JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas (CN) – After revealing the tortures that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl suffered at the hands of the Taliban, including three years in a seven-foot metal cage, the Army’s lead investigator said Friday that he believes sending Bergdahl to prison “would be inappropriate.”
“I do not believe that there is a jail sentence at the end of this proceeding,” Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl said during the second and final day of testimony in Bergdahl’s Article 32 hearing – the military equivalent of a preliminary hearing.
Dahl said Begdahl’s five years of captivity with the Taliban were the worst a U.S. prisoner of war has suffered in 60 years.
Bergdahl, 29, was charged in March with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy for walking away from his post in Afghanistan’s Paktika province. Within hours of his disappearance in the early morning of June 30, 2009, the Taliban-linked Haqqani network captured him.
He was held for five years, wasting away through months of beatings that almost killed him and released when the White House agreed to swap five Taliban detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay.
At the Article 32 hearing Friday, a military expert who debriefed Bergdahl revealed the torture and abuse the soldier endured, including being beaten with a copper wire and rubber hose, chained and neglected.
Bergdahl, dressed in Army blues, mostly looked down through witness testimony, conferred with his attorneys at times and took some notes during the hearing, which lasted most of the day on the sprawling San Antonio military base where he has been on active duty since his return to the United States last year.
Terrence Russell, a military expert with the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, said that after one of Bergdahl’s many foiled escape attempts, he was blindfolded and placed in a seven-foot metal cage where he stayed for three years.
“They required him to be blindfolded and they kept him there,” said Russell, who has debriefed about 125 U.S. POWs, isolated persons and detainees, including former Pfc. Jessica Lynch. “He got to the point that his physical condition was – he was passing out twice a day.
“They were not going to risk him escaping again.”
Russell went on for several minutes without interruption to describe the excruciating conditions Bergdahl suffered at the hands of what he called a “psychopath terroristic organization.” Bergdahl became dehydrated, weak and had uncontrollable diarrhea for months.
“The conditions of captivity are as horrid as you can imagine. But he continued to fight,” Russell said, calling him an “Army of one.”
Military prosecutors did not ask any questions.
Russell’s testimony capped the end of a preliminary hearing that will determine whether to pursue a court martial against Bergdahl to charges that could send him to military prison for life.
Bergdahl declined to speak in his own defense when asked by the hearing officer, Lt. Col. Mark A. Visger.
“No, sir,” he replied softly.
He already has given a 371-page sworn statement to the lead investigator, his attorney Eugene Fidell said.
“We see no need for him to take the stand,” the attorney said.
Fidell said Bergdahl is “deeply grateful to President Obama for saving his life.”
“He’s also deeply grateful for his rescuers.”
During closing arguments, prosecutors said Bergdahl walked away from his duties “to gain attention for himself,” single-handedly altering U.S. operations in Afghanistan. They insisted that he be held accountable for it.
“The government is certainly not disputing that the accused was injured or that he suffered,” Maj. Margaret V. Kurz said. “Indeed, he has suffered greatly but he still needs to be held responsible and face the consequences.”
Defense and prosecution attorneys agreed that Bergdahl thought he could make the 30-kilometer hike to the next outpost to air perceived grievances with a general when he disappeared.
Dahl said that while those beliefs were “naïve and unrealistic,” they were “sincerely held.”
Russell said that Bergdahl did the best job he could under the circumstances.
“And I respect him for that,” the senior military expert said, growing emotional. During one of his escapes attempts, Bergdahl spent eight days wandering through Afghanistan, eating grass to survive and armed with just a water bottle.
Despite making every attempt possible to avoid detection, “he gets recaught after eight days,” Russell said, slowly tearing up.
“He certainly had will to survive.”
He called the level of misinformation about the case “outrageous,” balking at claims that Bergdahl was aiding the enemy or a traitor to the military in any way.
“He had to fight the enemy alone for four years and 11 months,” he said. “Nobody knows Sgt. Bergdahl’s story.”
“His experience ranks at the same echelon of the most horrible conditions of the last 60 years.”
The preliminary hearing officer will recommend to the convening authority whether to try Bergdahl.
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