prove Trump had unfairly swayed the case. The judge ruled in February that the new president’s comments were “disturbing and disappointing” but did not constitute unlawful influence by the soon-to-be commander in chief.
Bergdahl has been assigned to desk duty at a Texas Army base in the meantime.
TWIN FALLS — One-fourth of the school year is already over.
That means it’s time for parent-teacher conferences across south-central Idaho. In the Twin Falls School District — with about 9,300 students — it’s a student-led format where students explain their schoolwork to their parents.
“It’s a nice opportunity for everyone to pause and reflect on the student’s academic progress,” said Candace Wright, a math and science teacher at Twin Falls High School. She’s also an advisory teacher for sophomores.
During a conference, which typically lasts 15 to 20 minutes, students explain a portfolio of work to their parents and talk about ways they could improve.
In Twin Falls’ elementary schools, teachers help children pick out samples of their schoolwork. The resulting portfolio demonstrates evidence of their learning and understanding, said Briana Rieth, a fifth-grade teacher at Bickel Elementary School.
At middle and high schools, parents meet with their child’s advisory teacher instead of meeting with a teacher for each class.
At Twin Falls High School, students filled out a self-evaluation form on Monday for each of their classes.
“They’ll reflect on what they’re doing to be successful and what they can try to do to improve,” Wright said.
Teachers hand out samples of work to each student, such as a graded test or project, to keep for their conference.
“The advisory teacher takes a fairly background role since it’s really student-led,” Wright said.
At most Twin Falls schools, conferences run this week. Meetings are typically scheduled in the evenings, but sometimes teachers use their preparation period or lunchtime for conferences.
Some schools also extend their schedule on a case-by-case basis if parents aren’t available.
And for some campuses, like Bickel Elementary School, parents who don’t speak fluent English often require a translator. Conferences often extend for two to three weeks, Reith said, in order to accommodate translators’ schedules.
For teachers and students alike, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Students get Thursday and Friday off — Thursday to accommodate conferences and Friday for the end of first quarter.
Teachers have Friday off because they’ll put in long hours this week, Twin Falls School District spokeswoman Eva Craner said, but many work that day anyway to wrap up the quarter.
Parents: Here are five tips for how to make the most of student-led conferences.
Teachers use an online program called PowerSchool to upload grades. Parents can log in to view their child’s grades throughout the school year.
Rieth encourages parents to be aware of their child’s progress before the student-led conferences. That can help with avoiding any unwelcome shocks when talking with your child’s teacher.
“Surprises aren’t always fun,” she said.
Rieth said she appreciates when parents stay in touch throughout the school year. That includes giving her a heads up about things she should know about their child, such as: “In years past, we’ve struggled with this,” she said. “It saves time from figuring it out on our own.”
Also, if parents are in contact regularly with their child’s teacher, it allows for maximum use of time during student-led conferences. Then, conference time can be used for focusing on how to better help a student through programs like tutoring or enrichment opportunities.
Rieth suggests turning your phone on silent during your student’s conference and devoting your full attention to the meeting.
If your child is struggling to explain their work, Wright said, prompt them by asking if they have work samples to share.
Many families bring siblings to their child’s conference, Rieth said. She suggests bringing a phone or tablet so they can stay entertained.
It can be hard to focus if siblings are being loud or disruptive, or getting into classroom supplies, she said.
To help, teachers try to coordinate back-to-back conferences for siblings who attend the same school. Many teachers also leave out blocks or coloring materials to keep siblings occupied during conferences.
BURLEY — Burley mayoral and City Council candidates staked out stances on the city’s role in curbing the housing shortage, using eminent domain and their support of moving the city’s airport during a Times-News forum Monday.
Mayoral incumbent Merlin Smedley will defend his seat against challenger Steve Ormond. Casey Andersen, Jon. R. Anderson, Ralph Carlson and Bryce Morgan are vying for three four-year seats on the Burley City Council. Morgan did not attend the forum.
Incumbent mayor candidate Smedley said he considers serving as mayor as one of his greatest achievements.
“I grew up on the north side of town where there’s not much ability to move up,” he said.
Ormond said his strengths lie in his banking expertise and knowledge of budgets. He looks forward to being involved in the city’s economic development efforts and he wants to “influence business to see the brightness and hope” that he sees in Burley.
Carlson recently moved back to Burley after being away for 50 years.
“I like the town and I’m running because I want to make it better,” he said.
Anderson said he doesn’t consider being a councilman a personal accomplishment but rather a team one.
“I bring a lot of years and history and I know what has happened and sometimes why,” he said.
Said the other Andersen: “I diagnose and fix problems. I’m not a banker. But I bring strong common sense and a business perspective that others may not have.” Andersen wants to see city projects come to completion, like moving the airport.
All of the candidates agreed the city must move its airport because the Federal Aviation Administration will not continue to fund the airport at its current location.
Anderson and Andersen agreed the council’s only role in housing development is approving new subdivisions and housing permits, while they think it is instrumental in the continued growth of the city.
Andersen said for decades there were no new subdivisions being constructed and now the city is seeing substantial housing growth.
Carlson said when he moved here last year housing was in short supply.
“We will eventually meet the demand, but it could take some time,” Ormond said.
Smedley said as soon as houses are built, they are being sold.
“People are interested in coming to Burley,” he said.
The candidates all expressed continued economic development as part of their vision for the city.
If growth is paused, “we’ll start dying,” Smedley said.
Andersen said the city has recently attracted good businesses that have increased the standard of living for its residents.
Smedley, Anderson and Andersen both defended recent council actions to pursue eminent domain laws to build an exit road behind Franklin Building Supply, which opposes the road.
“Eminent domain is an ugly word and an ugly process,” Anderson said.
Ormond said it should be used judiciously and only for the safety of citizens.
“As an individual, I’m always against eminent domain,” Carlson said, but he said it should be used “in special cases,” and he does not see the exit road as “necessary.”
All the candidates said they agree the city should continue to fund all the city’s parks, including the golf course, even though it operates at a deficit.
Anderson said the city’s parks offer citizens something that is “hard to measure in dollars.”
Carlson said “as the new guy” he can’t speak to the budget but he attends city council meetings and knows the golf course is discussed often.
“I hate to see the golf course on the agenda because I know it’s going to be a long night,” Smedley said.
HEYBURN — Heyburn City Council candidates fielded questions about growth, how the city will pay for infrastructure and if they support a new Burley airport Monday during a forum hosted by the Times-News.
Five candidates, incumbent Dick Galbraith along with Nile Bohon, Glen Loveland, Chad Anderson and Michael Covington are vying for three open four-year seats. Anderson currently holds a two-year seat that Rose Schmitt is running for unopposed.
Galbraith and Bohon did not attend the forum.
Anderson, Covington and Loveland all said infrastructure and growth were the biggest challenges facing the city.
“Infrastructure is important to any city growing or not, and we’re growing,” Covington said.
It is also important to ensure the city isn’t “hemorrhaging” money in response to growth, he said.
Anderson said rate increases in water and sewer would be one way to pay for infrastructure.
“We have to get the wastewater out of the hole and make it profitable,” he said.
Covington said growth “with thought” will balance the city’s rural roots with an increasing population.
Anderson said growth in the city will happen “one way or another,” so the city must work with planning and zoning and “spread out the houses,” to preserve the city’s rural roots.
Anderson said the city is working with developers to add more housing and the city is “fair” with developers.
Loveland, who works in real estate, said years ago people didn’t want to buy houses in Heyburn because it was considered a “bedroom community.”
“That’s changed now. Developers want to build in Heyburn,” he said.
“You’ve got to watch how you build and what you build,” Schmitt said about the city’s growth. Schmitt is on the planning and zoning board.
All four candidates said they couldn’t take a stand on whether they support a new Burley airport without more information.
Schmitt said the biggest issue facing the city is getting citizens involved in government but she wasn’t sure how to spark more involvement and suggested printing the council meeting times and dates on the city billings.
“Social media is where it’s at,” Anderson said. The city should post events and issues on Facebook to get citizens to attend meetings.
“Citizen involvement is always an issue in every town,” Covington said.
Loveland said years ago when he was mayor, city council meeting attendance was low and he went out and knocked on doors asking people to come to the meetings. But sometimes, he said, people won’t get involved unless there is an issue that is important to them.
Loveland said he brings his various experience as mayor and in his business to the office. Covington said his “youthful exuberance” is his greatest asset, while Anderson said he will make sure the families in Heyburn are heard. Schmitt said she hopes to bring her perspective as a citizen observer to the seat.
TWIN FALLS — Rock Creek Elementary School is helping two of its families who were displaced by a duplex fire Thursday night.
In total, six children are affected — three of whom attend the school.
“We’re trying to coordinate with the families to figure out what they need,” Rock Creek school counselor Sarah Pehrson said Monday.
Items have been donated to both families, Pehrson said, including from local businesses and anonymous donors. The Twin Falls Optimist Club has donated winter coats, hats and mittens.
“Everyone has just really come together to help these families out,” she said.
Many of the donations are coming in for the younger children, said Twin Falls School District spokeswoman Eva Craner, but she noted that the older children are without necessary items too.
Donations of clothing and shoes are needed for a middle school-aged girl.
In lieu of donating food to the families, gift cards are a useful substitute.
“Gift cards would be great,” Craner said. “Then the kids can go get things they like.”
The displaced families are living with family members and friends, but once they find a new home, the types of donations they’ll need may change.
Donations from community members are welcome to help the families with establishing a new home.
“Anything they can do to help is awesome,” Pehrson said.
The fire started Thursday night after occupants of 911 Arrow Wood Court — the south side of the duplex — were draining fuel out of a vehicle gas tank inside the garage, Twin Falls Fire Battalion Chief Brian Cunningham told the Times-News on Friday.
There weren’t any injuries, but damage to the building was extensive.
Brandi Bradford, who lived on the other side of the duplex, was in labor Thursday night at the hospital when she found out her house was burning down.
Just five hours after the fire started, her fourth child — a baby girl, Lydia — was born at 1:34 a.m. Friday at St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center.
Friends have set up an online GoFundMe page to help Bradford, her fiancée Chris Zamora, and four children: 12-year-old Alexa, 7-year-old Talon, nearly 4-year-old Chris Jr. and newborn Lydia.
The American Red Cross has also reached out to both families displaced by the fire to provide assistance.
Bradford and her family didn’t have renter’s insurance. They lost everything, including brand new baby items like a car seat and bassinet.