FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — Several soldiers and a Navy SEAL testified Wednesday about the risky, all-out efforts to find Bowe Bergdahl after the soldier’s 2009 disappearance in Afghanistan. Troops and commanders went without sleep. Shirts and socks disintegrated on soldiers during weekslong patrols. And several service members were seriously wounded — including the Navy commando whose career was ended by AK-47 fire.
The testimony came at a sentencing hearing for Bergdahl, who walked away from a remote post in Afghanistan and was held by Taliban allies for five years. He pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy last week and faces a maximum of life in prison.
The wounded SEAL, retired Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer James Hatch, said his team’s helicopters came under fire as they landed in an area near the Pakistan border where they had information on Bergdahl’s possible whereabouts. He said the mission in the days after Bergdahl disappeared was hastily planned, and their only objective was the Bergdahl search.
A military dog leading them through a field located two enemy fighters that the team had seen at a distance. Hatch said the fighters sprayed AK-47 bullets at them, killing the dog. He was hit in the leg.
“I screamed a lot. It hurt really bad … I thought I was dead,” said Hatch, who entered the courtroom with a limp and a service dog.
Hatch said he believes he would have died if a comrade hadn’t quickly applied a tourniquet. Hatch has subsequently had 18 surgeries.
He was largely stoic and spoke in measured tones except for several times when he talked about the slain military dog, Remco. Hatch said the dog helped protect his team by locating enemy fighters after the SEALs lost sight of them.
As the hearing got underway, the Army judge, Col. Jeffery R. Nance, said he was still considering a motion by the defense to dismiss the case. The defense has argued that President Donald Trump’s comments about Bergdahl prevent him from having a fair sentencing hearing.
Other soldiers who testified described an exhausting and dangerous around-the-clock effort to find the soldier in the weeks after his disappearance.
Army Col. Clinton Baker, who commanded Bergdahl’s battalion at the time, said one unit on patrol for nearly 40 days straight had their clothing start to disintegrate on their bodies.
“We had to fly socks and T-shirts to them because they had literally just rotted off them,” he said. “We were all doing the best we could.”
Evan Buetow, who served as a sergeant in Bergdahl’s platoon, said he was among three soldiers who were left behind for 10 days to guard the outpost that Bergdahl walked away from near the Afghan town of Mest. The rest of the platoon embarked on a frantic search in the nearby areas.
Sitting in a fortified bunker, Buetow and another soldier suffered stomach flu-like symptoms while trying to stay awake and be vigilant.
“Every single day I think about it,” he said of the heat and ever-present dung beetles. “It was miserable.”
Buetow, who rejoined his platoon on subsequent search missions, broke down in tears when a prosecutor asked him why the guard duty and searches were important.
“I mean, my guy was gone,” he said before reaching for a tissue.
Several more days of testimony are expected.
Prosecutors made no deal to cap Bergdahl’s punishment, so the judge has wide leeway to consider their words in deciding Bergdahl’s sentence.
The 31-year-old soldier from Hailey, Idaho, has said he was caged by his captors, kept in darkness and beaten, and tried to escape more than a dozen times before President Barack Obama brought Bergdahl home in 2014 in a swap for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Nance said Monday that he would be fair and hasn’t been influenced by Trump, but that he does have concerns that the president’s comments are affecting public perceptions.
While campaigning for president, Trump repeatedly called Bergdahl a traitor and suggested that he be shot or thrown from a plane without a parachute. Nance ruled in February that those comments didn’t constitute unlawful command influence, noting that Trump was a civilian candidate for president at the time. The defense argued that Trump revived his campaign comments the day of Bergdahl’s plea hearing, by saying at a news conference that he thinks people are aware of what he said before.
Also Wednesday, the defense said they plan to present evidence that Bergdahl’s mental health should be a mitigating factor in his sentence. He washed out of the Coast Guard after panic attack-like symptoms before enlisting in 2008 in the Army. In July 2015 after his return from captivity, Army evaluators concluded that Bergdahl suffered from schizotypal personality disorder when he left his post in Afghanistan.
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