Day one of emotional testimony for the case of accused deserter Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is over, and the sentencing is expected to continue on Thursday at 9 a.m.
Military Judge Col. Jeffrey Nance had delayed the hearing from Monday to Wednesday when the defense filed a last-minute motion over comments President Donald Trump had made in the past as a candidate, and last week as President. The defense claims Bergdahl would not receive a fair sentencing. The judge said Wednesday he is still considering the defense’s motion to dismiss the charges.
Bergdahl faces charges of desertion and endangering fellow soldiers, and misbehavior before the enemy. He could serve a life sentence in prison for the misbehavior charge, and up to five years for the desertion charge.
Nance, who holds Bergdahl’s fate in his hands, heard from former Navy SEAL James Hatch and Army Capt. John Billings, Bergdahl’s platoon leader when he walked off post in 2009. He also heard from three other service members on day one of the sentencing hearings – Sgt. Evan Buetow, from Bergdahl’s unit; Col. Clinton Baker, Bergdahl’s battalion commander; and retired aviation Col. John White.
Billings testified that at first, he thought the search was a “joke;” when asked why they continued to persist in the search – which was took its toll on the troops and ultimately cost the military six service members – he said they live by the mantra “leave no man behind,” NBC reported.
Bergdahl, now 31, earlier this month pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy after deserting his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and being held captive by the Taliban for five years.
Hatch helped lead the search in the days following Bergdahl’s desertion, and he testified Wednesday that he knew Americans would be killed or hurt in the search for the Army Sergeant when he found out the mission.
“‘Everyone on that mission was aware that he walked off’ his post,” Hatch said during the sentencing hearing Wednesday, USA TODAY reported.
Nance, the military court judge at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, had said Monday that he wanted more time to review the defense’s motion, and had recessed the court until Wednesday.
Nance also gave Bergdahl an opportunity to withdraw his guilty plea, but Bergdahl refused. A guilty plea meant Bergdahl would not face a trial. He had already decided to let a judge – and not a military jury – render a verdict.
When asked on Wednesday why he went looking for Bergdahl, Hatch said: “He’s an American. […] It’s really something I never questioned,” USA TODAY reported.
Hatch was shot in the leg during the mission to find Bergdahl after he left his outpost in Afghanistan in 2009.
After Bergdahl left his post in 2009, he was held as a Taliban prisoner until 2014, when the Obama Administration was able to get him back to the United States through a prisoner swap. Bergdahl was released in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detainees.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump said Bergdahl was “a dirty rotten traitor” for leaving his post and endangering the lives of others, and that he should “face the death penalty.”
A military judge in February ruled against dropping charges against Bergdahl after Bergdahl’s lawyers argued that comments made by Trump prior to the 2016 election violated their client’s due process rights.
USA TODAY reported details from Hatch and Billings:
“Everyone in Afghanistan was looking for Bergdahl,” said Capt. John Billings, who was Bergdahl’s platoon leader when he walked off the post.
Billings said his platoon spent weeks searching for Bergdahl in austere conditions with little food or water and his soldiers would go without showers for up to two weeks at a time.
Hatch offered a harrowing account of an attempted rescue mission. He led a team of special operations forces based in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Their mission was to capture or kill “high value targets” or rescue hostages.
When told they were to rescue a missing American, that became the team’s top priority.
The team came under immediate fire as they were descending toward a place where they were told Bergdahl might be held. It was not clear whether he was there, but the area was filled with militants and civilians.
Helicopters carrying the SEALs came under fire as they began descending toward the spot. Hatch said he saw tracer fire streaming toward the helicopters.
Civilians, including children, were also running around the area. Hatch described carrying two young children to safety.
He became emotional when he talked about a service dog, Remko, who was shot in the head and killed by a militant.
Hatch was shot in the leg above the knee. “I was laying there trying not to scream, but screaming,” Hatch said.
Hatch, who had a noticeable limp as he approached the witness stand, said he underwent 18 procedures over several years. He was accompanied by a service dog.
Billings, the platoon leader, said he initially thought he was the victim of a bad joke when his soldiers first told him Bergdahl was missing. His platoon sergeant told him it was no joke, and he sent a message notifying his higher headquarters of a missing soldier.
The next 10 days were a “big blur,” Billings said.