Prosecutor: Bergdahl Deliberately Deserted, Endangering Other Troops

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

SAN ANTONIO -- An Army prosecutor Thursday laid out the government's case against Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, saying he deserted his post in eastern Afghanistan with "deliberate and knowing disregard for the consequences of his actions" and endangered other troops who had to search for him.

Bergdahl left -- "snuck off," according to Maj. Margaret Kurz on the first day of his Article 32 hearing -- to hike 30 miles to a larger base, FOB Sharana, to report what he said was misconduct to the commanding general there.

After he disappeared, Kurz said, "for 45 days, the only operations in Paktika province was to find the accused."

Bergdahl, 29, sat calmly during the proceeding at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, flanked by his attorney, Eugene Fidell, and two Army defense lawyers. There has been no announcement of whether he will testify. He is charged with desertion with intent to shirk hazardous or important duty, which carries a maximum penalty of five years, and misbehavior before the enemy, which carries a possible life sentence.

Bergdahl stared straight ahead through most of the six-hour hearing, blinking repeatedly and rarely speaking with his lawyers. His parents were not in attendance.

According to testimony Thursday from his former platoon commander, Capt. John Billings, Bergdahl was a stellar soldier before he disappeared in the early morning hours of June 30, 2009. "A great soldier from all accounts," he testified. "Always did everything he was asked to do. Never complained. No issues."

His disappearance, Billings said, came as a shock that quickly became a burden. The operations tempo increased significantly, he said, with less planning and fewer safeguards, all seeking Bergdahl, who had been captured by the Taliban-associated Haqqani network. He was held for five years until a controversial Obama administration prisoner exchange freed him.

Soon after the disappearance, Billings said he took a nine-man foot patrol beyond the wire for 19 days to look for Bergdahl in searing heat.

Defense lawyer Lt. Col. Franklin Rosenblatt told Billings that many people believed the search for Bergdahl resulted in the deaths of six or seven soldiers and asked whether that were true.

"None of my guys died looking for Sgt. Bergdahl," Billings said.

Rosenblatt also revealed that Bergdahl, who had once sought to join the Foreign Legion, had been discharged from the Coast Guard for psychological issues before he was allowed to enlist in the Army in 2008, when standards had been lowered to field enough troops, and had also been found by an Army medical board to be suffering from a severe mental disease or defect.

Maj. Silvino Silvino, Bergdahl's company commander, was also called upon by Kurz to discuss the dangers of the area he was responsible for, which he said doubled in size and grew more dangerous during the 45 days the company searched for the missing soldier, "sleeping in the dirt," cold and "miserable" for weeks at a time.

The men in "Blackfoot" company were confused, Silvino said, by why they had to search village to village in three provinces for a man they believed had walked away and put them at risk.

"I'd tell them: 'He's our brother. We have to get him back,'" Silvino said.

One soldier was in three IED hits, Silvino said, and had to recuperate at FOB Sharona for a likely concussion.

The search wound down as the company was tasked with securing Afghan elections and other missions, and Silvino said that the yearlong deployment was a success. But his company had been shamed, he said.

"But I know deep down my fellow soldiers, the whole Spartan Brigade -- I know that behind closed doors they say, 'Don't be Blackfoot Company. They lose people.'

"It stings. It hurts," a visibly emotional Silvino said. "They don't know what we went through. But they talk about us. We have a mark."

On cross-examination, Rosenblatt asked Silvino whether he'd been informed that some soldiers in Bergdahl's platoon had told their first sergeant that they had concerns about Bergdahl's mental state.

Silvino said no.

Rosenblatt also asked whether, despite searching for Bergdahl, the company had been able to replace one soldier who'd shot himself in the foot, and even allow troops to take their two-week, mid-deployment leaves.

Silvino said yes.

Rosenblatt noted that the paperwork to change Bergdahl's status -- present for duty -- had not been changed administratively to absent without leave in the five years he was being held in Pakistan. Rosenblatt ask whether Silvino had signed that paperwork.

He said he was about 30 percent sure he signed it.

Col. Clint Baker, Bergdahl's former battalion commander, was the last of the prosecution witnesses and gave his view of the intense search effort for Bergdahl, named Task Force Yukon.

''There was no battle rythym. It was just go, all the time," Baker said.

Bases were left guarded by cooks as the entire battalion, supplemented by even more troops, flooded the province, doing night raids, air assaults and other risky operations. Some paratroopers stayed in the field for 37 days straight, he said, their shirts and socks "rotting off them.''

The search-and-rescue operation was the most difficult -- with the most "adversity"' -- that he'd encountered in his career, Baker said. "The only way you can succeed is to find Sgt. Bergdahl. When that doesn't happen ... that's tough.''

Although the mission changed after Bergdahl disappeared to focus on his rescue, Baker said it remained unclear whether the search caused what some called "unprecedented disruption to the Taliban" or was conversely a setback.

"It's difficult to say with any certainty," Baker said. "To say one factor leads to X consequences is a stretch."

The probable cause hearing, which is expected to go through Saturday, is being held in a basement conference room on the base and attended by scores of media from the U.S. and beyond. It will result in a report that will be used to decide whether the case is strong enough to proceed to court-martial or should be resolved in another manner.

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