Judge mulls sentencing decision
He heard calls for leniency, punishment for exposing others to harm
Fourteen years in prison, or a dishonorable discharge.
Those are the dueling punishments the prosecution and defense asked for in Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s sentencing hearing.
Both sides gave closing arguments Thursday in the case involving Bergdahl, the US Army soldier who deserted from his Afghanistan outpost in 2009 and was captured by the Taliban hours later.
After five years in captivity, Bergdahl was released in a controversial prisoner swap in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detainees. The 31-year-old pleaded guilty last month to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
While Bergdahl could face up to life in prison, the prosecution asked the judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance, for a 14-year sentence. Bergdahl’s attorneys asked for a punishment of a dishonorable discharge.
Witness: Bergdahl had PTSD before he enlisted
A lawyer for Bergdahl urged leniency, based in part on an undiagnosed mental illness experts said he suffered from when he fled. “Hypothetically, he probably should not have been in the Army,” Capt. Nina Banks said in her closing argument.
Bergdahl’s guilty plea, along with the contrition he expressed in his testimony, shows he understands the error of his ways now better than he did then, Banks told the judge.
“He apologized to those affected by the decision and tearfully expressed remorse,” she said. “He did not leave out of malice.”
Defense witnesses painted a picture of Bergdahl’s life before he enlisted.
Dr. Charles Morgan, a forensic psychiatrist and professor at the University of New Haven and Yale University, testified Wednesday that Bergdahl suffers from numerous mental illnesses, including schizotypal personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Morgan said he interviewed Bergdahl’s friends and family and did extensive testing on Bergdahl, including psychiatric evaluations, stress exams and neurological psychological testing.
Based on the results, Morgan said, Bergdahl was suffering from schizotypal personality disorder and “severe” PTSD before he enlisted.
He said that as a child, Bergdahl lived in a tense and sometimes scary household, in which his father punched holes in the wall. Morgan said Bergdahl hid from his father and felt “dumb, inferior, worthless (and like a) failure in eyes of his father.”
Morgan said Bergdahl suffered social anxiety/phobia and cognitive deficits before he enlisted.
Bergdahl “had a number of factors that pointed to stress vulnerability before enlistment,” Morgan said.
And for people suffering from PTSD, “war experience can make them clinically sicker,” Morgan said. He added that “people who have been exposed to trauma” do not think the same way that those who haven’t would think.
Other defense witnesses said Bergdahl provided a treasure trove of information after his release.
Terrence Russell of the Pentagon’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency debriefs former captives and makes training manuals based on debriefs. He testified that Bergdahl provided valuable information for survival, evasion, resistance and escape training.
“He (Bergdahl) understood it was important to give information so we could utilize it to help others,” Russell said. “I can use this information to help train forces in the future.
“I need him now. I needed him three years ago when he returned. The info he can provide to us is critical to helping the fighting force.”
Amber Dach, a government intelligence analyst, said he “was eager to help.”
“The debriefings from Sgt. Bergdahl were a gold mine,” she said. “We were able to positively identify what a holding location would look like.”
Bergdahl’s lawyer cited his cooperation as another factor meriting a lenient sentence.
“[He] stands before this court with a remorseful heart and a high level of cooperation when he got back,” Banks said.
Prosecution witnesses: We were wounded looking for Bergdahl
A government prosecutor said Bergdahl knew the risks he faced when he deserted. By ignoring his duty in choosing to leave, he exposed fellow soldiers to danger as they searched for him, the lawyer said.
“He wouldn’t have been in that situation had he not made that choice,” Maj. Justin Oshana said. “Sgt. Bergdahl does not have a monopoly on suffering because of his choice.”
Soldiers who searched for Bergdahl after he deserted said they endured grueling and dangerous conditions. One had to undergo 18 surgeries.
Retired Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer James Hatch said he and his dog came under fire. Hatch said he was shot in a leg, and his dog was killed.
Hatch was asked why he went on a mission to look for Bergdahl.
“He is an American,” Hatch replied. “He had a mom.”
Hatch wept when testifying about the death of Remco, his dog who appeared to have spotted the enemy. The dog was shot in the face and Hatch was hit in a knee.
“I thought I was dead,” Hatch recalled.
The retired Navy SEAL now walks with a heavy limp after 18 surgeries.
Capt. John Billings also testified for the prosecution. Billings, who was Bergdahl’s platoon leader in Afghanistan, said the platoon searched for Bergdahl for 19 days. He described wearing a filthy uniform while looking for the then-private first class.
The search was extremely hard on the troops, he said. They went days with no food or water and had no showers for weeks. Some of the men were sick.
“We don’t leave,” Billings said. “It’s a motto: ‘Leave no man behind.’ “
’I made a horrible mistake’
When he pleaded guilty last month, Bergdahl told the judge he willfully left his outpost and was trying to reach the base from where he was dispatched.
Bergdahl said he wanted to report “a critical problem in my chain of command,” but did not specify what that problem was.
During his sentencing hearing testimony this week, Bergdahl teared up, apologizing to the service members who searched for him.
“My words can’t take away what people have been through,” he said. “I am admitting I made a horrible mistake.”
Kellie Keesee reported from Fort Bragg and Holly Yan reported and wrote in Atlanta.