JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO (CN) – For 45 days Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s platoon scoured through enemy-infested villages of Afghanistan, trekking for miles in 100-degree heat searching for the soldier who military prosecutors say abandoned his combat outpost “under the cover of darkness.”
“He left deliberately and knowingly. … These are the facts and they are undisputed,” military prosecutor Maj. Margaret V. Kurz said Thursday.
The government began building its case against Bergdahl, 29, at a preliminary hearing where the public caught its first glimpse of the tall active-duty soldier who has been stationed at a Texas military base since his return to the United States last year.
He was charged in March with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, for walking away from his post in Afghanistan’s Paktika province. The Taliban captured him on June 30, 2009.
Nearly five years later, the White House swapped him for five Taliban detainees who had been held without charges at Guantanamo Bay.
Dressed in Army blues, Bergdahl spoke few words on the first day of his Article 32 hearing , except when asked routine questions by the hearing officer, Lt. Col. Mark A. Visger. An Article 32 hearing is the military version of a preliminary hearing.
“Yes, sir, I do,” Bergdahl said, when asked if he understood the charges against him.
He sat between his military and civilian attorneys, taking notes on a small green notepad on his lap, clenching his jaw frequently, rarely facing the gallery of mostly media assembled in the small, heavily guarded room.
Prosecution witnesses described the intensive search in the days and months after Bergdahl’s disappearance left his company in disarray, and the succeeding five-year search for answers.
Defense attorneys hinted during cross-examination that Bergdahl’s mental health history may have played a role in his disappearance.
Bergdahl’s platoon leader, Capt. John P. Billings, said that when he realized one of his soldiers was missing his heart “absolutely just fell.”
“I really was in shock, just absolute utter disbelief that I couldn’t find one of my men,” Billings said.
That morning a grueling 45-day search began, and though Billings described the deterioration of soldiers’ physical and emotional well-being during the manhunt, “None of my men physically died looking for Sgt. Bergdahl,” he said.
But with soldiers searching for the missing Idaho native, they had to reduce other patrols and travel rocky paths, risk IED-ridden roads, and battle through enemy fire, while their supplies diminished.
Billings said Army specialists and helicopters helped during the weeks spent searching for Bergdahl, days that “just bled into each other.”
“So emotionally, the guys were getting worn out,” he said.
Billings said Bergdahl was a great soldier before his disappearance, and did his tasks well.
“He never complained. He took honor in accomplishing those tasks,” Billings said.
In response to one of Bergdahl’s attorneys, Billings said he was not aware that an Army psychiatric board had concluded that Bergdahl suffered from a “severe mental defect” or that psychological issues led to his discharge from the Coast Guard in 2006.
Bergdahl’s company commander, Maj. Silvino S. Silvino, said the platoon had to take risks to search for the missing soldier “because he’s one of us.”
“We were looking for straws. I feared he had been caught,” he said. “My entire time in the Army I can’t think of a time I felt that kind of adversity. … It’s tough.”
He said the search took a toll on soldiers, who grew exhausted and angry. Their T-shirts were rotting off and some has to use their socks as toilet paper.
“Mentally they were exhausted, physically they were exhausted, but they pushed through,” he said.
“We had to take certain risks … and we did that. I did that.”
Bergdahl’s attorneys objected to prosecutors’ attempt to present classified maps. Lt. Col. Visger said they weren’t necessary at this point.
If convicted, Bergdahl faces up to 5 years for desertion and up to life in a military prison for misbehavior before the enemy.
Billings said the search for Bergdahl took a toll on his platoon, and made him question his own worthiness.
“That’s a hard pill to swallow,” he said. “Was it something I did? Was I worthy to be a leader in the U.S. Army because I lost a soldier?”
Testimony was to continue Friday at Ft. Sam Houston. Visger will then recommend to Bergdahl’s convening authority whether to pursue a court martial.
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