SEAL Testifies in Bergdahl Trial: 'He’s an American -- He Had a Mom'

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl leaves a motions hearing during a lunch break in Fort Bragg, N.C., on Sept. 27, 2017. (AP Photo)
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl leaves a motions hearing during a lunch break in Fort Bragg, N.C., on Sept. 27, 2017. (AP Photo)

FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- Special operators risked their lives to rescue Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl even though they knew he had deserted because "he had a mom," a former Navy SEAL seriously wounded during the search testified Wednesday.

Retired Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Jimmy Hatch took the witness stand in a Fort Bragg courtroom and described a quickly planned mission aimed at recovering Bergdahl after his unit received information about the soldier's possible location in eastern Afghanistan about a week after his disappearance.

"Somebody's going to get killed or hurt trying to find this kid," Hatch recalled telling another member of his SEAL team before boarding helicopters to fly to the location where they believed they might find Bergdahl.

Hatch's testimony Wednesday opened the sentencing phase of Bergdahl's court-martial, which could last several days.

Last week, Bergdahl, 31, pleaded guilty to charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, admitting he unlawfully left his post in June 2009, endangering his fellow troops as they launched operations to recover the missing soldier.

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Under questioning from the lead prosecutor, Army Maj. Justin C. Oshana, Hatch recalled his uneasy feelings about the mission to retrieve Bergdahl and how hours later he was the one grievously wounded in a fight when an enemy fighter sprayed AK-47 fire at him, hitting him just above the right knee and shattering his femur. Hatch said he nearly bled to death.

Despite his concerns, Hatch said the SEAL team members were willing to take the risk to recover Bergdahl.

"He's an American," Hatch said, adding later, "and he had a mom."

After his injury, Hatch went through 18 surgeries to repair his leg, but has been left with a permanent limp. He was forced to retire from the SEALs, in which he had served for nearly 26 years.

The judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance, who is expected to sentence Bergdahl next week following additional witness testimony, will likely hear testimony about two additional servicemembers wounded on a mission to rescue Bergdahl.

Defense attorneys are expected to call witnesses to testify about Bergdahl's mental state and the horrid conditions and torture that he faced during five years of captivity by a Taliban-linked militant group in Pakistan.

Bergdahl said during his plea hearing Oct. 16 that he walked off Observation Post Mest on June 30, 2009, in an attempt to walk to a nearby base to complain about problems that he perceived in his chain of command. He said his actions were "inexcusable," as he entered a guilty plea without any pre-trial agreement with the Army to cap his potential sentence.

Within hours of leaving the outpost in Paktika province, Bergdahl was captured by Taliban fighters and eventually smuggled into Pakistan, where he was held. He was released in May 2014 in a controversial prisoner exchange for five Taliban commanders who had been held in the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Bergdahl was charged with "misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place" and "desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty" in March 2015.

He faces a maximum punishment up to life imprisonment, reduction in rank to private, forfeiture of all pay and a dishonorable discharge.

On Wednesday morning, Nance was expected to announce his decision on an Oct. 17 defense motion to limit Bergdahl's maximum sentence to no punishment or at least no confinement because of a comment last week by President Donald Trump.

Trump recently referenced disparaging comments about Bergdahl that the president repeatedly delivered as a candidate when he was questioned Oct. 16 during a White House news conference about the soldier's court-martial.

Defense attorneys earlier this year unsuccessfully attempted to have their client's case dismissed over Trump's campaign trail rhetoric. They documented more than 60 instances when Trump referred to Bergdahl, including calling him a "dirty, rotten traitor," and promising to review Bergdahl's case if he was elected president.

Eugene Fidell, Bergdahl's lead attorney, asked Nance on Monday to limit Bergdahl's sentence to alleviate any perception the judge -- an active-duty Army officer under Trump's command -- and other Army officials were influenced by the commander in chief, which would amount to unlawful command influence.

Prosecutors countered that Trump's statement Oct. 16 did not disparage Bergdahl or refer to any particular punishment the soldier should receive, thus Nance had no need to limit the maximum potential punishment.

"I'm still considering it," Nance said of the motion.

The judge will have to rule on it before he sentences Bergdahl, who has remained on active duty since he was released, serving in a desk job at Joint Base San Antonio and has not been held in pretrial confinement.

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