FORT BRAGG, N.C. (CN) – Four U.S. soldiers testified Thursday about the search for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after he disappeared in the hills of Afghanistan in 2009, leaving his company in disarray, in the third day of the sentencing phase for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
Bergdahl pleaded guilty last week to walking away from his combat outpost in June 2009, which triggered a 5-year search and ultimately a prisoner exchange.
Air Force Lt. Colonel John Marx testified about a July 2009 firefight during the grueling 45-day initial search that began the day Bergdahl went missing. That attack on the joint U.S. and Afghan search team caused Army Master Sgt. Mark Allen to suffer a severe head wound and injured Army Specialist Jonathan Morita, who also testified Thursday.
Bergdahl, 31, suffered 1,797 days in Taliban captivity, described by one military expert as “absolute torture and horror.” Bergdahl could be sentenced to anything from time served to life in prison in one of the most closely watched military proceedings in years. Army Col. Judge Jeffrey R. Nance has broad discretion in sentencing him, as Bergdahl did not make an agreement with prosecutors to limit punishment in exchange for his guilty pleas.
Nance has yet to rule on Bergdahl’s request to dismiss the charges, based on candidate and then President Donald Trump’s condemnatory statements that defense attorneys have called undue command influence.
Trump repeatedly called Bergdahl a “dirty, rotten traitor” during the 2016 campaign, a “son of a bitch” who should be killed, and said that he, Trump, would be willing to kill him himself.
Nance said this week that he has no doubt he can hand down a fair sentence, and that he was not aware of Trump’s comments beyond the legal motions in the case.
Details of Bergdahl’s disappearance, capture and torture have dripped out over the past two years of legal twists. Prosecutors this week have focused on the intensive manhunt in the days and months after he slipped away in the dead of night.
The Army’s lead investigator concluded that no U.S. troops were killed in the search, and the government said early on that it did not intend to produce evidence that any soldiers died looking for the Idaho native.
On Wednesday, Bergdahl’s platoon leader, Capt. John P. Billings, described the deterioration of soldiers’ physical and emotional well-being during the search. He said the hunt for Bergdahl 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, testimony has revealed.
Prosecutors say Bergdahl’s disappearance reduced troop patrols, forced unplanned assets such as helicopters and special troops know as Pathfinders to join in and exposed thousands of soldiers scouring the enemy-infested desert to unnecessary risk.
Testimony is to resume Monday morning for Bergdahl, who has been stationed at a San Antonio military base since returning to the United States in 2014.
Bergdahl’s exchange for five Taliban detainees in May 2014 made him a political punching bag in the United States.
Bergdahl told Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, the Army’s lead investigator, that he left his platoon’s base to begin a 20-mile run, hoping his absence would cause enough attention to allow him to air his leadership grievances with a general. But he quickly fell into the hands of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network in the southeastern hills of Afghanistan’s Paktika providence when six to seven men on motorcycles carrying high-powered weapons snatched him away within hours.
He had been on deployment for only five weeks.
“Alls I had was a knife. I’m not stupid enough to try and knife off a bunch of guys with AK-47s,” Bergdahl said in an interview with the podcast “Serial” in 2015.
Bergdahl’s captors beat him with rubber hoses and copper wire. He endured endless beatings which became worse after failed escape attempts, suffered through years of uncontrollable diarrhea and spent three years trapped in a 7-foot metal cage.
At least two high-ranking military officials with deep knowledge of the case have recommended against sentencing Bergdahl to prison.
Dahl testified at Bergdahl’s pretrial hearing in 2015 that sending him to prison “would be inappropriate,” and Lt. Col. Mark A. Visger, the hearing officer who presided over the hearing two years ago, recommended that Bergdahl receive no jail time.
A military expert who debriefed Bergdahl said that his five years in captivity were the worst a U.S. prisoner of war has suffered in 60 years.