FORT BRAGG — U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl took the stand at his sentencing on Monday, apologizing to the troops who got hurt searching for him after he deserted in Afghanistan in 2009 and detailing the harsh conditions of Taliban captivity.
“I made a horrible mistake,” the 31-year-old soldier said during his most extensive comments to date at Fort Bragg. “Saying I’m sorry is not enough.”
His statements marked the opening of the defense’s case, which suffered a blow earlier in the day when the presiding military judge said President Donald Trump had not damaged Bergdahl’s chances of a fair sentence.
The judge allowed Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers, many of whom were critically injured during the search for him to testify in the trial. Army Spc. Jonathan Morita testified about how a rocket-propelled grenade mangled his right hand.
Minutes later, a second grenade exploded and sent shrapnel into the rifleman’s left elbow.
“I definitely thought I was going to die in Afghanistan,” the former soldier testified.
The consequences of Bergdahl’s actions for fellow troops are now the focus for prosecutors seeking his punishment. With his plea, he could face up to life in prison and a dishonorable discharge.
Bergdahl, 31, said he left his combat outpost in Paktika Province in 2009 to report “critical problems” in his chain of command. He considered himself a “survivalist” and fellow soldiers said he spent hours studying maps of the surrounding area in the weeks leading up to his disappearance. He was captured by Taliban fighters less than 24 hours after disappearing.
The Idaho native said he suffered torture and neglect during five years in captivity before being released in a 2014 swap for five Taliban leaders being held at Guatanamo Bay. The prisoner exchange was orchestrated by the Obama administration and was highly criticized by Republicans. During a Rose Garden ceremony in 2014 announcing the swap, then-president Barack Obama said that Bergdahl served with honor.
Service members recounted before the court a hastily organized mission in July 2009 to search villages near Forward Operating Base Kushamond that ended in a Taliban ambush.
Soldiers took direct fire and attacks from improvised explosive devices every day in the first six weeks of the search, Col. Clinton Baker said. Fresh socks and T-shirts were flown to one unit whose clothes rotted off during a 37-day mission.
“The only time you slept was when you couldn’t stay conscious anymore,” said Baker. “Everybody was out looking. That was it. We were tapped out.”
On Oct. 16, the 31-year-old Bergdahl pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
Former Navy SEAL James Hatch was one of several service members injured during search-and-rescue efforts, prosecutors said.
He testified last Wednesday that he has had 18 medical procedures to repair the damage to his leg after being shot by an enemy fighter’s AK-47 during a July 2009 raid. A military dog named Remco died during that effort.
Capt. John Billings, Bergdahl’s platoon leader, said he and another soldier contracted dysentery during the search operations.
“Imagine putting yourself on the side of a mountain with little water, little sleep, little chow, having not showered in 10 days, and not knowing when you’re going to get to talk to your family next,” Billings said. “That’s about what it was like.”
Early the morning of July 9, 2009, troops came under heavy fire. A grenade exploded near Texas Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Jason Walters, then an Army Ranger.
“Everything went black,” he testified. “I saw stars.”
As soldiers scrambled back to their position behind a berm, Walters saw Sgt. 1st Class Mark Allen get shot in the head. Allen suffered a traumatic brain injury and is now confined to a wheelchair and unable to communicate, according to prosecutors. His wife, Shannon Allen, was the last to testify on Monday.
“Instead of being his wife, I’m his caregiver,” she said. “Which doesn’t mean I love him any less, but it’s a very different dynamic. We can’t even hold hands anymore without me prying open his hand and putting mine in.”
Morita, who was hurt in the same ambush, underwent three surgeries to repair his hand.
He said he directs his anger “toward one person in particular.” As Morita left the courtroom on Monday, he leveled a steady glare at the defense table where Bergdahl sat.
Reuters News Service contributed to this report.
USE JASON WALTERS PHOTO