Bergdahl was the subject of an intense manhunt during five years when he was missing in Afghanistan

By Susan Keating
March 26, 2015 07:40 AM

Weeks prior to the Army’s announcement on Wednesday that it would charge Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, with desertion, personnel assigned to a unit within the military’s Tampa, Florida-based Central Command headquarters read signs of bad things to come for the man they spent five years searching for in Afghanistan.

“Shortly after Bergdahl disappeared, his parents gave one of Bowe’s horseshoes to Gen. Mattis as a keepsake,” says an Army source who has knowledge of the incident.

General James Mattis, the charismatic, now-retired Marine Corps four-star, was head of Central Command at the time. “Mattis hung the horseshoe at CentCom. He put it on a wall. He hung it prominently, where everyone could see it, every day, as a constant reminder that we were searching for Bowe.”

The artifact remained in place after Bergdahl was recovered, and stayed on the wall throughout the lengthy investigation into his disappearance.

A few weeks ago, the horseshoe inexplicably vanished from display.

“We all knew, right then, what this meant. Bowe’s luck ran out. He would be charged.”

The decision to charge Bergdahl was made by four-star Gen. Mark Milley, head of the Army’s Forces Command, and comes on the wake of a lengthy investigation led by Major General Kenneth Dahl.

“This is the level of importance being accorded this matter, that you have two-and four-stars prominently involved,” an official with knowledge of the case tells PEOPLE. “It’s that hot.” The official is not authorized to speak to the press, and declined to be identified.

The 28-year-old Bergdahl, from Hailey, Idaho, disappeared from his Army unit in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, when he walked off of Combat Outpost Mest-Lalak in Paktika province. He was captured by the Taliban and held by the Haqqani network in Afghanistan and Pakistan. On May 31, 2014, Bergdahl was released to a U.S. Special Operations team in exchange for five detainees at the American prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Now, following a lengthy investigation, the Army has accused Bergdahl of deserting with the intent to shirk important or hazardous duty, and misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place. Bergdahl’s case has been referred to an Article 32 preliminary hearing, which is similar to a civilian grand jury proceeding.

Bergdahl’s case has been particularly troublesome for the Army, which desperately attempted to find the missing soldier whose wartime platoon mates have said that other Americans lost their lives searching for a deserter.

“We expended a lot of resources looking for Bergdahl,” a source with inside knowledge of the case tells PEOPLE. “Once we got him back, we threw additional resources into trying to find out what happened.”

As part of that process, the two-star Gen. Dahl spoke to Bergdahl in person.

“It was a very amicable, informal process,” Bergdahl attorney Eugene R. Fidell told PEOPLE last year. “General Dahl was not harassing Bowe at all. He was just trying to get information. All his questions were answered.”

When reached for comment, Fidell said he was not available at the moment to speak.

Army insiders have whispered for weeks that the investigation was looking bad for Bergdahl.

“The announcement came as no surprise,” says the source with knowledge of the case.

If convicted, Bergdahl could serve time behind bars, be demoted or be forced to forfeit pay, among other things. The harshest possible result is the death penalty.

But an Army judge advocate, who is not involved in the Bergdahl case, says it is “completely unlikely” that Bergdahl will receive the death penalty, if convicted.

“The Army takes the charge extremely seriously, but has not executed anyone for desertion since World War II,” says the source, whose position involves advising military commanders regarding courts-martials and other military legal matters.

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain, quickly weighed in following the Army’s announcement to charge Bergdahl.

“This is an important step in the military justice process towards determining the accountability of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl,” McCain said in a statement. “I am confident that the Department of the Army will continue to ensure this process is conducted with the utmost integrity under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”