JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas (CN) – Before Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl disappeared, a sergeant who saw he was struggling suggested to a superior that Bergdahl talk with a chaplain, to let him know “that we want him there.” The first sergeant replied: “Shut the (expletive) up. No one wants to hear what an E-5 has to say about somebody in my company.”
Former Army Sgt. Gregory Leatherman’s testimony was one detail of many that became public for the first time last week, revealing the five years of torture and abuse Bergdahl suffered after stealing away from his Army outpost in Afghanistan.
Bergdahl’s attorney asked the military judge to release the soldier’s entire 371-page sworn statement about his years in captivity, and the Army investigator’s executive summary of his two-month-long investigation.
Bergdahl, frustrated with his role in Afghanistan, slipped away from his combat outpost in the dead of night in June 2009, triggering a five-year search for answers that altered the trajectory of U.S. operations in the war-torn country and changed the young soldier’s life.
Suffering through 1,797 days in Taliban captivity described by one military expert as “absolute torture and horror,” Bergdahl, 29, is awaiting his fate.
He could face life in a military prison if the hearing officer in his Article 32 proceeding, Lt. Col. Mark A. Visger, recommends bringing the lanky blond-haired Idaho native to trial by court martial. An Article 32 hearing is the military equivalent to a preliminary hearing.
Visger’s decision is expected in the next few weeks.
Details of his disappearance, capture and torture were revealed last week during two days of testimony at the Texas military base where Bergdahl has been on active duty since returning last year to the United States.
Accusations have hung over the case for years. Bergdahl has been portrayed as a traitor, and his May 2014 exchange for five Taliban detainees made him a political punching bag.
On Friday, Army lead investigator Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl testified that Bergdahl had an unfounded belief that his leaders were unfit to lead. Disillusioned with the mission in Afghanistan, Bergdahl thought he could play a larger role combating the Taliban, Dahl said.
So Bergdahl devised a plan: He would sneak off his station at Combat Outpost Mest and make a 19-mile run to the closest base, hoping his absence would trigger enough attention to get him an audience with a general to air his grievances.
“He felt it was his responsibility to do something,” Dahl said. “I think he absolutely believed that the things he perceived were absolutely true. I believe he was wrong, but he believed it.”
Bergdahl fell into the hands of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network within hours in the southeastern hills of Afghanistan’s Paktika providence, on June 30, 2009.
He had been on deployment for only five weeks.
“Frankly, I got the impression that they [the Taliban] didn’t know what to do with him,” Dahl said. “He got a little roughed up” during his first day as a prisoner.
Dahl interviewed 57 people and worked full-time for 59 days with what he called a “diverse group” of 22 workers, including lawyers, civilian doctors, paralegals and specialists.
He spent a day and a half interviewing Bergdahl in San Antonio after the soldier’s reintegration period and wrote an executive summary that Bergdahl’s attorney, Eugene Fidell, has tried to make public for months, along with Bergdahl’s 371-page sworn statement.
“The government should make Sgt. Bergdahl’s statement available to the public, not just you,” Fidell told Visger in a one-sentence opening statement.
Terrance Russell, a Department of Defense expert with the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, who debriefed Bergdahl, testified that Bergdahl was subjected to some of the worst conditions a U.S. prisoner of war has suffered in 60 years.
Russell said Bergdahl’s captors beat him with rubber hoses and copper wire when he tried to escape. He was chained to a bed, given very little food and water, and suffered through three years of uncontrollable diarrhea.
After an 8½-day escape, during which he survived by eating grass and attempted to drink his own urine out of desperation, he was recaptured, blindfolded and placed in a 7-foot metal cage.
“That was his home for the next three years. They required him to be blindfolded and they kept him there,” Russell said.
Bergdahl looked down, clenching his jaw at times, as Russell recounted without interruption vivid details of the soldier’s days in captivity that at times brought the senior military expert to tears.
“Sgt. Bergdahl was held in conditions that if it were a dog, you would be thrown in jail for pet abuse,” Russell said, growing emotional.
Russell has debriefed some 125 POWs, isolated persons and detainees, including former Pfc. Jessica Lynch.
He described Bergdahl’s four years and 11 months as a Taliban prisoner as torture, abuse and neglect.
“They would beat him for questions he didn’t have the answer for,” Russell said. “The conditions of captivity are as horrid as you can imagine, but he continued to fight.”
Borrowing a phrase from Army commercials, Russell called Bergdahl “an Army of one.”
Curtis Aberle, a family nurse practitioner and Bergdahl’s case manager at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, said Bergdahl suffers from nerve damage in his lower legs, back injuries and damage to his left shoulder that prevents him from lifting heavy objects. He also suffers from PTSD and will require “lifetime care.”
Government prosecutors and witnesses described the strenuous search efforts in the days and months after Bergdahl’s disappearance that left thousands of troops scouring the enemy-infested Afghan desert.
Bergdahl’s company commander, Maj. Silvino S. Silvino, said the platoon had to take risks “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.”
The search took a toll on soldiers, who grew exhausted and angry. Their T-shirts were rotting off and some had to use their socks as toilet paper.
“Mentally they were exhausted, physically they were exhausted, but they pushed through,” Silvino said.
Capt. John P. Billings, Bergdahl’s platoon leader, said his heart “absolutely just fell” when he learned the soldier was missing.
“I really was in shock, just absolute utter disbelief that I couldn’t find one of my men,” Billings said. He’d found Bergdahl’s rifle and night vision glasses on his cot.
A grueling 45-day initial search began the day Bergdahl went missing, 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.
With Bergdahl’s recovery a top priority, prosecutors said, his disappearance reduced troop patrols, forced unplanned assets such as Pathfinders and helicopters to join in and exposed soldiers to unnecessary risk.
“He left deliberately and knowingly,” military prosecutor Maj. Margaret V. Kurz said Thursday. “It was a plan.”
Three military prosecutors built their case against Bergdahl in the small, heavily guarded hearing room, and though they conceded that he suffered excruciatingly in captivity, he should be held accountable for his actions.
“Indeed, he has suffered greatly but he still needs to be held responsible and face the consequences,” Kurz said.
Prosecutors want Bergdahl court-martialed for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, charges punishable by up to 5 years and up to life in prison.
Kurz called Bergdahl’s motivation for leaving “interesting” but “legally irrelevant.”
Bergdahl, dressed in Army blues and surrounded by his civilian and military attorneys, spoke few words at the hearing, except for answering routine questions. He declined to speak in his own defense and rarely faced the gallery of journalists assembled in one of the most closely watched military proceedings in years.
Maj. Gen. Dahl said Bergdahl has suffered enough. He said sending him to prison “would be inappropriate.”
Dahl told Lt. Col. Visger: “I do not believe that there is a jail sentence at the end of this proceeding.”
By all accounts, until he disappeared, Bergdahl was a good soldier who exceeded expectations, never complained and appeared motivated to serve.
Dahl said the home-schooled son of a former UPS truck driver had trouble forming relationships and held an “idealistic and unrealistic vision of people.”
Leatherman, a sergeant in Bergdahl’s platoon, testified that the quiet soldier wasn’t adjusting to the deployment like the other guys were and thought he could benefit from talking with somebody, perhaps a chaplain “to just introduce him to the deployment, into the mission, and that we want him there.”
He took his concerns to higher-ups but was quickly shot down by a first sergeant.
“He said, ‘Shut the (expletive) up,'” Leatherman said. “‘No one wants to hear what an E-5 has to say about somebody in my company.'”
Dahl’s investigation concluded that no U.S. troops were killed during the search for Bergdahl. The government announced early on that it did not intend to produce evidence that any soldiers died searching for Bergdahl, and witness testimony confirmed it.
Fidell said his client should not face court martial on either charge because his capture and five-year disappearance was the result of “third-party criminals” – the Taliban.
Fidell said that at most there is probable cause to bring an AWOL charge for Bergdahl’s being absent without leave for one day.
“Our view obviously is that the third-party criminals terminated that absence,” he said.
Prosecutors want the full range of sentences made available.
Fidell said Bergdahl would like to go to college one day, but that he sees “quite a rocky path” for him.
Russell ended witness testimony Friday afternoon by calling Bergdahl’s captivity among “the most horrible conditions of the last 60 years.”
“Nobody knows Sgt. Bergdahl’s story,” Russell said. “I hope someday the world gets to understand how difficult Sgt. Bergdahl had it.”
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